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Zero Hours: The Value of Work

Work is valued in two ways. There’s social value and what the job pays. We need nursery workers to look after kids, care workers to check on our nana, cleaners to keep our hospitals free of nasties. These jobs are valuable to our society, but because they are considered ‘little’ jobs that can be done by most people, the wages are minimal. You might say this doesn’t really matter, but to be happy we need three things: We need money. Poverty gets people stressed, causes depression, gets people into debt, makes marital breakup more likely, and distracts people from making good decisions. Thinking clearly is hard when you are hungry. We need status. The big gap between high and low pay has made what we earn more important than what we do. The lower we feel our social position is, the more our immune system is depressed, the more we get stressed, the more we take risks. We need control. Research has shown the people who get ill from stress are the workers on the shop floor, not those who run the company. The less control we have over our job, the more stressed we get. A lack of money, status or control badly hurts our physical and mental health. There have been some changes that have helped. The minimum wage, introduced in 1999, lifted a million people out of poverty. Then there is the living wage, brought in by Sheffield Council this year. The living wage is the amount people can actually expect a reasonable standard of living on, and is currently set at £7.45 per hour outside London. The GMB union is pushing hard to get all staff in council services that are contracted out onto the living wage, with Taylor Shaw, the biggest private provider of school meals in Sheffield, next on the hit list. Dinner ladies deserve a living wage. As pay has been protected, working conditions have not. The past couple of decades have seen more part-time work, more temporary work, and rise of the zero-hours contract. Zero-hours contracts are most common among home carers – three in five people caring for the elderly and infirm are on them. Care workers on zero-hours contracts are only paid for actually being in someone’s home, not travelling or waiting for appointments. A typical working day can last 16 hours, but the pay is for far less than that, making it less than the minimum wage. Sheffield Council introduced zero-hours contracts for its own home care staff last year and 208 staff now rely on zero-hours, with a couple of hundred more using them to top-up their hours. Workers in the many private sector home care providers across the city are scared that any complaint will simply see their hours cut to zero. The result of such poor conditions is a high turnover of staff and a low-quality service for the most vulnerable in the city. Zero-hours contracts pop up in plenty of other places. Sports Direct, soon to move into the old TJ Hughes building on High Street, built massive profits on the back of them. Sheffield Hallam University has 684 staff employed on zero-hours contracts. One lecturer only found he was on the contract when being dumped from ten hours a week to just over one hour a week. If you are ok for money, then zero-hours contracts can be the sort of flexible work you want. You get control, are not in poverty, and get status from other stuff in your life. The three needs are met. But if you rely on zero-hours for money, then your employer has absolute control. An employer can ask you to work shifts at no notice and cut your hours without reason. The jobs are often minimum wage and at the very bottom rung. No money, no status, no control. The impact this has on physical and mental health means this is zero-hours contract killing. We need people to be nursery workers, home carers and cleaners. We might even need people to work flexibly when demand goes up and down. But it is immoral to condemn people doing worthwhile jobs to a life of sickness, depression, heart attacks, and the many other ills associated with a lack of money, status and control. It’s immoral to condemn anyone to that. There are ways to sort things out, but first an argument needs to be won. For each hour a nursery worker works, they benefit wider society by £9 through providing good quality care. For each hour an advertising executive works they destroy £11 of social value per hour through encouraging over-consumption, obesity and debt. As long as we think that the value of a job is about what it pays in the moral vacuum of supply and demand, rather than being about what we as a society actually want and need, then we will have the wrong people working zero-hours. Petition on zero-hours care contracts in Sheffield Council – bit.ly/1ch27md ‘A Bit Rich’: a new approach to the value of work by the New Economics Foundation – bit.ly/16jfU9X )

Next article in issue 67

Jackie Kay: On The Outside

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