Last month it was revealed by QMessenger (student newspaper at Queen Mary, University of London) that several students working at QMSU venues are being employed under zero-hour contracts. This revelation is disgraceful, yet unsurprising.
Zero-hour contracts, or “casual-hour contracts” as they are euphemistically dubbed by the Student Union, are all about maintaining flexibility of labour in the interests of employers. What’s happening at Queen Mary is a reflection of the increasing “liquidation of labour” that is occurring in the rest of society.
What is really shocking about this situation is that QMSU actually edited and censored the original QMessenger article, rendering it innocuous. Why did the Student Union, who are supposed to represent the very students being exploited under these contracts, decide to heavily alter the article, deleting quotes and changing words? Why have they come to the aid of the irresponsible manager of the learning café who hired the students? Why did the Union allow this to happen in the first place, and why are they complicit in facilitating its continuance? The behaviour of QMSU reflects the position of Queen Mary as a whole. The University has not been exempt from the national trend that is seeing educational institutions increasingly being run for profit. This trend is at its most obvious in our campus shops and cafés. Profit is more easily made when employers are freed from the constraints of guaranteeing a fixed amount of work for employees, as is the case with zero-hour contracts. When there is a high ratio of unemployed workers to jobs available the employer gains leverage over the employees. This means wages and working conditions can be driven down, thus increasing the amount of profit made. As long as profit is central to the equation, as it is under capitalism, employers will always push for lower wages and bigger profits, while workers will struggle for the opposite. This class struggle has intensified during the economic crisis of recent years and neither the crisis nor the sharpening of the class struggle shows signs of coming to an end any time soon. It’s clear then that zero-hour contracts represent another string to the bow of capitalists in their incessant assault upon working conditions in pursuit of profit.
While Queen Mary does make some efforts to ensure the well-being of its students, and to a markedly lesser degree, its workers, ultimately its allegiance lies with the bosses. Creeping privatisation means that Queen Mary, and all other universities in the country, must make a profit or else they will cease to exist. This necessity will always trump the needs of workers. We don’t need to look far to prove this point. A few years ago at one of our sister UoL establishments, UCL, there were huge protests by students because the university (one of the richest in the world) refused to pay its cleaners a living wage. The wage was finally increased, albeit by a marginal amount, after the university buckled under the pressure of the campaign run by the students. Additionally, a recent study by the UCU has revealed that over half of UK universities and colleges employ lecturers and other staff on zero-hour contracts, with five institutions employing over 1,000 people on these contracts. In fact it is estimated that there are currently over 1 million zero-hour contracts in Britain. It is claimed that the “flexibility” of the contract fits in with the hectic lifestyle of students and workers, but in reality all it means is that you are at the beck and call of your boss, meanwhile if you try to exert some control by choosing not to accept the hours you are given, you don’t get paid. Guaranteed hours are essential for students like the ones mentioned in the original article,
“One of my friends is doing a part-time degree, and needs her wages to pay for the rent and her loan. [She is] quite unhappy in her job. However, [she] cannot complain for the fear of losing the eight-to-ten hours she has this year.”
For those under contracts of exclusivity, waiting for work from one employer means that you cannot work for another employer without permission, despite the fact that the existing employer does not guarantee any working hours, and therefore any wages. For workers it is a classic Catch-22 situation. They sign a contract where they “agree” to be available for work when required, and yet they have no guarantee of hours or times. The situation is even worse for the ordinary workers, who aren’t students, and rely on this type of employment to sustain themselves and their families. Often they cannot claim sufficient benefits because they are employed, even though they have zero guaranteed hours, but those who refuse to accept these contracts could lose their benefits.
In the UK as a whole, the trend has been a gradual shift in the amount of money that labour receives from work. The TUC produced figures in 2010 that showed that in 1979, 65% of national GDP went to wages, and 13% to profits. By 2010 the figures were 53% to wages and 21% to profits. Earlier this year The Guardian reported (13/02/2013) that “from 1994-95 to 2009-10 the top 1% of earners accounted for 15% of the growth in income from employment and investments, while the bottom 50% accounted for another 15%”. So the growth in income of the top 1% was the same as the bottom 50%! Zero-hour contracts compound this situation. Labour costs are cut, and an increasingly smaller slice of GDP goes to wages.
Zero-hour contracts are an expression of the bankruptcy of capitalism in its decline. They offer workers only uncertainty and insecurity, which is the only method the bosses have left to maintain their profits. They have absolutely no place on our campus. Instead of censoring the exposure of their profiteering, QMSU should be fighting against the exploitation of students and staff on campus, both in its own institutions and the university as a whole. The Union should be pointing out that zero-hour contracts, like the 13% pay cut for staff that saw university workers take strike action last term, is a weapon with which to boost the profits of the bosses at a time of economic crisis. The Union has to lead this struggle against education for profit.
Zero-hours contracts, the exploitation of workers and attacks on students are taking place everywhere as a result of the crisis of capitalism. We need a fighting student union that will build a movement to drive them from our campus. This movement can only be built by working with student unions across London and throughout Britain, up to the level of the NUS. The student unions in turn must turn towards our allies in the labour movement whose fight against austerity, for better wages, working conditions and standards of living is that same as ours. We demand that students not only receive a living grant so that they have a genuinely free choice about whether to work during their studies, but also that if they choose to work that they are free from exploitation. The only way to make secure decent working conditions and pay for students and workers is for the universities and big businesses to be run by workers and students themselves. This is why we must unite and fight. This is why we must struggle for socialism.
by Nigel Warren, QMUL Marxist Society