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 –

 – and we can win anyway!

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 –

and protests – (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


Ayrshire Institutions: The Number 11 Bus

by James McLean

In most working-class areas, it would be safe to assume that there’s that one bus route that has a bit of a reputation. The one that you’d avoid except for the fact that you need it to get to work or it happens to be the cheapest way to get to where you need to go. As a Kilwinning native that bus for me is the double decker number 11 that travels between Kilmarnock and Ardrossan. Probably the most used bus in North Ayrshire the number 11 is regular, fairly priced, and even has free Wi-Fi these days! The drama really isn’t with the buses themselves; they are well looked after and a brand-new fleet was even commissioned at the start of 2018, which of course was very exciting. The thing is that everyone that has been on the number 11 at one point or another comes away from it with some kind of story about a crazy event involving some of the strangest characters you are likely to meet.

Such stories are usually equal parts shocking and entertaining so this week we have collected a few of these stories to share as we take a look at a bona fide Ayrshire institution.

Let’s begin with the top of the bus. In personal experience it can be a bit of a gamble going upstairs on the bus. Don’t get me wrong most of the time everyone just keeps to themselves and lets the journey go by, carefully avoiding awkward eye-contact with other passengers, but there is always the chance of something odd happening. To start with, from my own personal experience, myself and a friend were on our way to Ardrossan at some point in the evening. We sat upstairs. Other than us there was one other passenger who was occupying the back seats and looked as if he was asleep. Five minutes into this journey we heard a noise that sounded like a water tap being turned on. This was soon followed by the distinctive aroma of pish and a thin stream trickling it’s way towards the seats where we sat in increasing horror. Our fellow passenger obviously couldn’t hold it and relieved himself where he sat. We bolted downstairs before the frankly impressive flood could wet our shoes.

Another interesting story I’ve heard from the top of the 11 was told to me by a young woman who, at the time, was visiting her boyfriend. Everything seemed normal until the bus stopped in the Pennyburn scheme in Kilwinning. Suddenly two men wearing balaclavas sprinted upstairs. They quickly surveyed the passengers before shouting “He’s no here!” and running back off, seemingly to wait another ten minutes for the next bus to check that one instead.

The number 11 is no stranger to violent altercations. This next story comes from fellow ACU contributor Alex. Once while on the bus, two men came onboard and, through overhearing their conversation, it became obvious that they were attending their mums funeral while also wearing track suit trousers. This fact seemed to amuse a drunk passenger who was sitting behind Alex. The drunk started to make fun of their choice of wardrobe causing the two men to start attacking him, at which point our friend Alex stepped in to try and split them up. The two attackers commended Alex for looking after a stranger like that, while STILL trying to punch him. Meanwhile the drunk man insisted they would just have a “Rolly polly” for a bit and be best pals afterwards. The two men clearly didn’t share in the drunks resilient optimism, so Alex convinced him to get off and wait for the next bus.

It can be pretty easy to fall sleep on the bus, especially after a shift at work or a few down the pub. Sometimes you can even run the risk of missing your stop which would be annoying for anyone. The guy in this story definitely thought so. Another journey underway and as the bus passes Greenwood Academy he wakes up, realises he’s missed his stop, and starts screaming at the driver, wanting to know why he wasn’t woken up! He starts attacking the safety glass between himself and the driver, who swiftly chucks him off. Not satisfied with this outcome the guy attacks the bus in a tantrum, all the while screaming about how he missed his stop. After exhausting his attempt on the buses life, he decides to take on a more manageable opponent in the nearby bus shelter. The bus left him there, hammering hopelessly away at the shelter, likely until his arms grew limp.

This story in particular brings up an important thing to consider when talking about these buses: the men and women who’s job it is to safely transport everyone up and down this route really are unsung working-class heroes. They don’t get nearly as much credit as they deserve. They make sure you get to where you need to go, and a lot of the time take a ton of abuse for doing it. I personally have witnessed bus drivers being shouted at and attacked on numerous occasions and nobody deserves to be subject to that while at their work. Your bus driver deserves respect so the next time you need to make use of the many bus services, remember and thank your bus driver.

These are just a few stories and we’d love to hear of any of your wild stories of bus travel! Let us know on out Facebook page and we can see who’s got the best one!

Ayrshire and Unemployment

by Alex Osborne

Ayrshire has a long history of being affected by unemployment, putting a particular strain on younger people. The situation isn’t as grim as it used to be; Scotland as a whole is going through a period of record high employment. According to the Scottish Government’s figures unemployment is sitting at a national average of around 3.3%, lower than the UK average in 2019- but what does this mean specifically for Ayrshire?

Ayrshire was not spared the 2008 recession and its effects can still be felt today. We remain one of the regions in Scotland most affected by unemployment, with North and South Ayrshire coming first and second respectively in a 2017 government report into unemployment by region; a similar situation was reported in 2013 where Ayrshire declared one of the highest unemployment rates in Scotland, sitting at well over 8%. It is difficult to say exactly why Ayrshire was one of the regions that most bore the brunt of the 2008 economic crash- the fact that our industry was especially vulnerable to a global economic downturn, we were a region with historically high unemployment and had a lack of government investment, all more than likely played a part. Whatever the reason, it has left scars on our towns ever since.

Young people, between the ages of 16 and 24 are especially affected by unemployment, and while government figures tell a story where things are getting better it still doesn’t make for easy reading. In 2013 the youth unemployment rate reached a peak of over 20%, however since then things have improved for young people across Scotland and the unemployment rate has halved to sit at around 10%. Even so, young people are still nearly three times as likely to be affected by unemployment. While it is difficult to measure the exact impact of youth unemployment- the Scottish Gov doesn’t release figures on youth unemployment by region- Ayrshire is no doubt one of the areas most affected by the issue. There were even claims that during the recession Ayrshire had the dubious honour of having the highest youth unemployment in the United Kingdom.

The reasons behind Ayrshire’s long history of high unemployment are varied, complicated and difficult to define, however the effects can be easily seen. Low employment leads to low spending, this leads to our high streets turning into ghost towns where the only shops still left open are bookies and maybe a farm foods if you’re lucky. On top of this there are also a myriad of social impacts, crime increases along with social deprivation, all trickling down to an impact on a region’s mental and physical health. The Scottish Government is not ignorant of the difficulties facing Ayrshire. All the figures above come from reports commissioned by the government. So what is being done?

In December 2014 the government set itself the target of reducing youth unemployment by 40 per cent by 2021 as part of its youth unemployment strategy; in December 2018 North Ayrshire was named in parliament as a region with a particular problem with youth unemployment. As a result, there has been an increase in government investment in Ayrshire in the form of infrastructure projects and the Youth Employment Scheme (North Ayrshire) that was rolled out in 2018, which aimed to work with local businesses to address industrial decline.

This local investment has been met with its share of push-back. In March 2018 when Joe Cullinane, councillor for North Ayrshire, suggested an increase in council tax that would put Ayrshire in line with the government targets for the end of parliament and that would help create a hardship fund to support the 1 in 3 children in the area that live in poverty, he received heavy criticism. Joe defended this proposal, arguing that more funds were needed to make sure Ayrshire was able to properly address its social deprivation issues and unemployment with local investment rather as opposed to simply managing the decline.

Ayrshire as a whole is still a region acutely affected by the problem of unemployment, with North Ayrshire sitting at around 6.6% and East Ayrshire at 5.9%. These regions in combination sit at around double the national average, and well above the UK average of 3.8%. While things are improving across the country, Ayrshire still lags behind, and with economic turmoil forecast ahead Ayrshire will be one of the most vulnerable regions to any future downturns in the economy.

Mental Health Mentality

by James McLean

It’s safe to say that awareness about mental health issues has been a hazy subject at best for a very long time. A lack of understanding as well as a lasting social stigma have ensured that a lot of people that are suffering never try to find the help that they need. Unsurprisingly in areas such as North and East Ayrshire that has some of the highest unemployment in Scotland, if you look at government statistics on things such as drug related hospital stays or anxiety and depression diagnoses you’ll notice both North and East Ayrshire close to the top of any of these lists.

This is something that the Ayrshire councils are aware of and have promised to do better. A plan was put in place to try and tackle inequality and deprivation around North Ayrshire with the opening of the Woodland View Mental Health and Community Hospital in 2016 being hailed as a resounding success. This care facility has done a good job at looking after those that have crossed the threshold in to needing professional help. A common criticism of the way mental health issues are dealt with in North Ayrshire, however, is that it is focused too much on reactive care rather than preventative care, this is the difference between helping those already affected and making sure that they never need to get to that point in the first place. With the county being one of the worst in the country for youth suicides this criticism is very valid. Seemingly in an effort to rectify this, North Ayrshire council has started taking steps towards early education and prevention in our secondary schools. This is the first area in the country where every secondary school has been provided with a councillor to help pupils in crisis. This has been crucial in teaching young people that it’s ok to talk about the things that are bothering them.

Another area that has seen a positive development in regards to early education has been the inclusion of 36 members of staff and 240 pupils from across Greenwood Academy, Irvine Royal Academy, St Matthew’s Academy, Kilwinning Academy, Ardrossan Academy, Arran High School, Auchenharvie Academy, Largs Academy and Garnock Community Campus in mental health first aid training. This training started in June with the hope of building confidence and teaching the impact that stigma and discrimination have on people and how best to combat this. The eventual hope is that the few that have been to the training will take it’s lessons back to their respective schools and share the information with everyone else.

Credit where credit is due, this all seems like a very good idea. The biggest problem with issues like these is the difficulty people have in opening up and talking. Teaching people early that it’s OK to talk is a practical and powerful step forward.

If you feel like you might need help, please reach out to the people close to you or consider professional help. If that seems like too much for the moment, then there is also a long list of apps designed to help many different problems:

Beat Panic – Overcome panic attacks and anxiety wherever you are

Blue Ice – Helps young people manage their emotions and stop self-harming

MeeTwo – A safe and secure forum for teenagers to discuss their issues

Calm – Meditate, sleep, relax


Click to access Strategic-Plan.pdf

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Who was John Smith?

by Alex Osborne

John Smith holds the interesting honour of being the only man from Irvine to join the International Brigade. John was born in 1907 in his parents’ home in Clark Drive, into a large family, having three brothers and five sisters. John himself would marry but lose his wife, along with their only child due to complications at childbirth in 1933.

On the 1st of January 1937 John would join the international brigade and leave Scotland for Spain to fight against the rise of Franco and his Fascism. Never far from the fighting, John would get wounded several times throughout the course of the war. On one of these occasions, while recovering from wounds sustained on the front lines, he would write home to his mother “If this does not make the Labour Party do something, nothing will”.

While Attlee, leader of the opposition at the time and future Prime Minister would visit Spain later that year and reaffirm his party’s commitment to support Republican forces, Attlee would not go into government until the Second World War and there would be no great international response to the Civil War from Britain. In fact, the British government would encourage France to follow the UK in its dedication to inaction. Only the Soviet Union and Mexico would provide the Democratic forces with direct support, while Franco would get support from both Germany and Italy.

In September 1938 John would give his life fighting for his beliefs in the climactic battle of Ebro.

This battle would see the Republican army crushed by Franco, supported both by Mussolini’s Italian fascists and Hitler’s Nazis and all but signaled the curtain call for democratic forces in Spain. The free air force would no longer operate as an effective fighting force and the territories loyal to the Republic were split in two. John was one of as many as 30,000 men who died during the brutal battle that lasted from July to November. After the battle Franco would go on to win the war and Spain would not return to democracy until the late 70’s, after Franco’s death.

While John’s story has a sad ending, John is far from forgotten. Listed on the roll of honour for the International Brigade he was also honoured by Cunninghame District Council in 1988 who would erect a plaque on the anniversary of his death at Irvine Library. More recently he would be remembered by the North Ayrshire Trade Union Council who would host a townhouse memorial gathering in 2017 and raise a memorial stone to John in 2018.

It is important to remember John’s story because he was an inspiration to many, both during and after his life. A hero who believed so strongly in the ideals of democracy and justice that he would take up arms at the idea that someone, anywhere would be denied either. John’s example would inspire his own family and his own brother would become a councillor in 1945. It is important that we continue to honour and remember his legacy in our community.

Glasgow Gig Economy

by Alex Osborne

We are currently living through the gig economy, a situation where more and more people are working freelance or on short term contracts for companies. Something that is being sold to us as a way of working more flexibly that, more often than not, boils down to a company that you work for withholding your workers’ rights.

A particular service that is becoming a hotbed of legal debate and industrial action is food delivery services like Ubereats and Deliveroo. Drivers for these companies are typically classed as contractors rather than workers so that companies can avoid giving them things ranging from holiday pay and sick pay, to simpler things like a guarantee of work the next day. This loose legal standing allows these companies to mistreat their workers with little to no recourse. In one particularly Dickensian example Deliveroo dismissed over a 100 of its drivers from across the country with no warning days before Christmas last year.  

Drivers for these companies have, however, started to organize. Poor pay and difficult working conditions, typical of the gig economy, has led delivery drivers in London to go on strike at the time of writing. This is not the first case of this to occur, similar strikes occurred in Plymouth last year and in our own Glasgow drivers from Ubereat and Deliveroo teamed up with the Industrial Workers of the World to form the Couriers Network Scotland in April of last year.

The CNS condensed their demands into what they call “The 3 W’s”. A guaranteed minimum wage, a reduction in the time wasted in between deliveries (which drivers are not paid for) and welfare for drivers in the form of adequate safety equipment. These demands may seem simple, a minimum wage and safety precautions at work, but this exemplifies the lack of support workers in the gig economy are provided.

The poor working conditions affect more groups than solely delivery drivers, nearly 3 million workers in the UK as of 2017 were classified as working within the gig economy, with work ranging to pretty much anything that would let an employer classify their employees as independent contractors.

I say employer’s rather than company intentionally, in October 2018 foster carers from both the Foster Care Workers Union and Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain protested in George Square as various local authorities were not providing their foster care workers with any protections to unfair dismissal, using the same arguments that exploitative for-profit private companies make use of.

While the legal and industrial battles still rage on to this day groups like the Couriers Network and Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain are fighting against the exploitative and precarious work offered by the gig economy. If you’re a worker in the gig economy consider reaching out to groups like the Couriers network and see what can be done in your area.

Photo by Artur Kraft on Unsplash

Food Bank Struggle

by James McLean

As a community North Ayrshire has had it’s fair share of difficulty over the years. Our wee patch of Scotland, famed for things like delicious tatties and hardworking dairy cows, is still somehow constantly topping lists of worst in Scotland for poverty. This won’t be a startling realisation for anyone that has had to grow up in one of the many schemes in the area.

For a place that was once filled with industry; North Ayrshire suffers from a lack of employment opportunities, an ineffective welfare system and poor wages for many of those that do find employment for themselves. In 2017 it was recorded that almost a quarter of households in North Ayrshire were workless and we are second only to Glasgow in terms of children living in poverty.

All of these things and more have resulted in an increasing number of struggling people turning to help from the local food banks. The North Ayrshire food bank has been open for 6 years now and has been invaluable in ensuring that the generosity of people donating food is sorted and applied effectively to those that need help in the community. Last year alone the food bank handed out 5124 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis and is looking to continue to help those in need going forward. This means that a steady supply of donations is required to keep up with demand.

After a seemingly bountiful December the food bank took to social media on the 2nd of May with an urgent appeal. “Donations urgently required. We are now unable to fulfil our orders for food parcels and we are turning people away.” There has since been a number of donations from various businesses and locals but how long until the next shortage?

In a community as troubled as ours we shouldn’t fall into apathy. In a modern society everyone should have access to food to feed themselves and their families. As we seem to be consistently ruled by a government that cares little for the poorest in our country and are constantly surrounded by negativity and struggle it is up to us, the people, to do what we can to take care of each other.

If you feel you would like to help check out their website at

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