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If I had to choose zero hour contracts or internships, I’d choose zero hour

November 25, 2016

If the comment sections of various online news publications are to be believed, the best way to get work if you have no experience whatsoever is to burst into the company of your choice and demand a full time contract straight off the bat.

Unsurprisingly, the hypothetical potential employer stares you down coldly, shortly before calling security.

The reality of the matter is that there’s a lot of competition, more graduates, more aspiring young professionals, and a boatload of confusion. Your average student, graduate, immigrant or entry level position worker is scrabbling around for what they can get, and what they can get is usually a zero hours contract.

People who are particularly down on zero hour contracts come from a perspective of either a) having been in a zero hour and disliked it, or b) in fixed employment with an ideological objection to the concept of “no job security”.

I’ll tell you a secret. Your average graduate and student neither expects, nor consequently seeks and requires job security, unless they have a similar ideological viewpoint; in which case, it is quickly abandoned in favour of cold hard reality within a few short months.

Instead, such lowly individuals find that their choices are between jobs that have no relevance to their ideal future career; unpaid or extremely low paid internships; or zero hour contracts. Between internships and zero hour, I’d take the zero hour contract.

I’ve been in a number of internships, and they have the distinct advantage of usually being fairly low maintenance and enjoyable. But not always. Sometimes the “employer” has an unreasonably high level of expectation for your performance and issues too large a workload for your level of experience and qualification, not to mention salary. He takes too seriously the old lie that internships are mutually beneficial.

Why, no, classically speaking, a work experience role is given out of charity. The employer doesn’t need your services, but is giving you a chance to crack into the industry because she loves to see young minds thrive and strive towards the future, or feels some kind of social responsibility to help waifs and strays.

Companies don’t tend to like having spare roles, it makes the office untidy. So they gather all the paid staff they need and organise them where they are wanted, making interns not much more than hovering pieces of furniture. Get too involved uninvited, and there is a good chance you will be more of a hindrance than a help. On the plus side, you might be persuaded to bring your elders and betters a cup of tea from time to time.

Unfortunately, this work experience style has been lost in a number of creative industries. Writing roles, for example, will not get the go ahead for proper funding from the head honchos, much to the chagrin of some of the lower downs. The web editor at the publishing company in which I once interned lamented and disapproved the fact that the vast majority of the written copy on their reasonably wordy website was written by unpaid interns who were booted out the door after three months, no matter how good they were.

The company did not value writers. Sales people, digital design contributors and web developers were the lifeblood of the organisation, and writing was just something that you shoved up there to make your site look less bare, and make the work force look larger than it is (thus more professional). It was assumed that no customers really read the articles peppered with the words Boutique Wellness Getaway. That was just an SEO bump, not worthy of the effort to check for accuracy.

For other companies, the reason for not paying their staff is more innocent. They simply can’t afford more than about three people on the payroll – and these are all people with shares in the company. They will have just started up and may very well not survive as it is; if they do, it will be a while before they can employ a whole team. It will be just one individual here and there for a while.

A number of small companies can only afford to hire people abroad in countries with considerably worse economies, who “can be paid a pittance and live like kings” in their home towns, to use the words of an acquaintance who operates under this system. Anyone living in London has to be drastically over payed for this work, so they can pay rent. The wonders of the internet make this sensible use of limited finances possible. It doesn’t provide jobs for Britons, but since that company cannot afford to do so anyway, they might as well support a few Sri Lankan families instead.

If you are pro small businesses and entrepreneurship, and anti monopolies, a part of you must accept that these practises exist by necessity. The downside is that larger companies will legally use the same systems to simply maximise profits for shareholders, skimping on employee payment usually at barely any cost to workforce quality and professionalism. We’re all looking to bump our CVs, after all, and are all aware of the dire warnings about interns who don’t take their internships seriously like a Real Job, and therefore waste their time.

I am not anti internships. Although I think it is a shame when people who can afford to hire staff choose semi-beneficent slave labour instead, there are businesses that could not exist without these systems and who deserve the chance to grow; especially if they appreciate that, although there is great mutual benefit to contemporary internships, it is particularly possible to overwork someone for the amount you pay them if you happen to be paying them literally nothing.

I would rather more companies with a restricted budget thought about hiring zero hours workers in favour of internships which “may lead to permanent, paid positions” but in reality rarely do. There is an honesty to telling someone that you can pay them, but you may not always have work for them; that you will have work for them, but it may not necessarily be consistent work, or at sociable hours; that there is money to be made, but job security cannot be guaranteed. Don’t we expect this – don’t we expect that a young, small company has trouble making guarantees? They might not be here next year.

Those who do work in writing and other creative positions are often used to this unpredictability anyway. Between the working at home and never meeting your employer; working freelance with dodgy ghost writing requests on Gumtree which would certainly not pass university plagiarism rules; working at 1am to finish an essay after a shift in a restaurant, I’d say it would be something of a relief to be offered an unpredictable, but paying, zero hours contract, while a young professional finds their feet in their preferred industry. As for unsociable hours… Flag that up as a concern to a student, and they will probably laugh in your face.

As always with systems, it’s usage and misuse that makes it acceptable or unacceptable. Zero hours contracts are not brilliant for teachers who only get paid when a permanent staff member gets sick. With London flat prices or a small child to feed, zero hour supply teachers must sit around morbidly hoping for a pandemic resurgence of small pox isolated to the school staff room.

But zero hour is fine for students already inclined towards flexible, unpredictable, creative industries, with thinly spread attentions and aimless ambitions, who expect nothing better than grunt work and bad treatment, and are at a time in their life where they can most afford to be messed about in favour of some broad work and life experience.

It’s all very well to demand fixed contracts, but we may have to face up to the fact that, in today’s society, such legendary beasts do not exist in sufficient numbers to supply demand.


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