Britain is leading the way in so-called “zero-hours” contracts that keep employees available but with no guarantee of work — and other countries are watching with interest.
Trade unions are waging a bitter war against the contracts which some 1.4 million Britons have signed up to, saying people feel forced into signing them.
The latest skirmish is over plans by Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative-led government to halt unemployment benefits to those who won’t take a zero-hours contract.
But to EU nations looking to increasing flexibility and boost their economies, the ultra-liberal British policy looks increasingly attractive.
The contracts were introduced in 1996 by Conservative prime minister John Major to make it easier to employ students and seasonal workers.
But now they are being used by employers ranging from McDonald’s to Ryanair and even Buckingham Palace.
The British government itself uses 250,000, according to a survey carried out by the Guardian newspaper.
The Office of National Statistics, which bases its figures on a period of two weeks in January and February, said that around 13 percent of employers admitted to using them, rising to 50 percent in tourism, the restaurant trade and the health industry.
Laura Lewis, 25, worked for three years on a zero-hours contract at a home for the severely physically disabled in Cambridge, eastern England, before quitting.
“You have to be on call 24/7. You don’t get a say in when you can and can’t work, or when you want holidays,” she told AFP.
“I could work 25 days in a row or none if the boss decided it.”
Around 300,000 care workers in Britain are employed on zero hours contracts in difficult conditions.
Rochelle Monte, 38, who has worked as a housekeeper for 20 years in Newcastle, northeast England, said that when it came to zero-hours contracts there was “no choice — it’s just the way it is.”
“My agenda is never the same. It can be 20 or two people, it varies a lot. So it can be difficult to plan,” she said.
Her salary varied wildly as a result of the contract, ranging from £400 to £1,100 (490 and 1,300 euros, $670 to $1,840) per month.
Britain’s unemployment rate of under seven percent is one of the lowest in the European Union, and Cameron’s government says the contracts add flexibility that the British economy needs.
Yet critics say there is a heavy price to those who are on the contracts.
“It’s impossible to ask for a mortgage, to buy a house, to make plans for the month when you have a family and to plan a budget,” Dave Prentis, secretary general of UNISON, Britain’s largest public service union, told AFP.
The government unveiled new rules at the start of May so that now anyone attending a state-run Job Centre who turns down a zero-hours contract can have their benefits suspended for several months, a spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions said.
The change angered the unions, which were weakened in Britain in a series of brutal confrontations with prime minister Margaret “Iron Lady” Thatcher during the 1980s.
Frances O’Grady, secretary general of the TUC, Britain’s biggest union, said the plan was “more a punishment than a way to encourage jobseekers to find a job”.
The British government is sticking to its guns, though.
Business Minister Vince Cable, a member of the Liberal Democrat party which is in coalition with the Conservatives, recently rejected an opposition demand to offer employees a fixed contract after they had worked a year on a zero-hours basis, saying that many workers were happy with the contracts.
But he said that the government would tackle abuses of the contracts.