The true story behind zero-hours contracts

By Bernadette Meaden
August 5, 2013

The following advertisement recently appeared in my local newspaper. ‘Female carer required to support client with all aspects of personal care in own home. Five calls a day between 7am and 10pm over 7days. Driver preferred. £6.75 an hour, 16-20 hours a week.’

Imagine being the woman who accepted this job. From early morning to late evening, seven days a week, one’s time would be dominated by this commitment. It would be almost impossible to fit in another part-time job to earn more, and a mother would find it difficult to combine it with her children’s needs. All for £108 - £135 per week.

While we don’t know how many workers have such unenviable conditions of employment, we now know that around a million people are working on zero-hours contracts, ( in which they must be committed and available to an employer, but with no guarantee of any work, or therefore any income. These contracts are creeping into every area of employment, even the charitable sector. Turning Point, a charity which helps people with drug and alcohol addiction, recently fired staff and rehired them on zero-hours contracts.

Union representative Jamie Major says: “What makes staff so angry is that these attacks on good people who provide crucial services to the most vulnerable in society are not being driven by financial difficulties, but by an increasing free market ethos in the not-for-profit sector.” (

In what looks like a two-pronged attack on behalf of unscrupulous employers, unemployed people are now in the invidious position of being forced to accept any job that is offered or face the possibility of being sanctioned, leaving them with no income. New DWP regulations state that "refusal/failure to apply for, or accept if offered a suitable job without good reason" will lead to a higher rate sanction. For a first offence JSA is stopped for 13 weeks, a second refusal means JSA is stopped for 26 weeks, and on a third refusal 156 weeks.

These higher level sanctions also apply to any worker "leaving a job voluntarily without good reason" and to anyone "losing a job through misconduct." So once you accept a job, no matter how bad it becomes or how exploited you are, there is really no way out if you don’t want to starve.

So when apologists for terrible employment practices pop up in the media to talk about flexibility and how some workers choose these conditions, remember that in reality people have very little choice at all. As Pope Leo XIII wrote in 1891, ‘If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.’ (Rerum Novarum).

It does not have to be this way. A recent BBC programme compared the post-war history of the British and German car industries (

British bosses, often a Sir or a Lord, were complacent, arrogant, and old-fashioned, resting on the laurels of Empire and having won the war. Whilst German workers were treated as respected partners, taking part in regular board meetings to plan the company’s future, British workers were shown very little respect or regard by their managers. The phrase ‘Lions led by donkeys.’ sprang to mind.

Martin Winterkorn, current CEO of Volkswagen, spoke enthusiastically of Strategy 2018. ‘By 2018 Volkswagen aims to be world number one in volume, in customer satisfaction, in employee satisfaction, and even in making money.’ Employee satisfaction is a principle aim of this highly successful and profitable company. It’s impossible to imagine a large British employer speaking in these terms. In the UK, employees seem to be treated as just another raw material to be exploited for profit. And Herr Winterkorn was very happy with the productivity of British workers at his plants in Crewe and Cowley, who were being managed in a German way.

Mr Cameron constantly refers to the global race in which the British economy is competing. In his mind this seems to require driving down wages and conditions, making it easier to sack people etc. Perhaps he should look at our more successful German neighbour and learn how treating people with respect and fairness is not a weakness, it’s a great strength.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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