An initiative outlined by the employment minister, Esther McVey, aims to prevent those on benefits from turning down controversial zero-hours contracts without good reason. A government spokesperson said the new universal credit scheme will continue to support benefits claimants if they do not get the hours they need, automatically adjusting to “ensure they were financially supported.” McVey argues that this change to the system means that “it’s not longer zero, it’s enabling hours.”
Zero-hours contracts have been criticised for increasing job insecurity, and whilst encouraging people into work is generally seen as a cause for celebration, this announcement is bound to generate a degree of unease. The change could see those who refuse to adhere to this rule lose their social security for more than three months. This appears to sit dutifully alongside the rest of the current government’s attempts to motivate people with the threat of punitive measures. Moreover, whilst the acceptance of zero-hours contracts will do little to soften the burden of uncertainty brought about by being jobless, a spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions has also stated that workers “would be expected to…carry on looking for permanent full-time work in the meantime.” This is, essentially, a tacit admission of the inadequacy of zero-hours contracts and of the fact that they are not a feasible option for sustainable employment.
Jobcentre “coaches” would be able to assess whether a role was suitable for a claimant; in this position they could exercise discretion in regards to specific cases. These appointed arbiters are a flaccid source of cheerfulness in an otherwise ill-judged plan. The coalition’s drive to reduce the cost to the taxpayer of funding the benefit system has often been seen as showing disregard for those who are claiming, and though this initiative is most certainly not as harmful as others implemented previously, it does follow the same trajectory. The government will continue to whistle the same symphony about “incentivising” people back to work, but within this apparently harmonious song is an entirely different tune. The sole ambition is to bundle people into jobs, whilst simultaneously displaying an invidious ignorance about the conditions workers have to endure.
In attempting to alleviate “unemployment neurosis” (a phrase coined by the Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor E. Frankl), the coalition has shown a singular lack of care in dealing with a new kind of problem. In a society which lurches after targets, the individual citizen is quashed by the clamour to attain a certain percentage point. An article in The Independent revealed that the “number of people in work and claiming housing benefit has rocketed by 59 percent since the coalition came to power and will cost taxpayers an extra £5 billion by next year’s general election.” Current political decisions are almost entirely determined by cost-effectiveness. Thus, even disregarding the plight of the claimant who accepts a zero-hours contract, this decision is a tepid and highly contentious way of ensuring economic buoyancy.
Will zero-hours contracts provide long-term employment prospects for workers? No. This decision only legitimates itself in the sense that it encourages people to become more “useful” – in so far as usefulness today is judged by someone being in or out of employment. Compounding this disputable advantage is the fact that the government is not dealing with the main social problem. The same Independent article states: “The number of housing benefit claimants in work rose from 650,561 in May 2010 to 1.03 million by the end of last year.” The coalition should face up to the broader issue of financial insecurity, and start ensuring that those who have jobs are able to live with a greater level of fiscal independence.