Thursday, August 8, 2013

Zero-hours contracts and employee rights: Why the Coalition's dishonest austerity strategy is working

I wrote an article the other week about how a government's self-confidence can easily fool the electorate that its strategy is working, regardless of the facts.

An article by Owen Jones in "The Independent" reiterates the point I mentioned: that it's difficult for an opposition to have a coherent strategy when the government's strategy is about having a simple, dishonest and distracting message, and repeating it again and again. As Owen Jones says, the government's devastating and disorienting line against the opposition is:

"We’re clearing up Labour’s mess. Labour overspent and now we’re balancing the books. A national deficit is like a household budget. Welfare is out of control and lining the pockets of the skivers. The unemployed person or immigrant down the road is living off your hard-earned taxes. Labour is in the pocket of union barons".

This is politics at its most cynical and divisive, not to mention dishonest. The reality of the Coalition's strategy is very different, as Seamas Milne says here. Austerity Britain is really about:

"payday loansfood banks, the bedroom taxG4S and... zero-hours contracts"

This is all part of the government's plan. The Conservatives' plan is nothing less than a revolution by stealth; to undo the social progress that was made through the "postwar consensus", and a final completion of the Thatcherite (Neo-liberal) economic vision. It is a vision of hell for many employees.

The systematic erosion of employee rights is part and parcel of that. Anecdotes about the reality of zero-hour contracts abound: about how it is creating a growing workforce of virtual slaves, on top of the culture of internships that has proliferated.
The Tories claim that unemployment is going down and that the economy is improving. Even if this claim was taken at face value, there is a very simple reason why that might be true: because employers are offering jobs at far worse conditions than before, and with the ever-increasing cost of living, the unemployed have little choice. This is especially true of young people. So employers are able to "create" four jobs on zero-hours contracts, for example, where one "real" job would have existed before. This is the basis of Britain's so-called "recovery". So companies are improving their books by creating a new type of working regime.

The article about zero-hours contracts also describes the type of working regime. It has been said that private companies operate like dictatorships; it is government regulation that forces them to abide by humane and fair working conditions, otherwise it is a matter of the employer's whim. With the Conservatives intent on throwing those "restrictive" regulations out of the window, it is clear that employees working on zero-hours contracts are working in companies that operate like miniature Fascist dictatorships: where an employee's hours from one week to the next depend on currying favour with the boss, and a wrong word can get your hours and pay reduced to zero (while still being "employed"), until you are back in the boss' good books. Employees therefore need to compete with each other to get the most hours, while the employer treats his employees like serfs.The employee's contract bans him from finding other part-time work elsewhere to boost his earnings, so the only option he has is unemployment (and then having to explain to the job centre why he voluntarily gave up work).

Lack of control is the key to fear. In "Austerity Britain", the rise of unpaid internships and the instability offered by zero-hours contracts are symbols of the government's attack on employees' rights. While the economy might be technically "improving", the figures say nothing about how the "recovery" is made possible: by destroying employees' rights. As always, when those at the top screw up, it's those at the bottom that take the hit. This is what can also be called "Corporate Socialism".

The financial crisis was seen by Neo-liberal supporters as a failure of government interference, rather than the true corruption of the market system created by globalisation, that gathers control in markets into huge cartels of multinationals, unaccountable to government. As this system creates a cartelisation of the world market on a macro level, it creates an incentive to make labour markets more and more flexible, and more and more uncertainty for employees. And creating uncertainty is the key to power.

The financial crisis therefore serves two useful purposes: as a way to instill fear and uncertainty (i.e. compliance) into the workforce; and as an opportunity to erode employee's rights.

The Neo-liberal model that the Coalition supports therefore has used the financial crisis as an opportunity to further extend the Neo-liberal "revolution". While the British economy may make some small recovery on paper, this hides the truth that the UK economy is massively weighted in favour of the financial and service sector in the South-east of England, as I've said before. The neo-liberal model is naturally weighted against all other parts of the country, as the various regional economies have never been able to fully adapt after the collapse of Empire fifty years ago. Parts of the north resemble parts of the former Soviet Union because some towns and cities (like in the USSR) specialised in one industry.

So while those responsible for the financial crisis - the corrupt financial institutions who created a credit time-bomb - remain unpunished, they pass the debt burden onto the taxpayer (via the government), who is then told that in this new regime, government cannot afford to do what it did before, and that employees must accept increasingly serf-like working conditions (that financially benefit those responsible for the financial crisis). 

But this is ignored by many. As long as capitalism provides new forms of technology to pass the time between the destruction of their human rights, who cares? 

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