Meaning less than zero

Last week we received a Labour Party flyer in which Jim Murphy pledges to ban exploitative zero hour contracts. That was somewhat surprising because my partner had previously worked on a zero hour contract for East Renfrewshire Council (a Council led by a Labour-SNP coalition). What puzzled me was why, if zero hour contracts are exploitative, are they used by the local authority in Jim Murphy’s parliamentary constituency and put into practice by councillors of whom Jim Murphy is nominally the leader.  I couldn’t get my head round it.

But rather than immediately bothering Jim, who seems to have enough troubles of his own making, I thought I’d check this out with a local East Ren councillor. Before telling you what he said let me give you a brief idea of what working on the contract was like for my partner

She didn’t know from week to week if she was working and so she didn’t know if she was going to be earning any money. She didn’t know from week to week how many hours she’d be working although she knew she couldn’t exceed 35 hours because that was the contract’s ceiling. She didn’t know from week to week where she’d be working or which hours she’d be working. It was impossible to plan around because when you get that phone call you drop everything and take the shift otherwise they might not call again.

Now if you’re wondering why she signed up to this contract it’s because zero is better than nothing. There’s always the hope that you’ll get some hours and in truth for most weeks she did. One curious feature which we didn’t understand at the time was the way that even if she were covering a vacancy in a specific place she would share this with a number of other ‘casuals’. For some unknown reason she was never in a fixed place covering a vacancy.

Imagine then my discombobulation when the councillor told me that the Council have never used a zero hour contract!!! Instead, I was informed, the Council had a number of ‘bank’ staff that could be called upon when needed. These bank staff weren’t on zero hour contracts, it was explained, because ‘bank’ contracts don’t promise any hours. Whereas a zero hour contract offers a number of hours but which can be reduced to zero, a bank contract, according to the councillor, isn’t a zero hour contract because it offers zero hours in the first place.

I left the hub with an expression on my face which might well have come straight out a Greg Moodie cartoon. This definition of a bank contract sounded an awfy lot to me like a zero hour contract and I suspected a lot of people would be surprised to learn that a contract that offers zero hours isn’t a zero hour contract. My understanding of what that term means also seems to accord with what the BBC Business unit think it means

Q: What are zero-hours contracts?
A: Zero-hours contracts, or casual contracts, allow employers to hire staff with no guarantee of work
BBC Business news team (April 1st, 2015)
I needed to speak to the branch manager.
Over the weekend I put together an email and sent it off to Jim Murphy. I’m awaiting his reply.

As I put the email together I had one of those eureka moments when I realised that the meaning of the pledge wasn’t in its content but in its grammar. All those long Open University nights reading Halliday were finally going to pay off. What I realised was that ‘exploitative’ wasn’t being used simply as a pejorative to describe all zero hour contracts, but was instead being used as a qualifying adjective to describe some zero hour contracts. Rather than categorise or classify all zero hour contracts as exploitative the grammar was being used to say that some zero hour contracts are more exploitative than others.

I’m not saying Jim Murphy’s lying in his pledge. Given the opportunity he may well be in a position to ban exploitative zero hour contracts. He just won’t be banning zero hour contracts.

And of course, once ‘exploitative ‘ zero hour contracts are banned all that will happen is that employees will be transferred over to ‘bank’ contracts with the guaranteed promise of … yeah you’ve guessed it … zero hours.



BBC News, Business, ‘What are zero-hours contracts?’,, accessed 13th April 2015

3 thoughts on “Meaning less than zero

  1. Spot on, it’s the word exploitative that is the weaselly get out. We used what I suppose were zero hours contracts for weekend staff – they got paid for the shifts they worked, but they always knew we needed them except when the library was closed for a holiday. In the hands of a good employer, they aren’t necessarily exploitative but there are too many bad employers around. My ex-employer has now dropped them on principle. Something needs to be done, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the answer from Murphy.

    1. Hi Anabel, A belated thank you for your comment and the others you’ve made recently; they’ve been really supportive.x
      I can definitely stop holding my breath now because Murphy replied (on Wednesday night, if I remember rightly). In the email he sent he dropped the weasel word and said he wanted to ban zero-hour contracts. Whether he’d actually seen the light or just seen the returns from his constituency is moot!

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