OPINION: Sports Direct changes everything in the zero-hours arguement

The Sports Direct revelations have changed forever the argument over precarious employment contracts, which offer workers little flexibility and leave them at the will of the employer.

Friday, 10th June 2016, 6:00 pm
Updated Monday, 13th June 2016, 12:24 pm
Sports Direct has taught us that the government can no justify precarious labour for the benefit of a 'flexible labour market', says our reporter Nick Charity.

Long criticised by unions, and touted by government as a flexible system which benefits both employees and businesses, this pinnacle of the free market for labour is at the core of how British capitalism has changed in the past decade.

When I left school and first started looking for work there was scarcely such a thing as a zero-hours contract. There was full-time and part time, permanent and temporary. Workers had rights, like holiday, statutory sick pay, and after a few years - redundancy, maternity leave, a pension. In the past ten years the number of zero hours contract roles has risen from less than 30,000 to close to a million, and it was only after university I came across the contracts which are now seemingly commonplace.

When I went for my first zero-hours contract I was stumped. I needed the job, and I went for the interview at a care centre in Nottingham. Luckily I didn't need it bad enough, and within days I saw what a raw deal it was, and I hightailed it back to the Jobcentre.

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It's said repeatedly that no one is forced to take a precarious contract. But the reality is that so many people don't have a choice. Our benefits system and jobcentre priorities demand that jobseekers go for every job available, every single position they are capable of filling within a 90-minutes travel distance.

But while the Conservative Party hides behind presumed ignorance to the dangers that these represent, it has become obvious, thanks largely to Sports Direct, how systematically they are abused to abandon any sense that workers deserve rights.

People are forced into these contracts, and now Sports Direct has shown us the worst example of what can happen when a company starts to rely on this 'flexible' labour system.

The flexibility doesn't work both ways. You take the hours you're given and if you turn them down you're off the books. You do as you're told without question, any qualms, and you're off the books. You fall ill, you better keep working or you're off the books.

And as the public committee showed on Tuesday (June 7), it's not even zero-hours we should really worry about. A zero hours worker is not really an employee. They're a casual contractor - self employed and offered hours 'ad hocly', to use Transline boss Chris Birkby's words. Instead, the rogue agencies who rely on them to fulfill labour demands with absolutely no risk or liability to the employees, have found a loophole. They now offer an even more exploitative '336-contract, which guarantees the bare minimum of annual hours and in return gives them the ability to turn their contractors into full employees, working exclusively for them while writing clauses into their contracts that still mean they can be fired at a moment's notice.

Our local Unite representatives described the resultant environment in the workplace as a 'culture of fear', and even more so with the culture of agencies picking staff out of a hat. One Unite member described to me that zero hours contracts have taken us back to the days when workers would line up on a Monday, and it would be 'you you and you', but now they do it over the telephone. The competition this creates for jobs is nothing short of a gladiator's ring. The desperate low-paid workers who take them aren't awarded human dignity anymore. They are slaves in a pen, doing whatever it takes to be chosen for the fight.