“You don’t have to do this thing we clearly want you to.” – Opting out of zero hours contracts, and “choices” at work.

How often have you felt totally comfortable asking for something at work – a pay rise, flexible working, a full year’s maternity leave, different hours?

I feel okay asking for most of those things, some of you reading this will too.

I’m going to remove some stuff from this situation though. Firstly, lets get rid of the fact I’m white and able bodied, with a degree. Secondly, lets assume I don’t know jack about my rights at work and there’s no union around to help. Thirdly, lets get rid of my boss. Let’s give me one who has made clear they don’t give a fuck about their employees. Who has already violated my rights or has only given me the bare minimum pay and conditions because they’re forced to.

Not so easy asking for something now, is it? Even when the option’s there.

Sports Direct recently announced they’re going to offer *some* of their staff the opportunity to come off zero-hours contracts. Wetherspoons today said they’re going to extend a successful scheme to offer permanent contracts to zero-hours staff, based on a pilot which saw a 70% take up.

This is good. Like, even if it was a 1% take up, it’s less people on zero hours and that’s a good thing.

But I worry this is being seen as a triumph (which it is, by Frances O’Grady at least) because it’s really not. There are lots of little reasons why: the 12 hours guaranteed work SD are offering still isn’t enough to live on, that if 30% of Wetherspoons staff don’t take up the offer that’s still 8000 people with no stability of income or basic working rights, that workers in the Sports Direct warehouse won’t be offered permanent contracts.

But mainly, the reason this isn’t a big win is because it doesn’t remove the parts of the equation which caused all the problems in the first place. Namely, by making zero hours contracts something to decide between the worker and the boss, this policy means decisions and thought processes about workplace conditions are made individually by each worker, rather than collectively by a workforce. This maybe doesn’t seem like a big deal if you’re not used to organising and working in a collective, but it makes more sense if you view it with the second problem with this policy: it doesn’t do anything to redress the balance of power between worker and boss.

This sort of illustrates it.

There’s a great video of the Deliveroo strikers yelling at the manager who came outside to the picket line to try to persuade them to go back to work. The biggest yells came when he said that each worker could meet with managers on their own to work out issues with their contracts. The strikers went ballistic then, because they knew what Deliveroo knew full well: discussions you have on your own, one-on-one with your boss, are always going to be fundamentally more difficult to do than ones you have with your colleagues alongside you.

As a rep, I always find that the “opt in/opt out” policies, which depend on those discussions happening, are the ones most open to being applied unfairly.

Examples: A flexible working policy which leaves the decision about work-life balance up to individuals and their managers results in whole teams denied the right because their boss dislikes home working – whilst on the other side of the building, a whole office sits empty whilst teams beaver away productively at home. A performance related pay scheme which left decisions about pay up to one yearly conversation between manager and worker resulted in workers with long term health conditions being denied raises by their bosses on the basis of absence, whilst other bosses awarded rises based on little else than getting on with their staff.

The reason for this is very simple. The phrase I hear most when I’m representing someone? “I don’t want to make a fuss”. I’ve heard this from everyone from women paid too little maternity pay to people about to lose their jobs to redundancy. People don’t like conflict, they don’t like standing up to their boss or a HR team, because it’s tough doing that on your own. Most people don’t want to have those discussions, even if they want to take advantage of a policy. When they do have them, they’re uncomfortable, they forget what they’re asking for, they cave in when the answer’s no.

Now, as an employer you can respond to that in three ways. You can tell people to man up (you probably will use that phrase if you’re a disgusting sexist like Mike Ashley) and learn how to negotiate. You can replace opt in policies with ones which are fairly applied to everyone and adjusted in special circumstances if needed (example for how a union fixed the two above – make flexi working available to everyone, and get rid of individual decisions around performance pay).

Or you can know full bloody well that “opt out” policies decided in one-on-one convos will mean you can persuade people to, I don’t know, not take permanent contracts if they’re offered, or offer things so reluctantly and incompetently no-one will take them up.

It will be interesting to see if the 70% take up of the Wetherspoons pilot scheme is replicated across its workforce, and if a similar one happens in Sports Direct. I really hope it does, but I predict it won’t – or if it does, scratch the surface and a zero-hours contract will have turned into a ten-hour contract, or a three, or a one. This is not the way to tackle zero-hours. Leaving stability of income, and basic rights, up to individual workers asking for them, is not how you solve anything, because the balance of power is so fundamentally off kilter in the employment relationship that the outcome will always be bollocks.

Redress that imbalance, by empowering workers to think and act collectively, and you might be onto something.



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