In New Zealand precarious work was common throughout the 19th century. Workers though throughout the first half of the 20th century fought for, and won, a number of protections that significantly increased their security. In the last 30 years however, the number of people in insecure work has risen again sharply, as employers have argued that they need to cut costs and increase worker flexibility to compete with emerging countries in an increasingly globalised economy. Technology has also changed how and when work is performed, and the work environment has changed with the public demanding more flexible services and products.

Insecure work disproportionately affects those who are amongst the lowest paid, with women workers, young people, Maori and Pacific workers, migrants and people with disabilities being the hardest hit. Insecure workers also face significant uncertainty over how long their job will last, as it can be terminated with little or no notice. Furthermore, they often have limited control over their hours of work, and work environment, and face limited access to benefits such as sick leave, as well as a lack of rights, such as protection against discrimination and unfair dismissal.

New Zealand is particularly affected by insecure work because after decades of undermining by successive governments of the rights workers fought for, employment protection laws are relatively weak. According to the OECD, New Zealand has the developed world’s fourth lowest level of protective regulation for temporary contracts.

In New Zealand, at least 30% of the workforces, over 635,000 people, were in insecure work in 2012, according to ‘Under Pressure,’ a 2013 report published by the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU). This included those who were out of work; those in various forms of temporary employment including casual work, fixed-term, temp agency and seasonal work; and those in permanent work where there was a medium to high chance of job loss in the next year. Of these insecure workers, there were 95,000 who had “no usual working time” and 120,000 who had less than two weeks’ notice of their work schedule. It should be borne in mind that this probably is an underestimation, and the CTU argues that if New Zealand collected better statistics about the workforce, it would probably be shown that insecure work in fact affects over 40% of the workforce.

When it comes to particular sectors, insecure work has long been common in areas such as fast food and hospitality, particularly in the fast food industry. McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Burger King, Wendy’s all offer contracts that have no minimum hours, so people can be, and indeed are, rostered anywhere from three to 40 hours a week, or sometimes 60 hours a week. These contracts with no minimum hours have become known as “zero-hour” contracts. In these kinds of jobs, workers often have little idea how long their employment is going to last or what hours of work they will be asked to do. Also, in many cases the contract forbids them from working for anyone else, while expecting them to be effectively on-call and available for extra work at short notice, but with no actual guarantee of work. Employees have also expressed the fear that if they turn down the request to work, employers will punish them by not offering it in future.

In fact, there is some evidence that zero-hour contracts are used as a management tool for disciplining staff without regard to the law. A study in the UK entitled “A Matter of Time” found evidence that the threat of “zeroing-down” a worker’s hours, i.e. reducing them to a few or none, made staff more fearful of complaining about unfair treatment or employer abuses. There is evidence for this in New Zealand too, with the wireless.co.nz website reporting employees on zero-hour contracts making statements such as, “If we aren’t available one week, if we’ve got an event or something like that, or even through sickness, those hours will probably stay cut.” Another person told the website how the desperate struggle for hours breeds a culture that pits staff against each other, commenting that, “whoever is the friendliest with the boss will get the most shifts.”

The plight of those on zero-hour contracts was highlighted in what was the biggest response Unite Union has ever had to a member survey. Over a thousand fast food union members working for the major stores in New Zealand responded to a Unite Union’s online survey, with nearly 700 giving detailed information on their working hours over the previous four weeks. The survey results highlighted the hardship caused by zero hour contracts. Four out of every five of those who responded reported problems with paying basic living costs like rent, power, phone, food and transport as a direct result of hours changing week to week, with nearly half saying this permanent insecurity is a problem they face on a regular basis, and they struggle to balance their family budgets.

The survey led Unite Union National Secretary Gerard Hehir to state,
“Unfortunately it confirms in detail what we already knew from our worksite visits…Most fast food workers are willing and able to work more hours on a regular basis but are simply not given the opportunity. Over half who took part actually want an increase to 35 hours or more a week. We know hours become available on regular basis as other staff leave, but the companies choose to employ new staff and allocate hours week to week rather than offer any security of income.”

The use of zero hour contracts is also reported to be creeping into the retail sector, where more and more workers are on part-time contracts with additional hours being allocated on a casual basis. Unions have reported that the large supermarkets, Sky City and Hoyts, are all participating in such practices in order to further reduce costs, despite over-staffing and/or gaining record profits. Finance and transport and distribution sectors are all reported to have been seeing an increase in such employment practices too, and, as government austerity cuts kick in, so to are areas where they were once relatively rare, such as universities and government departments.

Some employers are contending that such contracts can provide flexibility for employer and employees, for example by allowing parents of young children, carers, and others to accommodate paid work around various other commitments; or students being able to earn extra money while maintaining flexibility without committing to set hours. This is fine for those who choose to work like this, but for those who need the certainty of a pay-cheque that does not fluctuate from week to week flexibility is a huge disadvantage, and often the unemployed find themselves forced to take jobs of this nature with threats from WINZ that their benefits will be affected if they turn down such jobs.

On April 1, 2015 all of the major collective agreements between Unite Union and the major fast food companies expired, and Unite have stated that it is their intention to run a major public campaign to end zero hour contracts in the industry as part of the renegotiation of these collective agreements.  Fast food workers in New Zealand will be joining an international day of action on April 15 to support an end to the exploitation of this group of workers worldwide.

The fight for a better deal has begun at Wendy’s with action at a number of stores across the country. Votes to authorise strike action are being held at McDonald’s and Burger King. Negotiations are continuing more productively with Restaurant Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, Carl’s Jr and Starbucks),  but it has to be remembered that there are an unknown number of workers in other, often non-unionised jobs, with zero hour contracts.

Besides, while it is great that Unite and others are fighting for the end of zero hour contracts, we can’t afford to lose sight that under the capitalist system the employer is always driven to minimise their labour costs, and zero hour contracts is just a symptom of the real problem. It suits the employers to keep a large pool of labour at the ready with minimal obligation and expense to them. This is a system that means poverty and precarious employment will always be a reality for a large section of the population. While reforms of various aspects of the system may alleviate certain problems, it will never alter this fact. While calling for the abolition of zero hour contracts we also need to maintain our focus on the bigger picture and work for the abolition of the wages system altogether, and with it the capitalist system.