Our dirty little secret
Our dirty little secret is out. Working in the UK has become inhumane. Even the United Nations gave us a wrist slapping over the bedroom tax last week, an indication of the esteem the UK’s human rights record is held in international circles.
Let me fast track you through 7 years studying political philosophy. Rights are not rights if you can’t access them. Whether it’s having a home or a job that leaves your decency intact, wheeling out the law only works if you can actually use it, a point easily missed in this neurolinguistically programmed regime of verbalism.
The conference season has seized on zero hour contracts as the new moral crusade. Nasty nasty bosses. Although this is a reality that’s only recently been articulated by political parties, there’s a whiff of the old fish lingering in the debates. Let’s take a moment to step back in time to the 1995 TUC congress (bear with me, there’s a point to this story). Wearing a really bad TShirt, I was there looking after an international delegation of miners and oil workers from Russia on behalf of a Global Trade Union. This was no jolly my friends, it was a desperate attempt to teach the Soviet old guard how to be unionists under capitalism. First learn to talk to your members (wait, listen, no wait, try to listen..oh), then to bargain with employers and voila, democratic trade unionism across the largest membership organisations on the planet. Day one of the TUC congress we’re sitting up in the gods, tucked away watching the proceedings below with some amusement. Vodka and animal lard is rolled out and an old bloke called Len Miranov, the President of the Russian Oil and Gas Workers Union, is trying to teach me how to roll my eyelids back into my head without hands. It’s engrossing. Suddenly there’s a problem with translation, much fuss over a technical term they have never heard before. Zero Hour Contracts. As I try to explain this to a stunned group of communists the chair announces our presence to the hall and we all stand up and wave at the delegates. In that moment both sides look at each other with pure undiluted pity.
It’s fair to say that Putin, along with his bezzie Lukashenko, has steadily re-established authoritarian rule in Europe without any challenge from the international community. But before we wash our hands of those Ruski’s, please note that the Russian Duma recently faught a legal battle to stop the introduction of agency labour, the Trojan horse of flexibility. They continue to fight against the family of multinational companies that dominate the private employment agency market, 10 of the largest economic actors in the world with an industry turnover of Euro259 billion and millions of human hours at their disposal every day. The Russians see them as a threat to the human rights of Russian people.
The UK has one of the worst records in the world for promoting precarious work, zero hour contracts being just one form. Embracing warmly the ideology of flexibility and lean mean production and we have been way ahead of the game for the last 30 years. The only place where this is a secret is actually the UK.
One of the reasons why precarious work is so directly related to eroding rights is that precarious workers don’t join unions. Whatever your politics are, unions up until this point have been the only show in town in getting and accessing workplace rights. This is not a bureaucratic game, it’s through the law that we have minimum wages, working hours and some chance of living through the working day. Hardly buttons and beads. The only plus side for UK unions is that their experience of losing members and rights is valuable stuff to unions in other parts of the world where they have another ten to twenty years before humanity is stripped of the basics. It’s a shame to say it but the most successful and heavily funded area of international trade union work promotes this exchange between the once proud industrial systems of AngloAmerican countries to the East.
Zero hour contracts represent a zero sum game that has installed a rule of terror for millions of working people. I’m not making a flippant joke about the jokers in government, I mean it literally and psychically. When you are precarious at work you are vulnerable. You are vulnerable to poverty, bullying and giving up on ever sticking up for yourself at work. It’s a working reality where an agency can give you work if they like you and make you sit outside their office for 8 hours if they don’t. A culture where we have to pause for thought about whether making people dance to Daft Punk in a job interview is OK. Not so lucky now.
To bring this terror even closer to home let’s hover over the fact that there is a massive cluster of zero hour contracts in health and social care. Vulnerable people looking after other vulnerable people. We’ve just had the most extraordinary series of public inquiries into how we keep people alive in health and social care, all of them saying that it rests on the people working in these systems being able to raise their concerns about patient care. Even if you had the time and energy to take this on as a carer, would you risk it if you were on a zero hours contract?
Since 2009 the number of people earning less than a living wage has increased from 3.4 million to 4.8 million in 2012. This social policy of terror has created clusters of fearful and often angry young people, with no bedtime stories of permanent contracts or pensions to rock them to sleep after a day registering with temp agencies. Any common understanding of decent work and the hope of a decent home life has been bred out of UK people under the age of 30.
This should make us all terrified. Our dirty little work secret is out, and all over instagram. The UK is the delinquent older teenage brother to the rest of the world. We tried everything we shouldn’t have before anyone else so, at best, they can learn by our mistakes. Far from taking the moral high ground now we just need to do the right thing and put the zero hour contracts down. Put them down, and don’t ever look back. This is what’s at stake. Our human rights at work. That is being a human in work with some rights.
For those parties missing a manifesto you’d do well to end this apex of terror by championing the survivors’ manifesto here.