Zero

21st Century Slavery?

Slavery was supposed to have been wiped out years ago, at least the formerly legal slavery here in the ‘civilised’ western world. Unfortunately it is still a big illegal trade, even here. Slaves here tend to me mainly non-UK citizens, sometimes foreign workers, whose pittance of a wage is still more than they get at home but well below what a eurpoean would earn, or sometimes it is illegal immigrants, who are being exploited under threat of being sent back to their home country.

IMG_20130822_154409There are cases too of women and girls, some very young, and some even children, trafficked across international borders who are then forced into prostitution and sex slavery, all serious crimes which our authorities try to prevent.

Now there seems to be, what I can best describe as, a new kind of 21st century slavery which, for the moment at least, is legal. Admittedly it is not so bad as the other, mainly older or illegal kinds of slavery and nothing in this article is intended to suggest that they are not inhuman and degrading. Nevertheless this modern day form of slavery appears to be sanctioned at high levels. I am referring to Zero Hours Contracts (ZHC).

ZHCs are, at the moment, legal and, apparently, generally meet the requirements of the Employment Rights Act. They are used by companies who require an on-call workforce but with no guarantee of minimum hours, or even any hours hence the Zero Hours. Along with no guarantee of minimum hours of work, there is also no guarantee of the times or days within which a zero hours employee might be called upon. In most, perhaps all, cases there is seemingly not even a minimum notice period, when someone on such a contract might be called upon to do work.

This kind of employment seems to me to be a step back towards the kind of slavery in Jesus’ time. Then, slavery was cultural to the societies of the day but now it is not cultural, it is contractual. So how much has our ‘civilised’, progressive society moved on from the slavery of two millennia ago? Not much it seems.

There are reported indications that people on this kind of contract, are frequently poorly paid and often paid substantially less than those doing comparable work but who are on regular contracts or normal employment terms. For the kind of employee flexibility an employer (slaver?) demands of a zero hours employee, surely a premium should be paid, not less money.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of employees on zero hours contracts has multiplied by three in the last seven years, as more companies seek to exploit their workforce to the greatest degree possible but without any commensurate improvement in the compensation offered.

There is anecdotal, and possibly objective, evidence that zero hours employees who are called to work without any prior warning, who are unable to attend for any reason whatsoever, are automatically sacked.

Slavery was prevalent for thousands of years, and for a number of years, the UK depended on it for a substantial part of our economy. There are many and various references to slavery in The Bible, both old and new testaments, indeed anti abolitionists used passages from The Bible in opposing William Wilberforce’s proposed policy in the 19th century to abolish slavery. But the treatment of slaves changes throughout the bible, with gradual improvement from The Old Testament to The New Testament. I am ignoring Revelation, which is basically a picture story of a possible future.

In Colossians 4:1 Paul reminds us to “provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” There does not seem to be much that is either right or fair to an employee (slave?) in a ZHC. And in 1 Peter 2:16 we are told to “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.” but God’s ‘slavery’ is very, very different to a ZHC. For one thing, we don’t have a contract with God, we have a covenant and for another God neither forces or imposes anything on us, we are free to choose; not so with a Zero Hours Contract.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the matter, even slaves in biblical times had certain rights and expectations and their masters and owners had obligations. It seems to me that the modern Zero Hours Contract is a retrograde step, moving us back in time eroding workers rights.

Is it modern day slavery? In my opinion yes, kind of but maybe you think differently?

“Slavery can only be abolished by raising the character
of the people who compose the nation; and that can
be done only by showing them a higher one.”
– Maria Weston Chapman, 1855

MARIA WESTON CHAPMAN

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