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United Kingdom

16 October 2018

UK: the future of an increasingly precarious and exploited workforce

The tripling of the number of zero-hours contract can be viewed as the downside of a labour market that has been lauded for employment growth. Youngsters are becoming more and more aware of the precarious character of these jobs. Observers see a return to a sense of collective strength that is being relearned by a new generation who lack secure, properly paid jobs and affordable decent homes.

The number of UK workers on zero-hours contracts has more than tripled since 2012, accounting for more than a quarter of overall employment growth, according to employment data from the Office of National Statistics. The soaring number of zero-hours contracts, which are included in employment rates, suggests that the fast growth of employment and the high employment figures can paint a misleading picture. The boom in zero-hours contracts and 'gig' jobs, which do not always offer the same employment rights and stability of fixed contracts, makes the employment situation look rosier than perhaps it is. In a briefing note for the House of Commons zero-hours contracts are defined as a type of employment contract whereby workers have no guaranteed hours but agree to be available for work. Estimates for April-June 2018 suggest that 780,000 people were on zero-hours contracts in their main job, representing 2.4% of all people in employment. Trade unions have always argued that the contracts result in financial insecurity for workers who lack key employment rights. Employer organisations stress their usefulness in helping them respond to fluctuating demand and argue that they play a vital role in keeping people in employment.

Protest is growing, sometimes from unexpected quarters. During a speech at the Trades Union Congress in Manchester, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, called the gig economy and zero-hours contracts the ‘reincarnation of an ancient evil.’ The Labour shadow chancellor McDonnell said that Labour would extend workers' rights and ‘restore the balance of power in the workplace’. He addressed zero-hours contracts as well as the gig economy and promised more rights for those who work in the gig economy. Other civil society organisations have also expressed their worries about the labour market perspectives of future generations.

In 2017 and 2018, protest actions of young workers that work in zero-hours jobs have intensified substantially. Their demands vary from an increase in the minimum wage and improvements in working conditions, to the change of temporary or zero-hours’ contracts into permanent employment. Early October 2018, retail and hospitality workers at JD Wetherspoon, McDonald’s, Uber Eats and TGI Fridays marched out together in a coordinated strike. Although some observers see the actions not only as symbolic of the growing income gap and an increase in precarious work, but also the decline in independent trade union representation. Others see a return to a sense of collective strength that is being relearned by a new generation who lack secure, properly paid jobs and affordable decent homes, while being punished with debt if they aspire to a university education.

In several companies, the battle for a living wage and for union recognition goes hand-in-hand. Trade union confederation TUC stated in the BBC's Today programme that some modern hospitality employers and technology firms were ‘using a very old form of exploitation’. The TUC asked the public and communities to support the actions. The companies in question could and should afford to award a pay rise and a return to direct employment.

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