New figures show that women labourers make up the majority of zero hour contracts in the UK. Photo: Getty
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Why women are the worst affected by zero hours contracts

Zero hours contracts are widely used in the care sector, where women make up the majority of the workforce.

The measure of a society is found in how it treats its weakest and most helpless citizens, we often say.

But how about the way it treats those looking after its weakest citizens?

New figures show that women labourers make up the majority of zero hour contracts in the United Kingdom. To a large degree this can be explained by how wide spread the use of this form of employment has become in the care sector, a part of the labour market dominated by women. 

Research for the Low Pay Commission found that nearly 60 per cent of domiciliary care sector workers are on zero hour contracts. This form of employment requires you to be available for work, but your employer is under no obligation to provide it.

In domiciliary care zero hour contracts have been common for over a decade and is currently the predominant form of employment. It’s often a matter of no choice for workers.

You either accept it, or you don’t have a job. 

Receiving the National Minimum Wage for care work is also not guaranteed since employers do not always adequately cover travel time between clients.

Interestingly it seems that it is employers in the voluntary sector (34 per cent) and the public sector (24 per cent) that are more likely to use these contracts, not private sector employers (17 per cent). However private companies that deliver publicly funded services, mainly in health, social care and education, also commonly use them.

Zero hour contracts are not just about businesses trying to make more money and have flexibility on their terms, but charities with mission statements about doing good and the public sector which cares for our parents, our children and our sick.

Austerity is naturally part of the explanation for the rise of these contracts but not the whole story, as mentioned before they have been common in care for over a decade.

The fact that women are the majority of workers on zero hour contracts should however not come as a surprise. Care work, in almost any labour market in the world is performed by an insecure, vulnerable and largely female work force.

Traditionally care was conducted in the home. Based on empathy, love and nurturing, it was seen as a complement to the harsh male world of market competition and money.  Care was something women did out of love and because they simply were female. It was their gentle nature in action. It had nothing to do with money, the story went.

When care moved out of the home and into the hospitals, nurseries and retirement homes, this idea remained strong. To take care of others was something one did because one was a good person. Not because one wanted a career or to earn a living.

It is telling that many of the first nurses were nuns who had sworn an oath of poverty.

The logic remains with us today.

Professional nurses, carers and child minders are simply extending their natural family role as nurturers, we believe on some level. Therefore they do not need to be paid very well for doing it.  It’s not a real job, at least not in the same way as many men’s jobs. It doesn’t require training or skills in the same way.

“Anyone can do it.”

At least any women.

The problem is that care is a real job. A very important one. Just look at the research into children’s early years: about how brain sensitivity to language, numeracy, social skills and emotional control all peak before the age of four. The care children get during the first four years of their life determines their success more than most other things. How can we know this and at the same time treat child care as a job anyone can do? How can we not make the investments in steady, consistent and well-educated members of staff? We know it will save society money down the line. It costs a lot more to try to make up for what children lose during these early years later, than to simply fix it then.   

To look after the elderly and the sick also requires skill and it requires time. The rise of zero hour contracts means that vulnerable and disabled people increasingly receive care in short fragments, sometime just fifteen minutes. It’s not enough to meet basic human needs. And not being able to do a good job puts tremendous stress on the work force in this sector.

Zero hour contracts is a women’s issue. It’s also an issue about what we value in society and why. What is seen as a real job and what is not. Who’s contribution is considered important and who’s considered doing something “anyone can do”.

Should this really be how we treat those who look after our most vulnerable citizens?

And what does that say about us?

Katrine Marçal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?: A Story About Women and Economics is published by Portobello Books today (5 March).

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser