Beware! A zero-hour contract is coming to job near you. A zero-hour contract is a contract to be ‘on-call’ to work for an employer at the employers discretion. No actual work – no actual pay! No matter what the reason! The employer does not need to stipulate or guarantee any hours of work and can demand as few or as many hours as he or she requires. The recent increased use of zero hour contracts has been heralded by the business class as a new and important development in the present crisis. Even Trade union leaders have appeared on TV to discuss the benefits of such ‘flexible’ modes of employment. But how new is it?

This so-called ‘innovation’ has led to workers turning up at premises and having to wait (unpaid) outside of the shop until customers arrive, or outside the factory until a delivery arrives – or sent home if neither appear. The worker on a zero-hour contract waits until something to do arrives and then works as long as the employer needs him or her. This could mean very long shifts some days and no shifts on others. Zero-hour contracts unsurprisingly have none of the usual requirements for sick-pay, pensions, meal breaks, training, maternity leave and a host of other basic human rights at work.

More recently zero-hour contracts have crept into skilled occupations such as teaching and social work and no doubt into many other forms of occupation before too long – because it is a logical expression of the capitalist mode of production. Under the capitalist mode of production an employer only ‘needs’ a worker in order to exploit their labour so as to extract a profit from them. And workers can only be exploited as long as they are productively employed either making commodities or fulfilling services.

Any ‘down-time’ or waiting time, for whatever reason, (accident, management cock-ups, machine breakages etc.) is therefore not ‘productive’ for the employer. So pay for such non-working time amounts to a deduction from the profits of the employer, a deduction they are no longer prepared to tolerate. Yet in fact zero-hour contracts are nothing really new, they represent a return to the original ‘casual’ conditions of labour when the capitalist mode of production first began to dominate societies.

So its ‘Back to the Future‘.

In order for the capitalist mode of production to dominate over the feudal mode of production its representatives had to remove existing rights of the ordinary people in Europe and elsewhere. For example in the UK an original right of 4 acres to each cottage and free access to the common-land had to be permanently removed – for as long as this right existed it made the labouring population too independent and choosy. Ordinary people invariable chose not to work in factories or for capitalist farmers. Since they could live off their own labour and resources, they more often than not preferred to do so.

The English enclosure movements were used to confiscate both these traditions of self-sufficiency. That process together with the confiscation of state land allowed economies of scale and thus capitalism to be developed in agriculture. The people who had been robbed of their livelihoods therefore became known as vagabonds, sturdy beggars and voluntary criminals. At this point it should be remembered that this development created the need for charity and poor rates – the old terms for unemployment and housing benefits. The forced removal of all self-sufficiency required that alternatives had to be introduced or riot might ensue. Poor rates, the notorious workhouse and various forms of state aid were therefore the capitalist fore-runners of the present benefits system.

Another solution, introduced by the early capitalists, was to pass governmental laws enforced by the bourgeois state compelling people to work almost as slaves. During the capitalist period of Colonialism and Imperialism in particular, this allowed and condoned whipping, cutting off body parts and branding. Slavery and zero-wage slavery were the engineered norm. All this was for the purpose of forcing people to work at any rate of payment offered and at any form of work demanded. (ala modern Workfare!) It was also accompanied by using the state to outlaw high wages and authorise low-pay and industriousness – as defined by the elite – to be established.

Religious education and later state education were cleverly used during these periods to inculcate a belief that working for ‘others’ for low pay was a ’normal’, even ’natural’ state of affairs, not one socially engineered by the rising capitalist class. UK education in the 19th century was created in order for British capital to ‘compete’ internationally. The term ‘competition’ in this case should be interpreted as ‘education to work for the huge profits of the capitalist class’. Essentially the same message was delivered to the workers of Europe, North America and wherever capitalism took hold. Not surprisingly the same message is still being delivered in the 21st century.

So casual, unregulated, zero-hour wage-labour was the original form of employment under the early period of the capitalist mode of production. Commencing in capitalist agriculture with workers taken on at harvest time working 12 + hour shifts and then let go to fend for themselves when the harvest finished, it spread to other industrial and commercial occupations. It took titanic struggles by workers for well over a hundred years to gain the employment rights taken for granted over the last 60 years in the west.

They were rights which were reluctantly increased by the capitalist class in Europe after the Second World War (1939-45). The recurrent crises over the last 30 years, culminating in the financial crisis of 2008, has been progressively used by the pro-capitalist establishment to erode every one of the hard-won employment and social gains granted to workers in Europe and North America. The zero-hour contract is just the latest buzz-word dressing up – and hoping to hide – a return to the original form of capitalist work – the casualisation of labour.

The zero-hour Industrial reserve army.

It has long been the case that the capitalist mode of production has removed the means of production from ownership and control of those who work them. It has also been the case that as that means of production has increased in efficiency, the capitalist employers have sought to rationalise the number of workers employed by them. The active proportion of workers has decreased with the increase in complexity, efficiency and productivity of the means of production. Therefore a constant transformation of a section of workers into unemployed or semi-employed has occurred. This rationalisation has led to a permanent state of unemployment for large numbers of working people and lower wages. Or as Marx put it;

“…..that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital;” (Marx. Capital Volume 1.)

The resulting surplus population – the reserve army – acts as a reservoir of labour to be siphoned off when business is brisk or booming and returning it to the labour-market when a downturn occurs. Unemployment and precarious employment also act as a threat to those in work and creates a vulnerability to pressure to work harder, longer and for less pay. In this way under capitalism workers are unwittingly being forced to create the conditions for other workers to be made redundant.

For example: The harder one group of workers in an industry work the less need there is for other workers in that industry. Similarly, the less pay workers get in one sector, the less they have to spend on purchases of products and services provided by other workers. So future redundancies in that sector also. The complexity of the capitalist mode of production and the number of inter-dependent transitions and dislocations of these mean that ‘effects’ become ’causes’ and ’causes’ can become effects. A downward spiral then ensues – as it is doing now.

In general, the greater the social wealth of a capitalist country and thus the size of its capital accumulation, the greater the number of workers. This together with their productiveness gradually increases the industrial reserve army. However, in times of relative over-production and crisis (as now) that greater number of once employed are suddenly propelled into the reserve army which consequently grows even greater. It is now growing at such a rate that in Europe, for example, concentration camps for poor workers, are about to appear in Greece and no doubt similar plans are afoot elsewhere.

According to the bloggers at the ‘Scriptonite Daily’ blog (www. the present Greek parliament is considering legislation to turn a military camp into a prison for poor Greeks.  They report;

“Since last February, any Greek falling more that €5000 in debt to the state can be imprisoned to work off their debt. The government is now planning to roll this out more systematically, with a specific prison camp dedicated to holding poor Greeks while they work for free for the state.  This would conventionally be referred to as a Labour Camp – the tool of many a totalitarian state, including Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany.”

So not just zero-hour but zero-freedom approaches for capitalisms victims in Greece! The connection with unemployment, poverty, authoritarianism and totalitarianism is well spotted and it is no accident. The last great periods of a collapse of the capitalist mode of production after the 1929 financial crash, produced huge quantities of workers rejected and ejected from factories and workplaces. Mass unemployment ensued and was only ‘mopped up’ by the destruction of millions of human beings and means of production in the Second World War – a real zero-hour for over 6 million people. Concentration camps and work-camps prior to that human destruction were large-scale modern versions of earlier ‘workhouses’ and are the last desperate resort of a system which puts wealth above humanity. Soon there may be work-camp near you!

The past and present zero-hour victims.

The relative surplus-population – the industrial reserve army – the zero-hour victims created by the accumulation of capital consists of 4 basic forms.

1. Floating. (casual or precarious): Those workers who are generally in and out of work depending upon the state of the economy, growing or contracting, booming or collapsing.

2. Migrant: (itinerant) Those workers made unemployed in their own communities or countries, who in order to seek employment migrate or emigrate.

3. Latent. (embryonic): Those workers who are being or about to be shed due to changes in one industry or another. (agricultural workers, cotton, coal miners, engineers, ship-builders, teachers, soldiers, police, social workers etc)

4. Stagnant. (permanent). Those who never find work. (originally paupers, now often called the long-term unemployed or the under-class.)

Under the present crisis of 21st century capital, all these casualties of the present mode of production are increasing. All the above categories are under direct or indirect attack by employers, or one or other sections of the capitalist state. Under pressure from the deteriorating capitalist economic situation, the pro-capitalists and their agents in the proto-fascist movements hope that these four categories can be urged to scapegoat each other. These victims of the system are being persuaded to turn on each other by politicians and press alike.

If this insidious process is successful it will allow further authoritarian measures to be taken. They hope that those still in work (Floating and Latent victims) through fear of job loss will blame those out of work – migrant and stagnant worker victims – for the systems problems, rather than the system itself. This type of policy was made to work in the 1930’s in Europe – with the poor Jews used as scapegoats in Germany and elsewhere. They hope it will work again! This time it will be non-whites and those from eastern Europe who will be offered up as sacrificial victims to those who fail to see the big-picture and the crisis in the entire system.

Zero-hour for humanity.

For millions of years of evolution the adults of human communities have woken up each the morning with a days work in front of them by which to feed, cloth and house themselves. No one stood in their way, whether they hunted, gathered, fished or farmed. If the local resources were insufficient, all or a part of the community, could move on and find food, shelter and clothing in a new suitable environment. That possibility no longer exists for the poor and unemployed. But an alternative does exist.

Instead of changing location humanity needs to change its mode of production. The mode of production developed during the last 100 years has created the ‘means’ by which everyone could be fed, clothed, housed and educated at a relatively high standard. What stands in the way is the ownership and control of that means. The present control by a relatively small capitalist and pro-capitalist elite allows them to use those means not for the general good, but for their own wealth accumulation – and that wealth is now obscenely huge.

This for them means production for profits above all else. And the greed for profits mean the mass production of soon-outdated commodities and weapons of war along with the mass production of waste products, pollution and ecological degradation. The planet and its species in one sense is crying out for the capitalist mode of production to be ended; and for its sustained exploitation to be given a substantial rest in order to recover. Over 4 million years of evolution humanity has lived and worked and caused little environmental damage which could not be quickly recovered.

For that amount of time, humanity has fed, clothed, housed and educated itself without causing irreparable damage to the entire planet. The capitalist mode of production has changed all that. It now not only severely damages the planet but the vast majority of living members of the human family, through engineered poverty, wars, pollution and ecological destruction. It is time for more people to understand the wider picture of a system in multiple crisis and also cry out and organise for a wholesale change to the mode of production. Zero-hour contracts represent an approaching zero hour for humanity if they do not herald a zero-hour for the capitalist mode of production.

[See also ‘The Five-Fold Crisis of Capitalism‘ ; ‘Austerity: Its another word for War!

Roy Ratcliffe (July 2013.)

This entry was posted in Critique, Economics, Politics, Reformism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Elaine Cross says:

    A punchy and terrifying article. 1984 and Brave New World do not seem so fanciful anymore. Let’s hope that more and more unrest from the oppressed workers of the world will lead to revolutions which result in socialist societies emerging (run by workers for the workers and not by dictators). It seems like a pipe-dream but current reports of ways of managing workers, by capitalists, (see link above about Greece’s ideas) were also not imagined not too long ago. We need to mobilise and fight!

  2. Annos says:

    “Leaflet entitled ‘Concentration camps for the workers’, 1934″

    • Annos says:

      “We congratulate our members on their determination to resist this draconian attack on civil liberties. We instruct our members to take industrial action short of strikes from 00:01 on Thursday 19 September 2013 until further notice, by booking on and off duty using the established method and not using the biometric machines.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.