Yes, zero hours work can be banned: New Zealand has just done it
One day in March an entire country decided to outlaw all zero-hours contracts. No ifs, no buts, no opt-outs. Yes, I’m talking about the same kind of zero-hours contracts that Sports Direct – which today agreed topay more than 1,000 illegally underpaid workers around £1m in backpay – inflicts on about 90% of its staff. The deal that means your boss or agency can offer you however many hours whenever they like. The same arrangement on which a million Britons have to manage a weekly shop, the rent and a family.
And no, the zero-hours ban wasn’t brought in by a nation that was famed for its progressive liberalism. The ban happened in New Zealand, which politically and economically is a kind of mini-Britain. We had Thatcherism; they hadRogernomics and Ruthanasia. In the Kiwi battle for fairer work nothing was predictable, and everything was up for grabs.
Two years ago hardly anyone in New Zealand knew what zero hours were. The battle was led by a trade union that just a few years ago had a mere 100 members – and on this issue never expected half of what it ended up with – and relied on the bravery and organisation of a group of workers who are usually waved away as the most lumpen of the proletariat: the staff of McDonald’s, Burger King and the rest of New Zealand’s fast-food outlets.
A few weeks ago I met three of the people in this fight, who told me how they’d pulled off such a coup. I think their story is worth reading now for two main reasons.
First and most vital is that British workplaces are now battlefields in a way they haven’t been since Tony Blair went into Downing Street. Just look at the last few days’ headlines: as well as those Sports Direct workers winning backpay, Deliveroo drivers have besieged the firm’s HQ over a change in their pay, and stretches of Britain’s train network have been shut down by strikes. And add to that the revelations about working conditions for Hermes delivery drivers; the increasingly successful battle of cycle couriers for better pay and conditions; and the first junior doctors’ strike in 40 years. Many of these workers are from companies in the “new economy”: casualised, insecure and un-unionised.
This new fractiousness around work looks set to continue, for one reason: as even the most plodding of economists and politicians are recognising, the old rule that work always pays no longer applies. Workers are still bumping around the same pay rates as they were before the 2008 crash; as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others show, working middle-income families are the new poor.
More unhappily, all these labour struggles are taking place outside Westminster – because mainstream politicians, Labour and Tory, are desperately trying to keep their party coalitions from disintegrating. While Jeremy Corbyn has referred to the Kiwi battle against zero hours, I can’t see his party getting itself together to do anything about them.
So if you want to see how a social crisis can lead to serious political action, I’d urge you to look a long way south. The story in New Zealand begins with a trade union called Unite. Unlike the behemoth over here run by Len McCluskey, just over a decade ago its Kiwi namesake was “a union without any members”, as Mike Treen, now its deputy head, remembers.
That changed in two stages. First, from 2005 Treen and his colleagues went all out to recruit workers from the industries other unions weren’t touching: takeaway chains, casinos, hotels. They did so with imaginative, demotic activism. The campaign to get union representation in the fast-food industry was called, with a wink to a Morgan Spurlock film, Supersizemypay.
Its highpoint came with a mass picket of burger restaurants led not by union grizzlies, but schoolkids in uniform. After all, they ate there – so why not form an alliance between customers and workers? Telegenic unrest made for excellent union marketing.