Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Countdown to Zero

Two annoying things caught my eye over the last twelve hours. Firstly, Newsnight's report on exploitative corporations using 'zero hours' contracts to condemn supposed workers to servitude. It's not really news, of course: companies have been doing this for ages. I know many people on such contracts. One works at Pizza Hut, where you'll be called in on the off chance that there will be enough customers to need you. The staff wait around - unpaid - just in case. You can't go home, or hold down another job, because you might be required.

The other piece of news was the announcement that London Metropolitan University is to outsource all activities other than teaching and the Vice-Chancellor's office: cleaning, library provision, IT support, catering… the lot. We all know what this means: fewer, less-qualified staff, de-unionisation, worse working conditions, shiny presentation while substance declines, and a rejection of the humanist ideal of the university as a mutual, collegiate pursuit. Cutbacks in resources as profit margins become more important - we've seen it all on the railways and other privatised sectors. It's rather revealing that the Vice-Chancellor's office isn't to be outsourced either - clearly some things are an efficiency too far. It's the equivalent of Nike's board making billions by outsourcing the actual shoemaking to Chinese slaves.

What links these stories? Simple: the fact that treating your staff as decent human beings requiring decent working conditions is anathema even in supposedly humane institutions. I'm used to assuming that things are far worse 'out there' in the cut-throat world of call centres, cleaning companies and so on. It's a false assumption. Universities are massive organisations under pressure to cut costs everywhere except in the realm of Vice-Chancellerian salaries (though our new one did promise 'restraint'). Universities are microcosms of the outside world, and we run a distinct class system here. This was very apparent during our last joint strike with the support staff. Most of the academics came out on strike, as did most of the Unison members. That left an awful lot of the worst-paid employees, mostly catering and cleaning staff. There's historically been a problem in the union movement about recruiting the least-skilled employees, which is a whole other annoying debate, but the major cause here is that the worst-paid are also the most vulnerable. They can't afford to miss a day's pay even at minimum wage, and they're most open to management pressure and abuse.

Zero hours contracts are not restricted to the obvious scum like McDonald's and Pizza Hut. The Hegemon, my own university, employs large numbers of people on these contracts. Cleaners, security staff, sports centre staff, caterers (most of whom are sent home, unpaid, for the summer holidays) even the Muslim chaplain, as though spiritual needs can be calculated on a shift pattern. Library staff (formerly a highly-skilled profession) are on a similar deal: they don't get enough hours to make a living but they have enough on their contract to make a second job difficult to manage. When this was imposed, a large number of them left, particularly women.

Zero hours contracts have two purposes: they're financially efficient for the employer, and they maintain the employee in a state of dependence and fear. It's a means of ensuring a cowed and obedient proletariat. If they could do it to academics, they would. Workers on zero hours can't plan a budget, a working week, or longer-term things like savings, mortgages or raising a family. It's a trap, quite simply. But it's efficient - for the employer, while the employee becomes a disposable asset.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, utopian socialists saw in mechanisation the promise of freedom from work, a society based on leisure and learning in which the oppressed masses could discover their higher abilities freed from drudgery (not Marx, he believed in the nobility of labour). It was a beguiling, but naive dream. The future of capitalism was never going to be benefits shared equally. The logic of the market is that worse conditions for the workers lead to higher profits for the owners. The shame of it is that this is now the logic of education. As an academic, it's important that we stand by our exploited colleagues, rather than hope some of the crumbs drop into our mouths. I intend to campaign here against zero hours contracts. Anyone else?


Historian on the Edge said...

I'm aware of people on permanent 9-month teaching contracts (Univ. of Stirling, Language dept). In other words, they have a permanent job but every year, they don't get paid during the summer vacation. At least - I guess - they are free to earn money some other way, but hardly in a way that makes the best use of their PhD etc.

The Plashing Vole said...

That's utterly appalling - seriously exploitative. Hope it doesn't spread.

Ellesar said...

This is new and shocking to me. Starbucks will only give you a 24 hour a week contract, meaning that they save on holiday and sick pay (most employees will work much more than this), but it sounds like a great job in comparison with this.

161,000 people on 0 hours contracts, tripled from 2005 figures. A new low for workers rights.

Anonymous said...

The permanent VL is alive and kicking at the Hegemon. Keeping anon here but feel free to accost in lift