Peter Fleming is an idiot

Now, if none of this sounds like free-market economic theory, then you are right. But as Thomas Piketty suggests in his study of inequality in the late capitalist age, there is something decidedly pre-modern about this phase neoliberalism, with its plutocrats, oligarchs and rentiers back in full swing.

Zero-hours contracts are part of a broader ideological system in which the veneer of economic rationality is deployed to hide indefensible inequalities and eye-watering levels of wealth. But as an astute economist recently put it, we can no longer afford the rich. For this reason, everyone ought to champion the abolition of zero-hours contracts.

Peter Fleming is:

Peter Fleming is Professor of Business and Society at City University, London.

Peter Fleming wrote this article for The Guardian on a zero hours contract. Because that’s what freelancing is.

Idiot.

38 thoughts on “Peter Fleming is an idiot”

  1. How does someone who clearly understands neither Business nor Society get to be a Professor of both? Seems nowadays you just quote Piketty unquestioningly instead of Marx: all very pre-modern!

  2. Hmm, not quite Tim.

    As I understand it, many zero hours contracts have exclusivity clauses so you can’t work for anyone else at the same time.

    Presumably freelancers can write for anyone?

  3. So a hotel has to keep a huge number of catering staff in full-time jobs for the odd big wedding in winter? Cheltenham racecourse has to have lots of bar staff employed all year because of the Gold Cup.

    The reality is that we’re going more freelance. Companies just don’t want people on the books and with all this technology it’s easier to outsource than it was.

  4. Glen,

    There’s a very good case for outlawing a lot of the exclusivity clauses. (And there’s a strong argument that they’re already illegal and just waiting for a court case to establish that. The EU have already (rightly) abolished those contracts that say you’re not allowed to work for the competition for six months or a year after you leave your job. Hard to see how it can be illegal to dictate who people may work for after they’ve left a full-time permanent job with you but legal to dictate who they may work for when they don’t even have a permanent job with you.) But they’re not an inevitable or necessary part of zero-hours contracts.

    Dylan,

    > No, it’s not a zero hours contract – it;s piecework.

    What’s the difference?

  5. True. He’s not on a zero hours contract, because he’s not contracted to the Graun exclusively. But he is doing the other thing they’re always moaning about. Employed by the State, full time, then doing a second paid job as well.. Don’t like MPs doing it, do they?
    But, in my experience, socialists are the most red blooded capitalists going. They never miss a chance to screw a coin out of anyone.

    Out of interest, is a “zero hours contract” actually enforceable? If you did, in fact, provide your zero hours contractee with zero work & they breached exclusivity, surely a court would only award you the loss you’d endured by their breach. Zero..

  6. “But, in my experience, socialists are the most red blooded capitalists going. They never miss a chance to screw a coin out of anyone.”

    Well, yes, but they’ve got clear consciences cos they have convinced themselves that “capitalists” do it.

  7. “Peter Fleming is Professor of Business and Society at City University, London.”

    I expect it’s 99% ‘society’ and 1% ‘business’, and the ‘society’ bit is 100% Marx.

  8. @ Squander Two
    A zero hours contract means that you get paid an hourly wage when working.
    Piece-work means you get paid for the work done irrespective of the time taken.
    I’m on piecework which means that my hourly rate of pay can vary by an order of magnitude.

  9. How does freelancing work in practice?

    Does the newspaper approach the writer and say “give us a piece on this” or does the writer hawk a pre-written article around? Or a mix of the two?

  10. 77,

    > A zero hours contract means that you get paid an hourly wage when working. Piece-work means you get paid for the work done irrespective of the time taken.

    This is a calculation difference, not an essential difference. Everyone still works for the same reason: they decide whether the pay is worth the work.

    > I’m on piecework which means that my hourly rate of pay can vary by an order of magnitude.

    Yes, but, as you point out, doing piecework means that you do have an hourly rate of pay.

  11. Glen,

    > Does the newspaper approach the writer and say “give us a piece on this” or does the writer hawk a pre-written article around?

    Very rarely a pre-written article; more a pre-written idea for an article. Apart from that, both. Freelancers tend to start doing more of the latter until they get enough reputation to get more calls about the former.

  12. If you’re established (say, me at The Register) then it’s “two pieces a week, one roughly like this, the other roughly like that and get on with it”. If you’re a noted expert in the Rolodex then you might get a call asking for a piece on that subject when it comes up in the news. And the rest of it is calling around editors saying “I’ve got this idea here, here’s the basic approach, got my facts, want it?”

    Doing freelance only with the last bit (which everyone does have to to start with) is horrible. Doing that last bit occasionally while you’ve got one or two secure gigs behind you can be very fun.

  13. > he makes no mention of how non-exclusive ZHC’s are ideal for many people – eg the retired, students.

    If ZHCs are banned, it is going to be hilarious watching students react. I honestly believe most of them don’t even realise they’re on them. They’re campaigning to abolish their own jobs and they don’t even know it.

    “Victory! Victory! Victo– Sorry, what?”

  14. “If ZHCs are banned, it is going to be hilarious watching students react. I honestly believe most of them don’t even realise they’re on them. They’re campaigning to abolish their own jobs and they don’t even know it.”

    Well, Students think they know everything about how to reorganise society.

    I wonder how they’ll react to being reorganised to do, say 10-15 hrs a week during termtime, no more, no less.

  15. I did bar work as a student. I’ve no idea if my contract was technically a zero hours one, but we all had two fixed weekly shifts (4 hrs each), and up to two more if I put my name down (no more than that, as we were all kept below the NI threshold).

    During holidays everyone still around got their 8 hours if desired except when the bar was closed. We were overstaffed during those times, even though a lot of people voluntarily dropped their hours to go home or elsewhere.

    We could easily have had contracts guaranteeing 8 hours a week… which would be viable for a lot of current ZHC to offer… but in our case that was only because the student Union (my employer) was sufficiently detached from the profit motive to absorb over-staffing while the bar was open out of term times. There are only so many postgrads hanging around. Commercial hospitality businesses in student towns would have a tougher time of things if not enough staff voluntarily fucked off… likely resulting in lower wages for everyone. But it could be done.

    A lot of ZHCs are also temporary/seasonal contracts. It’s not beyond the wit of man to have rules which enable seasonal work, but still provide for some guaranteed hours during the periods the contracts are active. ZHCs are less hassle, but if there’s work to be done then employers will essentially change the paperwork to comply with any new rules and the vast majority of people won’t get any practical benefit because they’re already working the hours they’d now be guaranteed.

    Exclusivity clauses should be unambiguously banned. Travel time should count as hours worked (and payable) where travel to variable locations is a feature of the job (e.g. care workers). The bill for that will fall on the taxpayer, but if we’re going to spend more taxpayer dollars then better it’s going to people doing something vaguely useful for minimum wage than almost everything else it’s spent on.

    Ending the abusive stuff will help the right people. Going a bit further will help hardly anyone, but needn’t do much harm either.

  16. I can imagine a variant of rolling 1-week non-ZH contracts where the number of hours for the next week is decided on the Friday and if there’s no work then the contract ends.

    Aren’t second-order effects fun!

  17. Thought-Gang: good points thoughtfully made.

    Your choice of care analogy is a pertinent one: living wage is knackering about three years of progress that social landlords have made in trying to get care provision to pay it’s way (not to profit, just to cover it’s costs) and it’s effectively just undergone a 20% cost increase with no scope to up its income. It’s done that through (largely) not paying for travel though…

  18. It’s not a zero hours contract, it is piecework, and if you don’t understand the value of the embedded option implied in a zero hours contract, here is a dual currency deposit agreement you might be interested in.

  19. As BiS has pointed out before, a lot of the people being shafted by ZHCs are those who have virtually no market value in the first place: anyone else would just ignore the exclusivity clause and call in sick/not answer the phone/whatever. True, he or she might not get called again but that would inform the decision whether to take on the second job or not. And I very much doubt any company is going to sue over it.

    So whereas we might feel these guys and gals with little option of getting additional work deserve protection from exploitative ZHCs, the end result will probably be these people don’t get employed at all and the companies – being forced to give people hours they don’t really want to – will simply move up the rung and hire people who can add more value.

  20. @ Squander Two
    It is possible to argue that I have an hourly rate of pay, but that’s pushing it. I am not paid by the hour and neither I nor anyone else knows how many hours I work on any of my regular contracts, and rarely on the one-offs.

  21. 77,

    Yeah, my point was more that you have a rate of pay, and that it doesn’t much matter whether it’s hourly or per widget or whatever. You still won’t work if the money’s not enough, same as everyone else. The method of calculation of “enough” is secondary.

  22. Tim,

    > a lot of the people being shafted by ZHCs are those who have virtually no market value in the first place

    It’s a theory. I’m not sure I like the argument that it’s OK to shaft people if they’re worthless, though.

    > anyone else would just ignore the exclusivity clause and call in sick/not answer the phone/whatever.

    I don’t think this is true. In my experience, people — especially young people — are very easily cowed by employers, tend to believe that contracts of employment are gospel, and an amazing number of people flat-out refuse to believe that employment contracts are overruled by employment law. People certainly should ignore exclusivity clauses (I don’t believe any employer would ever bother suing for breach, and I’m positive it wouldn’t stand up in court if they did), but a lot of them won’t — not because they’re worthless, but because they’re obedient and/or nervous. Neither obedience or nervousness should be valid reasons to allow people to be shafted either.

    > the end result will probably be these people don’t get employed at all

    In some cases, undoubtedly. As with so many things, we would be better allowing people a legal opt-out than enforcing an outright ban. If you’ve been unemployed for four months, you may choose to sign this docket agreeing to work under an exclusivity clause, and the pathetic wage will be topped up by benefits. Something like that.

  23. I’m not sure I like the argument that it’s OK to shaft people if they’re worthless, though.

    It’s not that it’s okay for them to do so, it’s more a case of it being almost impossible to prevent: worthless people will always get shafted. And attempts to stop them getting shafted will likely result in them joining a lengthy dole queue.

  24. > attempts to stop them getting shafted will likely result in them joining a lengthy dole queue.

    If the shafting involves getting so little pay that they’re having to claim benefits to live on anyway, so what? At least being on the dole means the government don’t get to claim they’re actually employed and forces the state to try and find suitable work for them.

  25. @SQ2
    You do have to look at so called zero hours contracts from an economic point of view.
    There’s absolutely no point in an employer taking someone on, on any terms, if they’re not productive enough to produce value surplus to what they’re paid. If they can do so, it’s in the employer’s interest to utilise them to the maximum. If the employer is compelled to pay, when they’re not being productive, it’s a simple calculation. Can I extract enough value from them, when they are being productive to provide a surplus over what they cost when they’re not? If they can, they were never on a “zero hours” contract anyway. The result of the calculation gave the same result as any employee. Because that’s how you work out whether employing anyone is worthwhile. If they can’t. then they’re not employed. Simples. All a “zero hours” contract does is impose the risk of taking on an underproductive employee on the employee. Because the risk is unacceptable to the employer. So there is no situation where an employee can be “unfairly” employed on a zero hours contract. If the employee won’t carry the risk, they won’t be employed.

  26. To add: Any employer is likely to underestimate the utility of a prospective employee. Understandable caution. And any employee is likely to overestimate they’re own utility. Banning zero hour contracts simply hampers ambitious potential workers.

  27. BIS,

    > There’s absolutely no point in an employer taking someone on, on any terms, if they’re not productive enough to produce value surplus to what they’re paid.

    Not sure what your point is, because I haven’t said otherwise.

    > So there is no situation where an employee can be “unfairly” employed on a zero hours contract.

    This is nonsense. We all know there are unscrupulous employers around. People die because they’re put into dangerous situations by employers who can’t be arsed with basic safety procedures. I’ve seen employers ask employees to sign contracts waiving their right to medical confidentiality in perpetuity (usually because an American company imports its standard contracts to the UK without checking them against British law). Employers do all sorts of unfair things. Why your bizarre faith that no ZHC could or would ever be unfair on the employee?

    Many humans are bastards. Becoming an employer doesn’t change that, just as going into government doesn’t.

    All that aside, I never said anything about unfairness. I mentioned people being shafted. Fairness has nothing to do with it, because I’m against people being shafted even if they deserve it. For instance, I think fraud should be illegal even when the victims are gullible.

  28. @SQ2
    There’s no objection on my side that there can be unscrupulous employers on all sorts of aspects. But the zero hours thing comes down to one simple thing. Risk. The employer doesn’t think it’s worth the risk to take the employee on, on a full time contract. So there is no job, on a full time contract. There is less risk in taking on an employee on an indeterminate hours contract.
    So your value of “unscrupulous” is simply another way of expressing how the employer is valuing risk.
    You may well get employers who seek a low value of risk, compared to that which would be imposed on an employee who chose to work for them. But that’s their choice. You can’t force an employer to employ. And the employee doesn’t have to take the job.

  29. I think your problem is; you see some version of this where the employer could offer the employee a work opportunity where they could create surplus value, but doesn’t. That wouldn’t be an unscrupulous employer. That’d be stupid employer. Why turn down the opportunity to make money?


  30. If the shafting involves getting so little pay that they’re having to claim benefits to live on anyway, so what?

    Being in some kind of employment is infinitely better than being forever confined to the dole queue. At least there is a chance they might get more hours and work their way into being more valuable.

  31. BIS,

    > I think your problem is; you see some version of this where the employer could offer the employee a work opportunity where they could create surplus value, but doesn’t.

    Really? Where did I say that?

    But, since you raise the matter….

    > That wouldn’t be an unscrupulous employer. That’d be stupid employer. Why turn down the opportunity to make money?

    I have often asked that very question about stupid employers. They do exist, you know.

    Tim,

    > Being in some kind of employment is infinitely better than being forever confined to the dole queue. At least there is a chance they might get more hours and work their way into being more valuable.

    Well, that cuts both ways. As I understand it, we have state employees whose job is to get appropriate job opportunities for those on the dole and appropriate training for those on it long-term. Keeping someone in a shit useless job that pays fuck-all denies them that while still requiring we pay them benefits.

    I have no doubt some people would be better off staying in the shit job and working their way up from it. But I suspect others would be better off on the dole for a while.

  32. @Squander Two
    Piecework is paid by the piece (or units produced). Zero hours contracts are paid by the hour.

    Moreover, ZHCs are usually contracts OF services (employer/employee relationship).

    Freelance work is performed under a contract FOR services.

    On closer inspection, these differences are significant.

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