The idea of a zero-hour contract is simple enough. For those of us who need their employers to be flexible in their hours, the idea of a job where the employer can respond to the needs of their workforce is just the latest innovation in the “sharing economy.” By this interpretation, it is the employer that responds to the needs of the employee.
But the reality of zero-hour contracts is quite different. Let’s get the facts straight: Although students or those seeking temporary work are often thought of as the primary “beneficiaries” of zero-hour contracts, 64% of those on zero-hour contracts are over 25, while 68% rely upon their contract as a “permanent” source of employment. Tellingly, zero-hour contracts are disproportionately employed in lower paying occupations. Furthermore, while those on zero-hour contracts receive an average of 30% less hours than those who can find other employment arrangements, nearly 40% want more hours, not less.
All of the responsibility, none of the security; this hardly involves much in the way of “sharing.”
Despite the obvious disadvantages, today there are over 900,000 workers in the United Kingdom working on zero-hour contracts, roughly 3% of the workforce in all. Many of these contracts are in healthcare and education, and all are defined by uncertain and precarious work arrangements. For many, these contracts are not the latest gift of the sharing economy, but a burden shouldered to make do in a recovery that has been particularly brutal to low income households. Far from a passing fad, the use of zero-hour contracts has expanded more than 20% since 2015 alone, even as the economy has recovered.
This might seem like a problem far removed from the Bubble. But in fact, 40% of teaching staff and one third of researchers at St Andrews operate on zero-hour contracts. In all, over 21,000 University employees are currently employed by zero-hour contracts.
This is a disgrace at a university with such prestige and access to such monumental resources.
Thankfully, the encroachment of zero-hours has not gone unchallenged. In the process of negotiating their new contract, the University and College Union (UCU) has demanded that the University take steps to eliminate zero-hour contracts in teaching professions. We should applaud this as the first step towards fighting back against an exceptional employment arrangement that is becoming increasingly normalised.
We can do Better than Zero in Saint Andrews.
If you want to help our teachers fight back against zero hour contracts, join the St Andrews Socialist Society by contacting our committee at [email protected]