Interview: Better Than Zero

by Alex Osborne

A few weeks ago I wrote an article on the Gig Economy in Glasgow, and talked about the spreading practice of treating employees as independent contractors to avoid giving workers their rights. Another practice that is part of the Gig Economy that I did not explore in depth to explore is the increasing amount of workers that are being kept on zero hour contracts. Employees on these contracts can be treated incredibly poorly by employers, and can be dismissed with little to no warning. These contracts also compound the effects of other forms of maltreatment by bosses, like wage deductions and management taking a portion of tips from service workers, putting workers into an even more precarious position where they are not guaranteed a job tomorrow and not guaranteed a proper wage today.

One group that is working to fight against this type of precarious work is Better Than Zero. They do this by helping to educate workers on their rights as well as more direct means of protest targeted at employers that abuse their employees. I was lucky enough to interview Sarah Collins, one of the founding members of Better Than Zero to get a bit more information on the group.

How did Better Than Zero first get started?

Better than Zero was launched in 2015 in an attempt to address the decreasing youth membership across unions and increasing precarity in the workplace and lives of young workers.  It was inspired by the Fight for $15 campaign, resourced by the SEIU union in the USA which employed grassroots greenfield social movement organising tactics.  With the aim of eradicating zero hours contracts (ZHCs) in the workplace in order to stabilise young workers’ livelihoods and lives, including by ensuring young workers know their rights in work and how to enforce them, the campaign’s overall objective is to increase union membership in under-30s, create workplace leaders, and encourage union activity  within precarious non-unionised workplaces. The campaign uses stunts and flash mobs to highlight the use of ZHCs, and other problems at work, including deductions in wages, safety at work and other discriminatory practices.

Better than Zero is a solidarity network that builds union action in non-unionised sectors including hospitality, fast food, and customer services in Scotland. It has a solid core of activists and a fluid community of 14,000 Facebook followers, who help to compose a real-time chronicle of day-to-day working life by sending accounts of exploitation every day.

What have been some of the biggest hurdles the group faced in its earlier days?

BtZ began by challenging Scotland’s biggest hospitality employer, G1, through the use of creative stunts and direct actions, due to them not paying the minimum wage (after uniform costs etc).

A lot of employers think they are too big to be challenged; but we met with HR director of G1 who said their staff turnover was 161% in the past year so they had to change! We worked with him to stop zero hours contract but then he left the company.  Big employers aren’t scared of being taken to tribunal, but when they are they face bad publicity – https://glasgowguardian.co.uk/2015/09/05/g1-employees-stage-protest-on-ashton-lane-against-alleged-exploitation-2/

 – and we can win anyway! https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/16595240.scots-workers-win-unfair-dismissal-cases-against-g1-in-landmark-case/

What made you, yourself, invested in the fight against zero hour contacts?

I was involved initially as one of two Better than Zero organisers in 2015. I was already a member of Unite the Union and had previously had experience of working in hospitality where I organised against a big employer in Ayrshire to stop them from taking our tips over Christmas time. Zero hours contracts, for me, was just a further method of exploitation that had to be challenged.

The campaign grew from a few activists organising their own challenges to having hundreds of messages coming in every few months requesting help or advice with their employer. More people were directed to join a trade union, with Unite setting up a hospitality branch, cinema workers joining Bectu and fast food workers joining the Bakers’ Union.

What achievements are you, personally most proud of?

I’m a member of staff for the union so the thing I’m most proud of is that it’s been 8 years since I was working in hospitality, and at that point I couldn’t see any way for unions to take hospitality organising seriously. But through us starting BTZ we have ensured that hundreds of hospitality staff know their rights, have collectivised and joined a union, organised walk outs – https://www.reddit.com/r/glasgow/comments/7p5t1i/the_evening_times_on_twitter_boss_of_dows_bar_at/

and protests – https://www.facebook.com/UniteHospitality/posts/611056332627356 (Ayr) all over the country.

There’s still a lot of work to be done for precarious workers but at least their voices are beginning to be heard again.

Better than Zero has launched a new campaign – cat calling it out – against sexual harassment.

Zero hour contracts are becoming more and more common, with over 1.8 million contacts of this type being in use across the UK in 2017, and having grown since. What are some of the actions workers could take to turn the tide?

Whilst zero hours contracts are not eradicated, and we have seen new forms of precarious working across lots of sectors, including a small growth in the gig economy in Scotland, more precarious workers now know where to turn for advice. However, more importantly, Better than Zero also trains workers through “take control” courses about their rights, and about how to stand up for themselves and others in the workplace.

In 2015 the Scottish Government railed against “unfair” use of these contracts and more recently in 2018 again called to end exploitative work, do you think enough is being done?

The Scottish government would not have announced a fair work first approach to procurement (including that contract bidders shouldn’t use zero hours) if it wasn’t for the work of better than zero and trade unions. However, enforcement always lies with the worker which is why it is so important that all workers  – regardless of where they work or length of service – join a trade union.

If an employee feels they are being mistreated under a zero hour contract what is the best way for them to contact Better Than Zero?

Better than zero on facebook @bebetterthanzero – message to contact us

A big thank you to Sarah for taking the time to answer our questions, for more information on Better Than Zero, take a look at their site here http://www.betterthanzero.scot/