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Thursday, 15 August 2013 00:00

Can we take action over zero-hours contracts?

by Gregor Gall

The National Dock Labour Scheme of 1947 might hint at the way forward

The rise and rise of zero-hours contracts, with well in excess of one million workers now subject to them, is a grave challenge to workers' rights and the union movement.

The contracts are the ultimate expression of what Tony Blair boasted about when he said that Britain had the most flexible - read deregulated - economy in the Western world.

The contracts are found among private-sector employers such as Sports Direct, McDonalds, Domino's Pizzas, Burger King, Cineworld and JD Wetherspoon pubs as well as parts of the public sector like the NHS and higher education and in the voluntary sector.

More often than not these are the unorganised - at least in union terms - sectors of the economy.

The double bind with zero-hours contracts is that not only is there no guaranteed work or income but those on them are not free to look for other work.

Some without full-time work have managed to get by through having several part-time jobs. This is not possible when someone on zero-hours contracts does not know when, and sometimes where, they will get work.

There are only small handfuls of workers at the very top end of the labour market that benefit from zero-hours contracts. Having taken early retirement or made a career change with substantial personal wealth behind them, these types of professionals can withstand not having guaranteed work and treat their work when they get it as a hobby - something to occupy their time and keep them interested, rather than as an income they depend upon.

Difficult and challenging as this situation is - because those at the bottom end of the labour market are the more insecure and vulnerable - labour history does show that it is possible for these types of workers to win protection.

The most obvious case is the National Dock Labour Scheme (NDLS).

Before its creation in 1947, all dockers had to go down to the docks early in the morning to see if they'd get work that day. Some did and some did not. There was no direct employment with contracts.

The introduction of the scheme, paid for by a levy on employers, meant that all registered dockers were guaranteed a set level of income per week if they did not get a full week's work. Local boards made up of employer and union sides administered the scheme.

The creation of the NDLS arose out of a series of particular circumstances such as the 1945 unofficial dock strike and a mismatch of the supply and demand for dock labour that led to inefficiency.

Of course, that the dockers were well unionised and could exercise considerable industrial strategic leverage was not unrelated to the creation of the NDLS.

The state through the Clement Attlee-led Labour government intervened on the side of the dockers, but also on the side of a more efficient capitalist economy and for the benefit of capital overall.

What the existence of the NDLS showed is that forms of organisation, ultimately underpinned by the state, can be brought into existence to regulate employer activity.

But both the specific conditions as well as the more general political climate of the emerging social democratic post-war settlement are vital to understanding why it came into being, how different the general economic and political conditions are today and what needs to be done to reverse the forward march of zero-hours contracts.

The way to end zero-hours contracts is to impose a levy upon employers that use them. For example, employers could be legally obliged to guarantee a minimum weekly wage for all those that are on these contracts.

This would mean that where there was no work or very little work in a particular week, the individual worker would know that his or her income would not fall below a certain level.

Of course, this would provide something of an economic disincentive to employers to use the contracts. That is the point. A premium would have to be paid for their use.

Now let's turn to how this situation could come about.

Sufficient political pressure would have to be exerted on the incumbent government by forces outside the political mainstream. This would include forms of direct action against the users of zero-hours contracts in the way UK Uncut has targeted tax avoiders.

Labour would have to be compelled to say this is one type of flexibility too far. And unions such as Unite, Unison and GMB would have to start unionising these types of workers in a serious and widespread way so that industrial action became a possibility.

Only when all these things come together could there be a prospect of controlling the unregulated labour market form of neoliberal capitalism.

Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)