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April 29, 2015

May Day and zero-hour contracts

May Day approaches.

It is the Labour Day most of the world celebrates, including France, where your faithful scribe finds himself today. In France, the first day of May is one of the few days of the year when all workers must have the day off, or legislated compensation, save those in essential services. Many businesses here in Paris will be closed and parades will occur throughout the city. At least that's what they tell me.

In Britain, a nation going to the polls in another week or so, it's a different story. There is talk there about the insidious policy granting businesses the power to hand out what are called "zero-hour contracts." Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, the program has expanded four-fold and over 1.5 million workers now have zero-hour contracts. These employees are often young and female, many with dependent family members relying on their income.

Simply put, these contracts aren't really contracts at all. They do not guarantee a minimum number of hours of work, nor do they provide for a standard working week; a person could in fact be asked to come in to work at 7:00 in the morning as little as five hours before. Or after finishing a full week of nighttime hours.These people are on-call in every sense of the word. By signing a zero-hour contract, the worker grants full power to her employer.

It is, in the words of the Labour Party leader and Opposition Leader, Ed Milibrand, "An epidemic undermining hard work, undermining living standards, and undermining family life. Because if you don't know from one day to the next how many hours you're going to be doing, how can you have any security for you and your family?" He has pledged to give employees the right to a regular contract after 12 weeks of working regular hours. The problem here, from my perspective, might be the as yet, undefined "regular hours" Milibrand is talking about, though I suppose it will all come out in the campaign, and then be watered down after election, though that might be too cynical on my part.

For many of these workers in the UK, they receive the minimum pay of about $12 per hour. The "living wage" in London is considered $17 an hour, and that seems bizarrely low.

Business leaders in Britain like the zero-hour contracts and they credit the scheme with providing a "flexible labour market," and that is good for business.

From the vantage of Paris, what is happening across the Channel is bothersome indeed. Yet, it is exactly the same sort of thing that has been happening, in Canada for years. The drive by Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark to promote the slogan: "BC is open for business," and to create more flexible working arrangements that benefit employers under the promise of "creating jobs for British Columbians," provides the same sort of zero-hour contracts for our workers. People can work on-call for years, without being granted regularized employment. It happens in the private sector and within unionized environments too. It is simply wrong.

This May Day we should take time to remember the benefits we all enjoy, largely thanks to the labour movement and progressive political parties. With every concession we make, under the guise of  some slogan, that decreases our commonwealth as a social community and not just as a consumer society, it becomes ever more difficult for any government, even a progressive government, to bring them back. May Day is a day to reflect and remember, and to act.

Copyright 2015 by Jim Murray.

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