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Zero Hours Contracts – A Recurring Theme Of Exploitation

It has always been fashionable to explain the ‘necessity’ of low wages in terms of competitiveness in world markets; a view criticised by the Manchester weavers in 1823: ” … We cannot hear, without strong emotions, our merchants boast their ability to undersell all other Nations, while that ability is acquired by reducing us to the Borders of Starvation, and keeping us but one remove from Slavery” (H.O. 40. 18).

The principle here is one of ‘warfare of the markets’, so, although the UK is not now primarily a manufacturing nation, the same argument is used to justify low wages by companies ‘competing’ in internal markets.

Pre-dating Keynes, and being aware of the illogicality of the ‘beggar-your-neighbour’ approach to economics, which has countries and companies competing to reduce workers wages and rights (called structural reforms), in a misguided attempt to be the ‘last skeleton standing’, the weavers declared: “That if Liberal Wages were given … in general throughout the Country, the Home Consumption of our Manufactures would be immediately more than doubled, and consequently every hand would soon find full employment” (H.O. 42. 60).

The weavers were also aware of the principle of ‘divide and rule’ – “We advise all professions who live by work to stand up for a proper remuneration of their labour, and then the poor rates (working tax credits in modern parlance) would lessen, and princely fortunes will not be so soon made by the speculators who favour a few … in order to divide us … against less favoured workmen” (ibid.).

What are zero hour contracts other than a version of a recurring theme of exploitation? There is nothing new about them. Master weavers employed journeymen and women, and paid them 2/3 the price of the work they produced; if the worker was ‘underproductive’ or unliked, they were replaced by a more ‘acceptable’ one; this same principle being witnessed in the economic slump of the early 1930′s (the Great Depression), when men would congregate behind factory gates, hoping that the hirer would point his finger at them; knowing he would not if they were ‘troublemakers’.

The zero hours contract will not be confined to “less favoured workmen”; they will be increasingly applied to all, as an inevitable consequence of the argument of ‘competitiveness’ – and those making “princely fortunes” out of this process will be lauded as exemplars to the young of how the Protestant Work Ethic favours “winners” over “losers”; as Dimon (2013) commented: “This philosophy separates the fit from the unfit. People are unequal by nature, but this is an advantage to society because the fittest, in a Darwinian sense, will contribute more to society, which will benefit everyone; the example of 19th. century philanthropy by rich industrialists is often given. Nothing is owed to the weak, the poorly educated, what happens to them is their own fault, not the fault of society”.

The principle of ‘divide and rule’ is a permanent feature of ruling class control. During the Great Depression, the American Federation of Labor, which mainly represented skilled workers, distanced itself from unemployed American workers, and tried to convince employers that they should be involved in pay negotiations, as they were receptive to the business goals of employers; a modern parallel being the Royal College of Nurses’ identical stance (rcn.org.uk February 2012).

The Protestant Work Ethic gave the gloss of religion to an ageless theme. The Roman Emperor Tiberius stated his objection to the State aiding the poor; “Otherwise industry will languish and idleness be encouraged if a man has nothing to fear, and every one … will expect relief from others, thus becoming useless to himself and a burden to me” (Annals, ii. 38).

Whether you are a nurse, doctor, lecturer, teacher, train driver, bus driver, lorry driver, factory worker, the zero hour contract awaits. Soon, all will wait by the phone for the call to work, not being able to plan their day or week in advance; too scared to turn down work in case it is offered to someone who never does.


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