The scandal around zero hours contracts continues to grow as it emerges that a million British workers could be on these contracts. This is lead by employers leading the drive to a precarious, just-in-time workforce, and is a serious and sustained attack on everything unions have fought for an won since the time of the industrial revolution.
In addition to yielding power to corporations, zero hours contracts also allow the Government to massage the unemployment figures, as some one on a zero hours contract is counted as employed, even if they are not getting any work. This rise in precarious employment heralds a break down in the social contract, in the essential idea that if you work hard, you will get ahead. The reality is that it is very difficult to get work, and even when you do, you are unlikely to be paid well enough, or being in secure enough employment, to do anything other than just survive.
This change in industrial relations and workforce management comes from the US, where it is driven by big corporations. Often these companies clash with the established working practices of countries which have fairer employment law and strong unions, such as Germany, where the union Ver.di has lead workers in historic strikes.
In his book Live working or die fighting, Paul Mason traces the development of the trade union movement in the West from the time of the industrial revolution through the decline of the 80s and 90s, and compares this to the labour struggles raging today in developing economies such as China and Bangladesh. He argues that unions in the West will have to reinvent and relearn trade unionism from the ground up. Unions in the West have suffered decline due to both a shift in the economy away from manufacturing to more precarious, service sector jobs, and by increasing legal restrictions. Only by bypassing these restrictions, and in some cases starting from scratch, will workers in the West be able to rebuild their power.
There are signs that this is happening in Wisconsin, the US state that has been at the forefront of attacking unions’ rights to organise and bargain collectively. With legal restrictions making it almost impossible to organise effectively, many unions in the state are turning to direct action. This is part of a growing trend in the US seeing workers in the precarious economy – including fast food, warehousing and agriculture – fight back with innovative and militant strategies.
Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party has been declared the victor in the recent Zimbabwean elections, however there are concerns over how free and fair the elections were. While South Africa’s Jacob Zuma and the African Union have recognised the result, probably because they prioritise regional stability, the Southern African Trade Union Coordination Council, which sent a team to monitor the elections, says that there were widespread irregularities, and that the elections were not free and fair. This leaves the opposition of Morgan Tsvangirai at an impasse, as the Zimbabwean electoral system is incapable of accurately reflecting the will of the people.
The questions that arises is this: will Zimbabweans accept the results and a return to relative stability and economic growth, or will they take to the streets?
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