An Employment Contract that Violates Human Rights

'Zero hours' employment contracts completely disregard the minimum standards of 'decent work' contained in the International Declaration of Human Rights.

By Anna Majavu · 4 May 2015

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Picture: OSG Global Issues Blog
Picture: OSG Global Issues Blog

May Day 2015 has just been observed and celebrated by the global community, but around the world, including here in South Africa, hundreds of thousands of workers are toiling under “zero hours” contracts where they can get jobs, but never actually work or be paid. Under zero hours’ contracts, workers have to guarantee their availability to employers, but in effect remain on unpaid standby all week waiting to be called to work. A zero hours contract worker may eventually only work one or two hours a week, or none at all.

In South Africa, zero hours contracts are being marketed in template form by commercial legal firm NetLawman for just R399. Billed as a “superb framework for fair and full protection of the employer,” the law firm trumpets that “there is no obligation on the employer to provide work,” under these contracts.

For the workers, this means that their hours and pay can be slashed from week to week simply because their manager decides so.

And despite the fact that the worker may never be given any work or earn any pay after signing a zero hours contract, the contract is very onerous in its demands on the worker. The worker has to be available for a 40-hour week like any other employee and so cannot look for other work. The zero hours contract also compels the worker to agree to keep company business confidential, to follow certain rules aimed at protecting the intellectual property of the company and to be responsible for helping the company protect its employees’ data.

Zero hours contracts also completely disregard the minimum standards of "decent work" contained in the International Declaration of Human Rights. Decent work is not just a general and subjective statement here but has been spelled out as the right to work under “just and favourable conditions” with protection against unemployment, among others. Zero hours contracts allow for none of these rights and in other words, are employment contracts that violate human rights.

In South Africa, another problem is that farm workers have essentially always been on zero hours contracts by any other name – working dozens of extra hours during harvest time, being put on unpaid time off during storms and extreme weather and generally being forced to keep extremely flexible hours determined solely by the farmer. The same applies to domestic workers who can been seen working into the night and well over 60 hours per week during periods of heightened social activity by their employers.

The growing culture of forcing desperate would-be workers and graduates into servitude as “volunteers” is another problem, and one which was highlighted by the NUMSA-aligned progressive unions in a statement by former Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi on May Day. Vavi pointed out that tens of thousands of community healthcare workers were not even recognised as workers, but described as volunteers, although they were keeping the underfunded and understaffed health system going. “These healthcare workers are not a luxury. The system cannot function without them. We must support their demands,” said Vavi.

While the contracts started out as a way for bosses to hire temporary workers for short periods in busy times, around the world they have spread throughout the fast food sectors, aged care homes sector, security and cleaning companies, casinos, and through many huge and profitable retail chains.

Because they create working conditions not much different from those of the 18th century workhouses - in the sense that workers had no control over the amount of punishing work they had to perform in order to eke out a poverty wage - these zero hours contracts are currently facing a global backlash.

Labour activist Steve Davies describes the zero hours contract as, “the ultimate form of labour market flexibility – a form of modern day feudalism, in which the worker is tied to the employer without guarantees of work or pay.”

In New Zealand, the UNITE fast food workers union has waged a decade long campaign for secure hours and against zero hours contracts at KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King and McDonald’s – the same fast food chains that profit in South Africa and the rest of the world. The campaign included blockades of the outlets, strikes and marches and on May Day, UNITE finally succeeded in getting the final fast food company to capitulate – McDonald’s.

“You expect them to turn up to work when you want but don't have the decency to make sure they have enough paid hours each week to feed their families and pay their bills. These sorts of jobs have no place in a modern society. You run profitable retail businesses with set hours. There is simply no good reason why you can't offer all your workers a guarantee of hours,” was UNITE’s message to the fast food companies before the companies agreed to end zero hours contracts.

In South Africa, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act protects workers who work over 24 hours per month for any employer, giving these “casual” workers the full protections under the act and also the protections of the Employment Equity and Labour Relations Acts. Workers who only work six hours per week, while being protected by the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, have always complained that they don’t work enough hours to earn a decent wage. But the zero hours contracts take the situation to another extreme – allowing bosses to establish full workforces of people who are always available but never have to be paid, and who can be called to work for five hours or less per week, therefore losing all protection under labour law.

It is also highly unlikely that workers who toil on different days every week and at different times of day, will ever get to know their colleagues and organise unions together.

In England, the conservative Tory government has slyly rebranded these contracts as “flexible contracts” after noticing that “zero hours” invoked images of desperate workers who never got any work at all. This provoked a backlash even from people who normally care less about what kinds of casual contracts workers are being manipulated into accepting.

It has become trite to speak about how so few jobs these days are permanent. Employers globally are busying themselves with ways of harnessing the desperation of workers who have rarely worked and who will accept jobs where they may never work or ever be paid. Zero hours contracts are the ultimate form of 21st century casualization.

Majavu is a writer concentrating on the rights of workers, oppressed people, the environment, anti-militarism and what makes a better world. She is currently studying for a Masters Degree in New Zealand.

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Mike Thurgood
4 May

Employment Contract Violates Human Rights

I must be appallingly naieve never to have heard about such contacts as are described in this article. The whole ides of such a contract would seem to be diabolical, and how legislators have ever allowed them to start in the first place is very strange, except that the action precedes the counter-legislation. when the former hasn't been anticipated. What is particularly diabolical to me is the extreme control over the worker who has signed such a contract. Thus with no employment guaranteed, the worker isn't even permitted - legally - to seek out other (temporary) employment.

How do such contracts affect the workers' ability to seek social security benefits?

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Anna Majavu
8 May

Hi Mike, very good point about the benefits. I will endeavour to find out! Technically, employed people should not claim social grants. If they do, they could be prosecuted. There may be a way for workers on zero hours contracts to prove they have earned very little and escape prosecution. But that would appear to be complicated. Regards

Rory Verified user
8 May

An abuse of the idea of contracts

In an ideal world a contract is conceived of as concretising and clarifying duties and responsibilities of the contracting parties in a way that is acceptable to all of them. That can only happen however when there is an equality of power amongst the parties. When there is a disparity in power then the contracting facility is unashamedly abused by those with more power.

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