“Britain’s Year Zero” was the banner headline in the i newspaper for 10th March. It was a sharp reference to the new official figures showing a sharp rise in the number of UK workers on zero-hour contracts. The zero-hour contract scam is just one part of the growing low-pay culture of capitalism in Britain
“Britain’s Year Zero” was the banner headline in the i newspaper for 10th March. It was a sharp reference and response to the new official figures showing a sharp rise in the number of UK workers on zero-hour contracts. In the last year the number of workers affected has risen by over 100,000, up to 801,000 (or 2.5% of the total workforce) – a rise of 15%. It is expected that this figure will soon hit the one million mark. Those areas which have seen the largest rise are the North East (up by 64%) and Wales.
These are the official figures, but behind them lie countless stories of human misery and uncertainty about the future. According to the report in the i, research showed that “around 40 per cent of workers on these employment terms worked less than their ‘usual hours’ and wanted to be offered more work. One in six had received no work in the week before being interviewed.”
The Tories and the bosses call this scandal a “modern, flexible labour market” (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills quote); we call it ruthless exploitation for profit at our expense. The zero-hour (or legalised slavery) contract scam is just one part of the growing low-pay culture of capitalism in Britain and elsewhere.
According to the Resolution Foundation report on low pay for 2015, one in five of all UK workers were considered to be on low pay, as of April 2014, with one in twenty being stuck on the National Minimum Wage (NMW) or less. We say less because it is believed that at least 5,000 firms may well be breaking the law by avoiding paying the minimum wage. Needless to say, under this business-friendly system, where poor people get punished hard if they break the law whilst the rich get away with it, not a single employer has been prosecuted in the last year for not paying workers the NMW. Indeed official inspections have been cut back, so these crooked bosses know they stand a good change of getting away with it. No wonder these firms do not like unions, who might expose such abuses. Meanwhile, for many workers stuck in low-paid jobs with no way out, the National Minimum Wage has become the National Maximum Wage in effect.
The Living Wage
Mention of the National Minimum Wage brings us, of course, to the National Living Wage (NLW), which the government is bringing in at the start of April as its “flagship” measure against poverty. What a joke – and a sick one at that! The NLW will push up pay for those on the old NMW by a massive 50p per hour – still well below the levels deemed to be a real living wage, let alone the actual bare minimum level needed of £10 per hour that many workers organisations are rightly calling for.
Despite the miserliness of the NLW, bosses are already looking for ways of avoiding the new costs of the NLW. Manpower – a recruiting agency – has produced a report which claims that employers, especially in retail, will try and claw back any wage bill increases by changing (i.e. reducing) terms and conditions over bank holiday and weekend working rates and by cutting overtime. Already, many retail workers have seen previous higher pay rates for unsocial and weekend working cut back to weekday daytime rates.
Even then, employers still seem determined to resist even the smallest pay rises for low paid workers. A bosses’ organisation called the British Retail Consortium has issued dire warnings that the NLW will lead to an increase in the wage bill of £36 billion and the loss of over 900,000 retail workers’ jobs over the next decade. This is the classic employer response to any and all demands to raise pay. They would pay workers nothing if they could get away with it…and with zero-hour contracts they virtually can!
In fact, the main threat to the jobs, pay and working conditions of retail staff (and workers generally for that matter) is the lack of investment by the bosses as they search for more easy and quick profits in the face of declining growth and a shrinking world market. British Home Stores (BHS) is just the latest retail firm to be urgently cutting jobs and closing stores as a result of this. The failure of big business to invest has become chronic. With data showing that UK economic growth is now down to just 0.3% over the last recorded quarter of November to February, other firms will be looking towards cutbacks. It is the fundamental crisis of capitalism which is to blame for low pay and job uncertainty, not the “demands” of workers living on the breadline for even just a little bit more.
Since the crisis of 2008-9, the capitalists have been applying ever-more ruthless measures to try and squeeze every extra penny they can out of the working class as they try and recover what they have lost. They are now in a panic as profit-warnings are starting to rise in number – 7.3% of UK quoted companies issued warnings at the end-quarter of 2015, the highest such level since 2001. Yet it was only recently, in 2014. that UK bosses (and the Tories) were lauding a three-year high in profit levels. Now, with a new world economic downturn very much on the cards, they are weeping crocodile tears about the need to “economise”, etc. They try and hide the real picture to justify their cuts and sackings – we say: open the books to trade union inspection! Let’s see the real picture of just how money-grabbing and incompetent capitalism really is.
The constant of capitalist crisis
Of course some things remain constant. On the one hand, the capitalists and their apologists say workers’ pay must be kept down for the “good” of the economy. On the other hand, whatever the economic outlook, they pay out ever greater profit dividends to shareholders whilst the bosses receive ever-higher salaries and bonuses.
The London School of Economics (LSE) has produced a new report that shows top bosses’ pay to be spiralling upwards. The High Pay Centre think-tank estimates that bosses pay in the FTSE 100 companies now stands at an average (per person) of £4.6 million a year. The LSE quotes recruitment “head-hunters” as saying that, in their opinion, top bosses’ pay levels are “absurdly high” and that the quality of people getting these nice jobs is “mediocre”. This will come as no surprise to workers who have to face clueless management on a daily basis. It is just another piece of evidence in favour of putting industry under the democratic control and management of workers, as part of a socialist plan of production involving the nationalisation of the top 200 monopolies and finance houses.
Tory Britain today is a low pay, no pay Britain. Under the chaos of capitalism, workers face an increasingly grim future. For youth it is even worse, as they are benig hit hardest by the crisis. The choice is clear: either accept it or fight back.
The trade unions must ramp up the action. Protests, leaflets, stalls, and the odd demo are not enough. The TUC must now mobilise the whole movement around a one-day general strike against austerity, privatisation, and low pay, which could reach out to every town and city, workplace and college, uniting young and old, worker and unemployed – all sections of our class under attack.
Such action could raise the level of opposition to this government – and the rotten system it defends – to a new, revolutionary level. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn needs also to reject the big business rubbish of the Blairites and stand on the basis of a clear programme of socialist policies. It is only socialism that can provide a way out for the millions now in the grip of low pay and austerity cuts.