Image courtesy of Better Than Zero

An anonymous contribution from someone with experience of zero-hours contracts.

I have had around 6 zero-hours contract jobs over the years, in a variety of pubs, hotels, and fast food restaurants. It’s fair to say they have become pretty normalized in the retail and hospitality sectors now. Because of messy personal circumstances, I have only wanted and been able to hold down part-time work over the last few years, and part-time work is easier to come by in those sectors.

Most of the places I’ve worked have been owned by large, profitable corporations, but were only offering me the national minimum wage for my age, of around £5 – £7 an hour. A couple of places I’ve worked – G1 and Amazon – paid us a penny over the minimum wage so that it allowed them to charge us for our uniforms.

The jobs have all been physically demanding, and demanded a lot of emotional labour, too – constantly having to be nice and friendly to customers when you were exhausted. The jobs are always quite mind-numbing, involving mindless repetitive tasks. I dread to think how many vodka and cokes I’ve poured in my life. One colleague of mine once joked that about 90 per cent of the words she spoke in a day were “That will be £3.90, please”.

The unreliability of hours is a constant problem. At quiet periods, such as January or February, hours can and do collapse to literally zero – meaning workers are left weeks without pay. I usually reserve my holidays for these periods so I have some income.

Sometimes when it’s quiet a manager will literally send people home. Most of the time, managers are reluctant to do this, and apologetic about it, knowing that people have bills to pay. But one time, I kicked up a fuss about it, muttering something I had heard that they couldn’t send me home once the shift had been placed on the rota. The manager snapped back that I was being “disrespectful”, insisting that they were the manager, and they knew the rules.

Excessive hours and excessively long shifts are also a problem. It’s not unknown for people to do 14 hour shifts, or go for 9 or 10 days without a day off – sometimes even longer than that. Workers usually have to be pushy about breaks, and the break can sometimes come within the last two hours of your shift. One colleague of mine – someone who would be the last person to complain – admitted that a couple of times they’ve been on the verge of fainting.

It’s not all bad – there are many things I like about working in the hospitality sector. I like the vibe in the place I work – it’s a place where people come to chill out and be happy. A part of me would prefer to work there than in some soporific, stuffy office somewhere. I really like most of the people I work with – it’s always nice to see them each week. Being on a zero-hours contract does give me the flexibility to change my work-patterns quickly, if I’m doing other things.

The constant anxiety has without doubt exacerbated my mental health problems. There have been other issues in life which have driven me to use anti-depressants and tranquillizers, but it’s also fair to say that with greater income security I would have taken lower dosages or been on them for a shorter time period. Mental health is a huge and complex issue, but the excessively medical model of mental health annoys me. I don’t have a mental health problem – I have an economic problem, driven by the market fundamentalist economy.

And to some extent the anxiety is worse than the poverty itself. It’s always nerve-wracking to take out the rota each week and look up what I’ve been given – nervous that I may have only been given one shift. It depresses me to be treated as a disposable commodity – completely powerless against the bosses to control my circumstances.

Another part of the story is the exploitation of managers, who will usually be on a salary with a set number of hours per week. At busy periods managers are usually expected to work longer than their contracted hours – which can mean they are effectively paid less than the minimum wage. It also means they provide free labour, meaning fewer hours for the hourly waged staff.

A zero-hours contract also causes administrative chaos for things like tax credits and national insurance contributions. One week you might do enough hours to qualify for tax credits, another week you might get so few that you qualify for Jobseeker’s Allowance. One week you might earn enough to pay your National Insurance stamp, one week you might not.

Most of my co-workers are pissed off about the zero hours contracts, and desperately want more security, but some can be quite laid back about it. On a busy Saturday night the bar I work in can take over £10,000 – and three quarters of that will be in profit. I once asked my supervisor if it made him angry to see those numbers while we were employed on a zero hours contract for a low wage, and he said “not really.”

I fear that low-wage, precarious work is becoming normalized. Folk should know that they deserve better. But personally, I constantly have to remind myself that it’s not acceptable, not normal, and that I’m not asking for much by asking for certain contracted hours. There is a challenge in resurrecting a workers’ consciousness, and a re-setting the narrative so that it’s workers v bosses. As a result, the Better Than Zero campaign is a breathe of fresh air.

A part of me feels bad about complaining, because I don’t have the responsibilities that others have. Some people have children to look after, and can come in for a shift after being up all night doing nappies and having had arguments with their partners about money. One co-worker of mine was between jobs, and came in having not eaten in two days. People now acknowledge the phenomenon of “in-work poverty” but who knows about “in-work hunger”?

I aspire to organize more in protest at these conditions, but I fear my hours will be cut if I do. As a device to discipline labour, zero-hours contracts are clearly very effective. I was also quite nervous when the National Living Wage came in, fearing that the managers would cut my hours and give more hours to cheaper, younger staff.

A part of me deals with it all by saying it’s all transitory – that I will have found something better in a few months or years. And I expect that I will. But even so, I remind myself that a temporary, transient job doesn’t justify low pay or minimal respect. We all deserve better.

Want to campaign against zero-hours contracts? Join the Better Than Zero campaign