Into each day, outrage must fall. Today Iain Duncan Smith has performed the service of upsetting everyone by telling Sky News that zero-hours contracts should be rebranded ‘flexible-hours contracts’. The Work and Pensions Secretary said:
‘I think, with respect, the media and others have got this completely wrong, the flexible-hours contracts I’m talking about which are named ‘zero-hours contracts’, they are taking by people who want that flexibility. The reality is what we’ve had from Labour is a series of scare stories about these.’
Whatever you fancy calling these contracts, they have been rising in salience as a political issue to the extent that the Tories, who did regard them as a ‘niche issue’, have had to announce a ‘crackdown’ on exploitative ones that tie a worker exclusively to one company, therefore meaning that they cannot take on more work with someone else, even when their boss is repeatedly texting them to say there are no shifts that day.
Some of them are, as Iain Duncan Smith says, very useful for those who take them on as they give them flexibility to care for family members.
Others are a way of mean-minded employers treating their staff in a way they wouldn’t want to be treated themselves. Even in those cases, the contracts have enabled labour market flexibility during a downturn, which means that people stay in work – and that is still better than them ending up on the dole for months on end because no jobs are available.
But life on a zero hours contract is often not fun. For a lot of people, they should be a stepping stone to something else, and for those who find themselves stuck on that stepping stone for a long time, life can be very difficult and miserable. In the past few weeks in particular, Ed Miliband has been very good at describing what it must feel like for people who wait by their phones late at night or early in the morning waiting for messages telling them if they have work that day – Fraser explains how the Labour leader has tapped into a popular mood in the country in this week’s cover piece.
But aside from the argument about the value or otherwise of these contracts is an argument about their name. And it’s one that is largely pointless now because it’s very difficult to change the name of something when it has settled into the lexicon. ‘Zero hours contracts’ is a scary name for something, like the ‘bedroom tax’, but it’s also a snappy name that paints in primary colours what the thing does. The Tories know about this, which is why they called the benefit cap the benefit cap. But they don’t always apply that knowledge: the bedroom tax is called ‘size criteria in the social rented sector’: a label ripe for being changed by a clever political opponent or an impatient newspaper sub-editor. Similarly, the term ‘zero hours’ is not defined in legislation.
If the Tories want people to form a good opinion of something, then they can’t just sit around and wait for others to name it. That’s what they’ve done with these contracts and the ‘bedroom tax’, which they belatedly tried to rename as ‘the removal of the spare-room subsidy’. They could also have made the argument about labour market flexibility more forcefully, rather than ceding the space to Labour, who were hardly going to back them up.
But we’ve been talking about these contracts for years and have grown used to the name ‘zero hours’. By making the argument for another name now, IDS sounds a bit like L’Académie française, trying desperately to control language, which is generally as easy as trying to control the flow of the Mississippi.