A zero-hour contract is the worst boyfriend

Zero-hour contracts must be a bit like having the worst boyfriend ever. It’s that guy who wants his girlfriend on tap whenever it suits him with no thought at all for her wants or needs.

A zero-hour contract is where I employ you to be available whenever I require but I don’t have to guarantee you any work. It betrays an attitude where one person assumes all the power and the other is forced to stick around through sheer lack of options.

Zero-hour contracts have traditionally applied to low paying jobs in places like fast food chains. A phrase that seems to follow this topic around is ‘the country’s most vulnerable workers.’

The Government has proposed changes to the laws around zero hour contracts to give these vulnerable workers more protection. The Labour Party and the Council of Trade Unions don’t think the changes go far enough.

Sitting in the relative comfort of my middle class upbringing, I find it sad that the discussion needs to be had at all. Why would anyone set up conditions for their employees that are fundamentally unfair?

I am trying to imagine the kind of employer who thinks zero-hour contracts are a good idea. I imagine he is slightly overweight and has a brand new car that he drives with casual disregard above the speed limit. He swings through the supermarket to buy a $30 bottle of wine and thinks nothing of it.

He has strong opinions about how the Government should support the interests of business owners and he shares those opinions liberally when friends come around to throw a few scotch fillets on the barbeque.

I don’t aspire to be that guy although I wouldn’t mind his car and the scotch fillets. I am a middle class father who went through university on a student loan and then got a job. Along the way life happened, as it does for everyone, but despite the hardest moments I have never needed to stare real hardship in the face.

This zero-hours contract thing gets me thinking more critically about New Zealand society. It is uncomfortable thinking.

I have been following a series of single page comics about privilege and inequality by New Zealand artist Toby Morris. His comic is called The Pencilsword. Look it up online, it’s excellent.

In On a plate Morris compares two children: Richard, whose parents are doing okay; and Paula, whose parents are struggling. The comic tracks the little inequalities in their respective circumstances that lead to Richard assuming he has earned his good fortune all by himself. “Less whinging, more hard work I say.”

It is easy to decide what is fair for society when you are the one making decisions from a position of comfort.

In Inequality Tower Morris represents all the wealth in New Zealand as a 10-storey building. In this scenario the richest 10% of the population own the entire top half of the tower. The poorest 50% of the population are crammed into just half of the ground floor.

I find that statistic confusing, shameful and disheartening all at once. Is this really the country I live in? If we are all part of the same national community then surely this is my responsibility as much as anyone else’s. But what can I do?

Morris ends Inequality Tower with: “When you come across something really wrong in life you have two choices. Ignore it and walk away, or get help and start fixing it.”

He concludes: “This is me yelling for help.”

The rich worry about whatever it is that they worry about. Those of us in the middle worry about whether to subscribe to Netflix or to Lightbox.

Meanwhile there are people who worry about living week to week. I don’t think anyone should be comfortable with that.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 17 July 2015. Reproduced with permission.