Whilst I am completely nonplussed by a lot of what passes for politics in modern Britain, the one subject on which I am always spoiling for a fight is conspiracy theories. Happily, for many people in this country, perhaps even a majority of young people, conspiracy theories appear to be their only experience of politics.
That the death toll of the Holocaust has been massively exaggerated to enrich the state of Israel – that sugar-free drinks are impossible to make without the addition of a highly toxic substance called aspartame – that the Twin Towers were destroyed by the CIA – that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were dosed with LSD and unknowingly staggering around a Hollywood film studio – on all of these I have had to fight time and time again. I do not believe in practically any conspiracy theory – I am such a hardliner that I sometimes even doubt that President Kennedy was murdered by his own government. But I must be going soft, because there is one issue within modern politics which seems to me to be a bona fide conspiracy theory – a deliberate, sinister attempt to mislead the public. This is the Labour Party’s current campaign to outlaw zero hours contracts.
Disclaimer: throughout my life I have only ever been employed on zero hours contracts. In fact, I have been employed on one zero hours contract for over a decade.
So you are currently reading an article of an awesome rarity and value, the journalistic equivalent of a dragon’s egg. Yes, this is commentary about zero hours contracts which is written by someone who actually uses them and who knows how to make them work.
There is a serious point in all of this. The Labour Party is making out that they are at the forefront of some kind of people’s revolution against zero hours contracts. Naturally the first thing that Labour did before announcing their new policy on hours-to-be-notified employment was to conduct a wide-reaching poll of the people who use it. With this, they accumulated a powerful body of evidence about these exploitative contracts, an array of stories and testimony from around the nation. No wait, in fact they didn’t. In the campaign against zero hours contracts, never have the army of the exploited been so silent, so bafflingly inscrutable.
Recently, for example, the Guardian received a “letter from working people” which endorsed a future Labour government and condemned “the proliferation of zero hours contracts which has helped fuel the low wage, low skill economy that is letting down working people and letting down Britain.” “About fifty” of the hundred signatories were supposedly on zero hours contracts, and the letter is here typical of the evidence which is generally available. You see workers’ dissatisfaction with zero hours contracts very rarely in the media, sometimes testified to but often just anecdotal, and never with any real statistical weight behind it.
If Labour wins the general election in May, they will force anybody who has worked for twelve weeks of “regular hours” under a zero hours contract to have these hours contractually guaranteed in the future. So far, so brainless. The employer will simply find a reason to sack staff who are approaching the twelve-week mark, or else they will do something like what Tychy’s own employer has done: issue a contract which guarantees twenty hours a year. At first, after signing this contract, Tychy was enormously amused by its ingenuity. Several months on, the joke is beginning to wear a bit thin. Even staff who are employed on this “twenty hour” contract refer to themselves as “guaranteed hours workers.” “So if a perm [permanent staff] works for thirty hours a week,” I will rail at my colleagues, “how many hours are you “guaranteed” a week?” The nearest round number is, of course, zero.
Many employers will not be able to afford to guarantee regular hours to those who they currently employ on a zero hours contract. Imagine, for example, a firm which provides catering for weddings. Some weeks there are six weddings and so the staff may receive over forty hours. Other weeks, there will be a single wedding and only seven hours. Under a Labour administration, the same employer will probably react to the eradication of their modus operandi by hiring more workers and giving them contracts with fewer hours. They are no longer allowed to have a few people working a lot of hours when it is busy, but neither can they afford to have lots of people sitting about when it is quiet. The happy medium nonetheless requires more staff, to cover the peak times.
At my own work (supposing that the “twenty hours a year” contract could be somehow outlawed), the employer would no doubt adopt the same policy: the same work spread between more workers. Or else they would just try to cram the same amount of work into fewer hours.
Anybody who currently works on a zero hours contract will not get any more money from a formal contract. In fact, the most likely thing to happen is that a ceiling will be placed on what they can already earn. And here is where the conspiracy theory comes in. Outlawing zero hours contracts is not a means of creating more work (if anything, in potentially reducing the surpluses, it might do the opposite). It is a way of rationing the existing amount of employment. The biggest beneficiary from this policy will be the Labour government, because the employers will be forced to hire more people on contracts with fewer hours, artificially boosting the jobs figures without actually boosting the work done.
It is right to sometimes grow solemn about zero hours contracts. During the recession increasing numbers of people have been employed on these contracts who do not possess the flexibility which is needed to make them work. Zero hours contracts are patently unsuitable for workers with children. They are not for everybody, but many employment conditions are not for everybody. A zero hours contract is rather like a bucking bronco – it is only for those with the cojones to ride it.
For middle-class Labour voters, the outlawing of zero hours contracts will supply them with the traditional Dickensian feelgood factor. They will get to air their pity for the disadvantaged and to bring grateful smiles to the faces of the poor. But without the crucial yeast of empowered, politically active workers the results are only going to fall flat. Workers on zero hours contracts are often very young and so gormless that they believe everything the employer tells them. They are rarely members of a trade union. They often do not have the time or money to take on the employer when things get hairy. Eminently exploitable, this sector of the workforce is naturally vulnerable to whatever action the employers will take in retaliation when their profits are threatened by the outlawing of zero hours contracts.
I cannot bring myself to credit Ed Miliband with the diabolical Machiavellianism of the forces which knocked down the Twin Towers and assassinated Dr David Kelly. I might believe it of Ed Balls. Outlawing zero hours contracts will make students (a key voting demographic for Labour) unemployable; it is also hard to see how it will not raise the cost of care for the elderly, since many carers are employed in this way. Somebody somewhere must have calculated that the potential benefits to Labour from boosting the employment figures outweigh these costs. Perhaps this is what a genuine conspiracy theory looks like.