Investigation: Zero-hours ‘super exploitation’ robbed Camden chef of job

The use of zero-hour contracts has been one of the great debating points of this election campaign. Opponents claim they exploit workers and leave people struggling to earn enough money to survive, but supporters say they offer flexibility to employers and employees. Investigations reporter Emma Youle assesses the situation.

Four months ago young father Jason Kane Benjamin was working 60 hours a week in a pub kitchen as a chef and earning a stable income.

The job was physically gruelling, especially over the busy Christmas season, but the 28-year-old worked long hours and was happy to be taking home enough to cover his rent and visit his six-year-old daughter Matilda on days off.

He had even saved the money to buy a £400 eight-string guitar from his £7.50 an hour wage.

Life was on an even keel for Jason until he fell victim to what critics have described as “a 21st century form of super exploitation”.

He was working on a zero-hours contract and suddenly and without notice his shifts were cut.

“I’d come in and look at the rota and I’d only have one shift in a week,” explained Jason, who lives in Parkhill Road, Belsize Park. “I’d say ‘What’s this, what’s going on, I have to pay my rent, I can’t survive on £30 a week’.

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“I spoke to everyone I could, I spoke to the managers and the owners. I just had no choice, I had to leave. They just used me over the Christmas period and went that’s enough.”

Jason is one of an estimated 77,000 people in London working on zero-hours contracts according to the Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey - or 1.8 per cent of the working population.

While proponents argue zero-hours contracts offer flexibility for both the employer and the employee, in Jason’s case the sudden and unwanted reduction in his hours had stark consequences.

“Obviously the impact was huge,” he explained. “I’m flat-sharing at the moment, I had to pay rent. I had no choice but to quit and sign on.

“I’ve got a daughter, I can only see her at most once a week. In the end the guitar I’d bought that I was so pleased with I had to sell for £100. It’s in the pawn shop.”

Jason believes his story illustrates the inherent insecurity of working under zero-hours contracts.

The term “zero-hours” is not defined in legislation, but is generally understood to be a contract between an employer and a worker which means the employer is not obliged to provide any minimum working hours and the worker is not obliged to accept any of the hours offered.

London has the lowest proportion of people employed in zero-hours contracts in the country.

But Jason says he has worked almost continually in zero-hours contracts over the last five years because these are the only jobs available.

When the Ham&High spent an hour online searching for zero-hours jobs we found five advertised in Camden, Haringey and Westminster.

Three were working for Spirit Pub Company as front of house and kitchen staff at The George pub in Belsize Park, The Railway in West Hampstead and The Globe in Marylebone.

Spirit says it operates in “a seasonal sector” and offers flexible contracts to ensure it can meet demand.

A spokesperson for the company told the Ham&High: “We recognise that many people work in hospitality as a second job or whilst studying and zero-hours contracts gives them the flexibility to do this, rotas are set in advance and we do not expect any members of our team to be on call.”

Another advertisement was for a lifeguard to work on a zero-hours basis at Central YMCA’s swimming pool in Bloomsbury.

Central YMCA said it already employed six full-time lifeguards and this position was for casual cover of holidays, sick leave, or compassionate leave.

Deputy CEO David Thompson said: “We’re a good organisation with a good employment record who pay the London Living Wage. We don’t have a lot of zero-hour contracts but in these circumstances it does make sense.”

But trade union Unison has serious concerns about the use of zero-hours contracts, particularly in the care sector.

George Binette, Camden Unison branch secretary and Camden Trades Council chair, said “a substantial number” of workers in the home care sector are working on zero-hours contracts in Camden often while earning the minimum wage of £6.50 an hour.

“There’s obviously a strong sense of job insecurity,” he said. “People are wondering from one week to the next what their income is going to be and if someone is not available on a particular occasion for work, possibly for a perfectly good reason, then there’s the fear that people will get dropped going forward.

“It’s a form of early 21st century super exploitation as far as we’re concerned. There may be examples where flexibility is desirable from the perspective of the employee but that’s extremely rare in my personal experience and in my experience as a trade union representative in the public service sector.”

Jason echoed the calls for reform saying “the ugly word in all this is zero”. He called for contracts to guarantee minimum hours each week or month, perhaps equivalent to 12 hours a week.

“From a moral standpoint there is no justification to it,” he said. “Employers are just taking advantage of a really ill-conceived law brought in purely for political gain.

“The only reason that zero-hour contracts exist is to bring up the employment figures and because it saves big businesses a lot of money.”