Workers at the Hovis (Premier Foods) bakery protesting against zero-hours: there are 1.4 million workers on such contracts in the UK. Photograph: Christopher Thomond
I used to work in a call centre with Michael Fassbender. More than a decade ago I was really going places. I had dropped out of university, moved into a box room in miserable south London and was working in a call centre – a small business where all work was, as the contract stated, "part-time, temporary and casual". No guaranteed shifts and with pay at the lowest end of the income scale (and usually docked for lateness or excessive toilet breaks). There were frequent stand-up rows with petty supervisors. My life ruled.
The workers were an aleatory bunch, culturally and politically offbeat, mostly would-be musicians, writers or actors, including – yes – a serious-minded young thesp who rocked the phones. It was precisely because most of us were doing other things with our lives, the job itself merely a detour en route to bigger things, that this sort of work was tolerable. This was the zero-hours work of the boom – dreary but marginal.
As the Work Foundation points out, "firms are almost obliged to treat workers on zero-hours contracts badly". Why? Because everything hinges on the legal distinction between an employee and a worker: the former has legal protections that the latter doesn't. And if the boss wants to keep you classified as a worker rather than an employee, it makes sense to avoid offering you work on a regular basis. Treat 'em mean, keep 'em cheap.
And the increase in zero-hours contracts in recent years has been dramatic, compared to increases in other "flexible" forms of working:137% between 2012 and 2013. This means that while the total share of the workforce doing zero-hours work is still relatively small, it makes up a significant proportion of new jobs. And most of it is performed for large enterprises rather than small, low-profit businesses.
Precarious work is being mainstreamed, but why?
This side of the recession, companies are still sitting on cash rather than investing, despite the chancellor's bragging about the recovery. They only invest and hire new workers tentatively, especially young workers.
This recession was a young person's recession. There was no great jobs massacre, at least in the private sector. Businesses adapted by cutting pay and conditions for staff, but kept staff on to avoid recruitment and retraining costs once the economy picked up. But they also stopped recruiting new workers.
Employment fell fastest and stayed lowest among the young, who couldn't get a foothold. The ranks of teenagers officially classified as "long-term unemployed" has swollen, and even where unemployment has fallen slightly, the benefit count has fallen much faster as the government has worked overtime to drive people off the welfare rolls. This reserve army of desperate young, disciplined by unemployment and poverty, is a big asset to companies.
In another sense, however, this is just a fruition of long-term trends in work. In the 1980s André Gorz emphasised the tendency for just this type of stratification of the workforce. Large corporations increasingly needed only a relatively small core of specialised, skilled, highly trained workers, with the remainder being peripheral, low-status and de-skilled. The spread of temporary working arrangements, and now the expansion of zero-hours work, represents the ongoing culmination of this trend.
The fragmentation of work, the spread of precarity and the stratification of workforces all point to one conclusion: the working class is fundamentally changing, and our conceptions of class have to catch up with that. It was once common on the left to speak of "the class", as if the large battalions of unionised workers – miners, dockers or car workers – represented the working class as such. This made sense, perhaps, when unionised workers were politically influential and culturally salient. It has not really been credible for some time. The death knell of such conceptions can be heard in the raft of nostalgic British cultural productions about the working class, reeking withnostalgie de la boue, from Billy Elliott to Made in Dagenham.
So, what does it mean to be working class today? Who can speak for "the class"? In a way it may actually be the most marginal and precarious workers, the disposable young, de-skilled and casual labourers, migrant workers and others at the bottom of the pile. For precarity is something that isn't reserved for a small, specialised group of people – "the precariat" or whoever. It spreads. It affects us all. The whip of insecurity disciplines even those who were recently comfortable. This is not, thankfully, something to idealise or be sentimental about – it speaks of a common problem, demanding common action.