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Security at Zero

We consider some aspects of working-class insecurity under capitalism, including its history, recent developments and the current situation.

Being a wage worker involves being exploited, creating profits for the employer and being ordered around by bosses. Another objectionable part is the insecurity that wage labour implies. As the markets go up and down, demand slackens off, new technology is introduced, companies restructure and outsource, or unemployment increases, workers can be laid off and find themselves on the dole or forced to accept a lower wage and either shorter or longer hours, or less control over their work, both its content and amount. There are various terms used, including casual and vulnerable employment, but they all point to workers’ problems.

The Industrial Revolution is usually seen as ushering in an age of exploitation and working-class misery. But in Liberty’s Dawn Emma Griffin argues that it had many positive consequences, at least for men workers (these applied far less, if at all, to women and children). One the basis of autobiographies written by workers, she claims that ‘opportunities in the workplace were brighter for adult men in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than they had been at any other time in the eighteenth century or before’. Before about 1750, for instance, men often suffered much unemployment and underemployment, since in pre-industrial times work was in short supply, and in agriculture it was very seasonally-based. Factory work also offered more stable and continuous earnings than cottage industry. So the Industrial Revolution supposedly made employment more secure, for some workers at least.

Yet the tough economic times of the 1830s and 1840s still led to much unemployment, though there are no reliable statistics. The social researcher Henry Mayhew, whose studies covered 1849–51, believed that ‘only about a third of the labouring people in the country were fully employed, another third were partially employed, and the remaining third wholly unemployed at any given time’ (J.F.C. Harrison: Early Victorian Britain).

The point here is not how accurate the picture presented by Griffin is, but to emphasise that the poorest part of the population have traditionally endured much insecurity in terms of employment as a result of their subordinate status. Even if this was, to some extent and for some people, allayed by the coming of industrial production, the problems and insecurity have remained since the days she was writing about.

Probably the best-known example of the use of casual labour was in the docks, where tides and weather affected the number of ships that needed loading or unloading at any time, and trade in foodstuffs in particular was subject to large seasonal fluctuations. Dock workers could be taken on for just a few hours, and were paid when the work was completed. The number of dockers needed during peak periods meant that at other times many were left idle and unpaid. Various inquiries were held, and recommendations made, and workers and unions demanded better treatment, but it was not until 1940 that much was done, when it became apparent that docks and their workers would play a crucial role in the Second World War. From 1941, under the National Dock Labour Corporation, dockers had to present themselves for work twice a day, and were paid a ‘retaining allowance’ if not actually employed. The post-war Dock Workers’ (Regulation of Employment) Act of 1946 enabled greater regularity of employment, and pay if not employed.

One of the modern-day versions of casual employment is the so-called zero-hours contract. These have no proper legal status, but the idea is that under them the worker is not guaranteed any hours of work, and can be called into their workplace to labour for whatever time the employer needs them for. They are popular with employers but not with workers, and they are illegal in many countries, France for instance. Some workers supposedly like the flexibility implied, since they can turn down any request to work and do not need to work for the employer if they do not want to (for childcare reasons, perhaps). Except, of course, that this flexibility is largely illusory, as being dependent on a wage is what defines their position in the working class: refusing work means no pay, just as not being called in for work does. And turning down work may make it less likely you will be wanted in future. This is what being on a zero-hours contract is like: not knowing how much work you will have in any week or month, so having little idea how much you will earn; the constant worry about not working and earning enough to get by. 

The official line (from is that such contracts are appropriate in certain circumstances, such as when there are seasonal peaks in demand, for instance at Christmas, but they ‘should not be considered as an alternative to proper business planning and should not be used as a permanent arrangement if it is not justifiable.’

There has been a lot of publicity lately about the use of zero-hours contracts at Sports Direct, but they are used much more widely than this. In September the Office for National Statistics reported that just over 900,000 workers (2.9 percent of those employed) were on zero-hours contracts, over 150,000 more than a year before. Such workers only earn about two-thirds of the average for other workers. Seventy percent of over-25s on zero-hours contracts have been with the same employer for over twelve months, so they can hardly be seen as a stepping stone to full-time permanent employment. Sports Direct, like Wetherspoons and McDonald’s, have made great play of offering permanent contracts to those on zero hours, but this will take some time to put into effect, and will still leave hundreds of thousands of workers in this subordinate position.

Deborah Orr (Guardian Online, 10 September) argued that zero-hours contracts are better than a ‘job for life’, where ‘for a lot of people the reality was decade after decade of turning up like clockwork to do work they hated, and longing for retirement’. But few people truly had jobs for life, and many zero-hours contracts involve boring work that is indeed hated by those doing it. Orr was right to note the spread of zero-hours contracts, but wrong to welcome this, for they mean insecurity, low pay and being at the mercy of the employer and the market, even more so than in the case of the majority of workers.