11 Jul 2014

There are no heroes on the zero-hours borderline

“If you’re bored, you need to watch more closely,” says theatre director Alexander Zeldin, jabbing a finger at the audience during a post-show Q&A.

We’ve just watched his play Beyond Caring, about what it’s like to work on a zero-hours contract in a meat factory, among people whose body language is close to that of zombies.

For large parts of the action people stare: at walls, at their smartphones during breaks; into space above the head of their manager as he asks them a bunch of inane, degrading questions in an “appraisal”.

At other times, they clean. They get their gloves on, squirt industrial detergent and scrub at the grime on a sausage machine: minutes pass without conversation. When they clean something it one way, their manager tells them to do it another. There is no reason and no argument.

In strict, 15 minute breaks they pour out the detail of their lives, which are measured in minimum-wage shifts, raids on the discounted shelves at supermarkets, hurried encounters with their kids.

No economic power

To research the play Zeldin went undercover and worked as a contract cleaner. The cast met real cleaners, including those forced off disability benefits: we filmed them for a Channel 4 News report on zero hours.

But the play is not so much an indictment of zero hours as the whole world of precarious, low-skilled work. These workers have literally no economic power: their wages are minimal, their hours are dictated by text message.

They have very little possibility to negotiate a pay rise because they have minimal employment rights and there is always another unskilled person – often a newly arrived migrant – ready to do their job, not tomorrow but in the next hour. They are never sacked, only told: “There is no work next week.”

But, though they exist at the very bottom of the pile, and largely invisible to the people who’ll crowd outside pubs come 5pm this afternoon, these stunned and zombified workers’ lives are crucial to understanding the economic dysfunction we’re living through.

This graph (below) illustrates it: the blue line shows average wage growth and the red line inflation. After the financial crisis temporarily tanked both, wages fell consistently behind inflation and stayed there for the last 5 years.


If you’re wondering whether this has ever happened before, then this next graph (below) shows – only once, for a couple of years in the mid 1970s, when the Labour government persuaded the unions to accept wage rises below inflation.


Cheap money, free money

Right now we’re living through a recovery fuelled by credit: not just cheap money but free money, cranked out of the central banks of the world to the tune of $6tr – or just under one in 10 of every pound, dollar and yen changing hands each year.

Nobody knows whether this recovery will, once again, collapse or become real and sustained. But we know the only way it can really do so is if the spending power of consumers recovers.

For that to happen, the share of wages compared to profits within GDP has to rise, and wages as a whole have to start rising above the inflation rate.

But there are strong factors that prevent this happening. Not just the powerlessness of precarious workers, but – as we saw yesterday – the determination of the government to hold the wages of millions of public servants below inflation.

On top of that, there is the rise of part-time and self-employed work. Today a job is the lifeline that gives you access to a credit card, or a bank account or a payday lender. People cling to employment at all costs.

No pricing power

This play shows what “all costs” means. In the play, all the temporary workers have been shunted on and off benefits by repeated episodes of short term work: but the benefits regime is so punitive that they would rather scrub floors for next to nothing.

In real life the massive expansion of the workforce, to a near all-time high 73 per cent of the adult population, combined with potentially unlimited migration from east Europe, means that even in a recovery labour has no pricing power.

And here is the bitter secret the show reveals: while for many low-paid workers life is about deadlines, targets, outcomes – there is also a deep boredom and randomness about what they do.

Workers are often handed a mop, told to text on and off shift, and sent into a basement to clean, alone. They may never see another person, let alone a manager. The company they’re cleaning for will be a subcontractor to a contractor for the main firm: the boss of the corporation that owns the building does not care what is done, or how its done, as long as it looks like it’s been done.

As with the young factory workers of Italy and France, who revolted in the mid-1960s because they decided their factory jobs had become “absurd”, the work of these cleaners often looks – even to their managers forced to make them do it – absurd.

Demanding a living wage

After the show we discussed what could be done. In real life, as I’ve reported, cleaners have got organised to demand a “living wage”: many blue-chip employers are now signed up to that. In real life, too, there is more granular resistance than shown in the play: more shouting, stroppyness, sabotage and skiving-off, which is how you resist when there is no HR department and no employment rights to enforce.

But ultimately, if you want to achieve a macro-economic effect and at the same time boost fairness and social justice, I think what you need is rules. Or regulations, as they’re called.

You could have rules saying zero-hours contracts are illegal: Germany stipulates only 25 per cent of the hours in an employment contract can be flexible. Yes, Angela Merkel’s conservative, prosperous Germany.

You could have rules that state workers get employment rights from day one, or pretty soon after.

And you could have macro-economic policies that state, like in black and white letters: “We don’t want cheap labour cleaning, packing and polytunnel tending businesses in our country and we’ll do everything we can to stop them.” Instead, there’s an implicit welcome sign, and all previous governments have signed it.

Zero-hours honeypot

What’s really interesting, given the clear alignment between raising people’s life chances and the need for a sustainable recovery, is how no political party will go near such rules.

The first thing you hear from politicians is that “some people like zero-hours contracts”. Personally I’ve not met anybody on zero hours that would not rather have a permanent or temporary contract with flexible hours. Even many agency companies now prefer contracts to zero-hours: one agency boss told me at the play they prefer contracts to zero hours because it boosts retention and quality.

But zero hours have become the great honeypot from which low-wage employers can scrape the last spoonful of profit.

The play made remember all the crap jobs I’ve ever done: the repetitive, dirty, dangerous jobs I had in the university holidays or when I was scraping around for work. For me, like a lot of people, that’s as near as I’ve ever come to a life of drudgery.

But I remember every one of those jobs as happy: we had rights, a voice, unions, the ability to have a laugh, real breaks and wages way above what would now be the minimum. Only in the last 15 years has the correllation between hard, dangerous and dirty work and powerlessness arisen.

For those who think there’s a positive social function to making people beg for work and wait for a text message to see if there are hours available – and mess their kids’ lives around so they can earn £6.13 an hour on nights – Zeldin’s play is still on.

Beyond Caring is at the Yard Theatre, Hackney Wick, London until 26 July

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