Reductio ad Absurdum: Zero-Hours Contracts, Bogus ‘Self-Employment’, and Welfare ‘Conditionality’ in the UK

As Christian Garland recently wrote, “Neoliberalism remains the dominant economic orthodoxy in the US and UK, as well as in many other places following the Great Recession, but it is, in large part, reaching its own critical limits, with political resistance being just part of these. The nature of this four-decades-long project is heavy with foreboding, but the crisis of work, now forecloses any feasible medium or long-term future for neoliberal market orthodoxy. This article aims to provide a short critical overview of the rapidly changing nature of ‘work’ in the UK, and how, aided by conservative policy maneuvers, neoliberalism has given rise to what is called bogus ‘self-employment’, and the fractional, ultra-precarious phenomenon of zero-hours contracts.

Bogus ‘self-employment’, takes two main forms: the first is known as the ‘gig economy,’ and involves companies such as Uber, Deliveroo, and Hermes making use of the labor of those who are classified as ‘independent contractors’, rather than employees. The fact that these independent contractors earn less than the minimum wage is thus framed as being their own responsibility, and not the organization’s. This rationale has faced legal challenges, however, and an ‘independent contractor’ of courier CitySprint took the company to court, arguing he was entitled to be regarded as an employee and to receive employee benefits as such. The court agreed and ruled in his favor.[i] The other form bogus ‘self-employment’ takes in the contemporary UK is the re-framing of chronic underemployment as ‘record levels of employment.’ Here, the self-employment in question consists merely of having an eBay account, or piecework selling catalogues. These gigs are counted as ‘employment’, with the ‘owner of the business’ being classified as a ‘sole trader.’”

To learn more about the crisis of work, the gig economy, and its relationship to neoliberalism, see the full piece on Public Seminar.