An anonymous account of life working on a zero hours contract by one of our guests
A zero hour contract is, as the name states, a contract that has no fixed hours. There is no actual contract. The way it works is very simple, you find an employment agency, most agencies offer zero hour contract work, sign up with them, and then the agency will call you to find out if you are available for a given job. The job can start at any time of day or night – 11am or 11pm or 3am – anytime. You have to be ready for the call of duty. The agency will ring, say they have work, then you have to be ready at the location whatever time is specified, that might be in the next half hour – or next few hours, the time usually depends on how far away the job might be. The work can be anywhere in or around London, any zone. Usually, I will use night busses to get there. Night busses are actually quite quick because at night there is no traffic.
An example of a recent job I did was in Barking. The agency called in the day to say there was a shift working in a warehouse, lifting etc., from 9.30pm to 2.30am. It took 3.5 to 4 hours to get there and the same to get back again. The pay is £6.19/hour. You pay for your own travel. I usually get a weekly bus pass which costs £19.60. A problem can be that you buy a bus pass for the week and then you don’t get any work from the agency – so your money is wasted.
The most regular shift I did was 3am to 7am at a warehouse. Generally shifts are 4-5hrs and they are always during ‘unfavourable’ hours, these are when nobody else wants to work. The only people who do it are doing it because they have no other choice.
However, despite it being really exhausting and regardless of how they treat you, I refuse to jump on the bandwagon of saying it’s criminal or exploitative. I’ve never signed on and would never do that. To me, that’s giving up, smooth sinking. Zero hour contracts are for the jobs that most people refuse to do, due to the unpredictability and the anti-social hours, but it at least helps you to keep up, to say working. You can use your ‘zero hour’ experience to help in applying for full-time work. It’s at least an option to keep working, while you look for more suitable things.
And it is a two-way thing. You can after all say you don’t want to take a job, though having said that, you then risk not being called again. The bottom line, however, is that you can withdraw your labour.
It’s a fact of commercial life in London. It’s not a new concept. These contracts have existed for ages – even when the economy was doing well. People want cheap goods, 24-hours day, this is how companies keep low prices and make big profits.
At the end of the day, you are an adult, you know you are doing these crap jobs so that you can exist whilst you looking for a better alternative.
I’m relieved that in the Autumn I start a normal warehouse job. I won’t say doing zero hours is a negative thing but I will say it was really hard, I was taking medication at night which would knock me out, nevertheless I knew that I just had to keep going and struggle to accept the jobs and keep working. I’d get woken up at all hours, I’d be so weak doing physical labour, but I’d just have to do it. You just have to battle on.