Richie Venton: Why a guaranteed 16 hour minimum working week is a demand worth fighting for

Ben Wray

Richie Venton, UK executive of the Usdaw shop workers’ union and Scottish trade union activist, explains why the TUC is poised to back a guaranteed minimum 16-hour working week at its Congress this weekend, a policy which – Venton argues – could have radical implications for work in the UK’s precarious labour market

THE ground-breaking, radical new idea of a guaranteed minimum 16-hour working week is poised to be adopted by the entire trade union movement. 

This week’s British TUC annual congress looks set to agree a policy motion submitted by my union, Usdaw, demanding a £10 minimum wage; the adult rate for young workers; a legally guaranteed 16-hour minimum contract for all workers who want one, and contracts that reflect actual hours worked. 

If agreed by the congress of the entire trade union movement – embracing 6.3 million workers in 48 affiliated unions – this would mark a major new breakthrough for the millions of workers cursed by poverty pay and insecure jobs. 

The demand for a minimum wage of £10-an-hour for all workers isn’t new. It was first passed – unanimously – four years ago, at the 2014 TUC congress. Disgracefully, little or nothing serious has been done by most unions to achieve it since, whilst inflation on daily necessities soars. It’s well beyond time for determined action by all the unions to achieve this modest minimum, with the same courage as shown by those McDonald’s and Wetherspoons workers striking for £10 and union rights. 

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What is entirely new in Usdaw’s proposition at the TUC is the call for: “Tackling zero- and  short-hours contracts through introducing a statutory minimum contract of 16 hours per week, which can only be reduced by the individual worker, accompanied by their union representative, requesting to opt out and take fewer hours.”

There’d be no opt-out clause for employers. 

The conjoined twins of job insecurity and low pay condemns a huge swathe of the population to mental ill-health, deprivation and dependency on food banks. 

Work is no longer a route out of poverty; 52 per cent of Scots officially below the breadline are in a job, working to remain poor. 

The sins of the capitalist profiteers have been visited upon the children, with an astonishing two-thirds of all kids living in poverty having one or both parents in a job. 

We have the grotesque spectacle of fast food workers and supermarket staff turning to food banks in 21st century, rich, arable Scotland. 

Workers’ wages have suffered the longest fall since the Napoleonic Wars, 200 years ago – with all forecasts agreeing there’ll be no recovery to 2008 real wage levels until at least 2025.  

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With a national minimum wage that peaks at £7.83-an-hour, and slumps to £3.70 for ‘modern’ apprentices, decent pay is not about to be gifted to us. 

It takes an organised fight to win a decent minimum wage – with abolition of the lower youth rates. There are no youth discounts on food, clothing or housing, so why tolerate discounted wages? 

Casualised, insecure work – in its modern forms – has been around since the 1970s. Zero-hours contracts, the very pinnacle of this monstrously insecure employment, have existed here since the 1980s. But a plague of job insecurity has exploded in recent years, masked by hollow government boasts of ‘record levels of employment’. And low pay goes hand-in-hand with insecure contracts; it’s precisely one of the aims of precarious employment practices. 

Nearly one out of every eight workers is in an insecure job. Zero-hours contracts run riot, with at least 1.4 million workers on them.

Much less publicised, but at least as pernicious, are short-hours contracts – typically 8, 10 or 12 hours a week. These are absolutely rampant in retail. Increasingly so, as full-time jobs become an endangered species. A full one million workers are part-time only because they can’t get the full-time job they want. 

These zero- and short-hours contracts put millions of workers at the beck and call of their employers; dragged in for far more hours than their contract when it’s busy, slashed back to miserably small contract hours when bosses decide to cut the wage bill.

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It condemns workers and their families to totally insecure incomes, with all the attendant stress and suffering. 

It blocks workers from loans and mortgages; it’s their contract hours that count, not actual hours worked. 

It imposes substantially lower hourly rates of pay than those for full-time jobs.

It even denies access to wage top-ups for many; a couple seeking Working Tax Credit must have one person on at least 16 hours.

Those are some of the reasons I first came up with the idea of a minimum working week – a guaranteed 16-hour minimum contract – for all workers who want it, in my book, Break the Chains. 

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In a major, pioneering breakthrough for the mass organisations of the working class, the April 2018 Usdaw national conference voted for this new policy, unanimously, after I’d proposed it on behalf of my Glasgow G111 Usdaw branch. 

Since being elected to the Usdaw Executive Council this year, I’ve combined with others to vigorously demand action on this conference policy, including its pursuit in the TUC, STUC, and at all levels of government – including putting this demand on the Scottish Government and local authorities in their budget-making process. 

Workers, trade unions and student unions throughout Scotland should welcome this life-changing demand for a guaranteed minimum 16-hour week, on at least £10-an-hour. 

It would give some security of income and lifestyle, and qualify many currently excluded from Statutory Sick Pay and employers’ National Insurance Contributions. 

It would combat the monstrous insecurity of awaiting phone calls or emails for last-minute shifts, not to mention cancellation of shifts at short notice. It would give some control over their lives to workers, reversing the growing dictatorship of senior management over insecure workers – of capital over labour. 

I appeal to trade unionists and students reading this to consider inviting me or another Usdaw representative to speak at their union, to explore how this policy impacts on their areas of employment, and to engage workers and students in a struggle to achieve such a radical enhancement of our lives. 

Celebrate a major breakthrough in winning this policy in the trade union movement; join the struggle to achieve it. 

Picture courtesy of Matt Madd

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