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History repeating: zero-hours contracts and the strike of 1889

As low-paid workers become increasingly unprotected, the working conditions of the 20th century could become a mere historical blip.

Robert Greer
17 June 2015
A painting showing the London dock strike of 1889.

Flickr/Matt Brown. Some rights reserved.By 1888, working conditions in the London docks were at crisis point. A new dock had been opened eastward down the Thames at Tilbury in Essex, and those in charge of the new dock began a rate war against the St Katherine, East and West India docks in an attempt to lure business away. It was the turning of the tide for London as an industrial port city, and the beginning of the slow death of the London docks leading to their final closure in the 1960s.

The effect of the shortage of work this caused draws an interesting parallel with events in present day Britain.

Competition for work in the docks became rife, and an abundance of labourers in an environment with little work led to a great deal of manipulation by those that employed people to unload and transport cargo.

Work was allocated by a system of “call-ons”, where many hundreds of men were herded into wooden pulpits to wait for 20-30 tickets. Only those with tickets were allowed entrance to the docks to work, and this work could be for an hour or a day.

The hourly wage plummeted, and the uncertainty of work was such that while a docker in 1872 took home an average of 24S, his counterpart in 1888 averaged just 7S.

These conditions led to extreme poverty and deprivation in the already slum- and hunger-ridden East End, and resulted in the great strike of 1889, during which newly formed unions successfully fought for stable working agreements and better pay.

Ben Tillett, one of the dockworkers who led the strike, later wrote about the atmosphere in the pulpits when waiting for the bi-daily call-ons. “Coats, flesh and even ears were torn off. The strong literally threw themselves over the heads of their fellows and battled… through the kicking, punching, cursing crowds to the rails of the “cage” which held them like rats – mad human rats who saw food in the ticket.”

In short, uncertainty and poverty caused people to turn against one another.

A familiar situation

Today in 2015, there are an estimated 1.8 million staff in Britain on ‘zero-hour’ contracts. Many of the companies that use these contracts pay little or no tax, and as in 1888, employers use the advantage of having a large pool of workers that they are not obliged to give hours to by way of paying the lowest possible wage.

Although many young parents seeking work require stable hours in order to feed and shelter their children or move into a home, the government has moooted stopping the benefits of people who refuse these contracts. Similarly, workfare schemes provided by the state provide some retailers with workers who on average earn around a third of the minimum wage. Refusing to accept one of these placements when seeking benefits will also result in sanctions.

In the lead up to the general election the Labour party vowed to ban zero hour contracts had they won, publically criticising companies like Sports Direct, who reportedly employ 90% of their workers on zero hour contracts, for putting profit before ethics.

Ed Miliband addressing the Labour Party Conference, 2010

Flickr/Ed Miliband. Some rights reserved.

In contrast, despite admitting that he could not live on a zero hour contract, David Cameron has defended such an arrangement when used properly as beneficial to those who need flexible working hours, and that many people choose to be on them.

However, it’s clear that when a company like Sports Direct has a policy of making this type of contract standard company policy, then that is going to seriously impact the stability of the lives of their workers.

Among other problems, people on zero hour contracts will experience difficulty in renting in the private sector without a guarantee of income, as well as receiving no sick pay. As protection for workers on low wages becomes less and less, we are in a dangerous position where the working conditions of the 20th century could become to be seen as a historical blip.

Unfortunately, the system of collective bargaining that saw workers rights and the quality of life improve so drastically in the 20th century has largely been abandoned. In 1889, Ben Tillett led the dockworkers and the newly formed unions in a strike that lasted many weeks, and resulted in the stabilising of work agreements, and a large increase in wages. In contrast, a dispute in 1995 between the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company in Liverpool saw the company sack 329 of its remaining 500 workers for refusing to cross a picket line, having previously shed another 300 for refusing to accept new contracts.

Protest at the checkout

While it is basically impossible for those on zero-hour contracts to strike, it is possible to make basic decisions that can collectively effect change. It’s very difficult to be 100% idealistic in where you shop, but if you think an employer mistreats their workers, try not to shop there, or help lobby retailers to do things like give unsold food to charity or to pay the living wage.

Where you spend your money is important. Chains like Sports Direct, Burger King and Wetherspoons – all of whom use zero contracts for a high percentage of workers – are only able to capitalise on this for as long as consumers turn a blind eye to it.

The big four supermarkets in the UK – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda – have all said that they do not use zero hour contracts. But this is often sidestepped by employing people on “short hour contracts”, so it can be difficult to know who the biggest culprits are. Unlike the largely usurped independent retailers, however, it is often these ubiquitous national chains that are the worst culprits.

It’s not always possible, but if more people shop locally in independent stores, then the balance of society – in which the gap between rich and poor widens with every report – is more likely to be regained.

The election may have passed, but you can still vote with your wallet.

 

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