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“What is clear is that becoming ‘self- employed’ might be a choice for some, but it is also a way for employers to avoid their legal obligations in terms of both pay and conditions,” says the submission.

Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner believes too many companies are ‘addicted’ to the use of insecure working practices.

Commenting on official figures revealing that 1.4m contracts failed to guarantee a minimum number of hours, he said zero hours contracts accounted for five per cent of all contracts of employment.

“Insecure work is still a feature of day-to- day living for far too many people who are struggling to eke out a living, not knowing from one week to the next whether they can put food on the table,” said Steve.

“Too many companies like Sports Direct are addicted to the use of exploitative zero hours contracts and insecure agency work.”

That injustice would not be addressed unless people join a union and organise for better working conditions, he said. “The government must not let these firms off the hook either and must act to outlaw zero hours contracts and other mutations of precarious work.”

So how did this all come about? How did Britain’s workforce change from being employed in relatively secure jobs, into one where an increasing proportion are forced to take insecure part-time jobs on low wages with minimal employment rights and no expectation of serious training and career advancement?

Clearly there are the much-rehearsed historic reasons. The visceral anti-trade unionism of Mrs Thatcher and her victory in the miners’ strike and the Wapping dispute of the 1980s were landmark defeats for the union movement and consequently for workers’ rights.

A whole generation of young people has grown up in an atmosphere where the state and its cheerleaders in the right-wing press foster negative attitudes to unions. This opposition to unions gradually mutated into utter indifference and in many cases ignorance of what the movement was all about. As the graph charting union membership declined, the number of people forced to take insecure work went in the opposite direction.

But unions have to ask themselves whether righteous – and indeed rightful – indignation, might obscure some home truths.

Unite Community activist Colin Hampton believes there was a degree of complacency involved. He points to the fact that unions acquiesced in additional workers being taken on for short term work on lower terms and conditions than the main workforce.

That trend increased during the 1970s and early 80s when pockets of mass unemployment were developing all over the UK.

“People on the periphery of employment, were left abandoned, particularly in the private sector,” believes Colin who works for the Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centre.

“Unions failed to stamp on the practice. People were told that while ‘new starters’ were being brought in on inferior terms and conditions, it won’t affect you.”

The watchword for management became ‘flexibility’.

“That was great for students and single parents, but that flexibility was for employers’ benefit. People were taken on when production required it and laid off when it didn’t.

“The problem was compounded by unions’ reluctance to try and organise in small scale businesses,” says Colin.

“It is not an easy subject to discuss. As unions lost members, there were fewer union officials which inevitably meant it was increasingly difficult to give a service to people.”


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