I must start by letting regular readers know Dom and I have put our new life plans on hold. The reason for this enforced change to our plans fits into a bigger picture, one that highlights something rotten, possibly institutionally corrupt, lurking at the core of Britain’s unskilled job market.
It was just events that pushed us into our new life a little sooner than we would have liked, and even with the help of a generous relative, we were still embarking a new life with very little in the way of savings to cushion us. Just six weeks after moving ourselves, our belongings and pet rabbit Gary to our new rural home, our shoestring budget has finally worn down through the final thread and snapped. All attempts to find work have ultimately failed. So, as I cannot write about the continuing adventure of my exciting new life, I will instead use the benefit of my experiences of the last year to tell you about what it’s like to be a menial worker in 2019 Britain. I dare say, that no matter where you live, you will find disturbing parallels.
Of course, I want to be a writer and I spend my spare time working toward that end. I don’t want a career within a company. As I have no trade, no skill (besides writing, and even that you may find somewhat questionable) I have spent most of my work life in menial jobs, often selling my time to companies in exchange for the minimum national wage (which is not the same as a living wage, please note).
It seems employers are not what they used to be. That’s basically the long and short of it. I’ve had dealings with several employers for the last 12 months, and here I am to out them publicly and reveal what a sorry state some of this country’s biggest companies are in when it comes to recruitment and staff retention.
I’ll start by going back to April 2018 when I was working for a pharmacy. I won’t discuss this company by name, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, to a degree, because they were a very young company when I began my nine month stint, last summer. Great people worked there, and probably still do but not to put too fine a point on it – the excrement hit the fan there for a while. They completely under-estimated the demand for their genuinely novel product and put themselves in a right old pickle. Luckily, the company director had some super dedicated people there, slaving away, in front and behind the scenes to make the show a success. Eventually, the bad times passed, and those that had not fled in abject panic at the chaos and occasional hysteria created by the impossible challenges of an over-subscribed service, were rewarded with the most thankless set of changes to their contracts of employment I have ever seen. In a previous life, I spent three years working for the RAC, I’ve come to know a thing or two about bum deals for the “phone monkeys” but this contract put the breakdown company’s crummy contracts into a category of their own, called Not Looking So Awful Now, Eh? I won’t bore you with the details, let it suffice to say the new contract precipitated one walk out and two resignations, within days of it being handed out.
Mine was one of the resignations received because I quickly found myself a similar job with a social housing association. Similar but with better pay money and terms, plus perks and all sorts. Unfortunately, my three week training period left me unprepared for the sheer amount of ‘antisocial behaviour cases’ (as they were called) that I had to log as part of my job. At my estimation, these anti-social behaviour logs made up about 55% of the calls I took, far more than I had been led to believe. Whether it was partly down to unfortunate timing, I can’t say, but going to work for a housing association, just as the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire began (in which 84 people died), was certainly not the most canny career move ever made. Again, whether down to timing or not, the word “contemptuous” was thrown around quite a lot by their tenants.
A large portion of that job also involved logging tenants problems – big and small – for the attention of their housing officer, who invariably didn’t want to know, or was too busy to deal with everything that came their way. Assuming I could contact them, that is. It soon became apparent that I was contracted simply to log calls correctly. This involved detailed questions about repair work reported by the tenants. It was my job too weed out the ones that were making a fuss about nothing and log it correctly (according to Stonewater Housing, having no hot water and rampant mould in a child’s bedroom is not considered a priority). During my three months, I had dozens of drug or violence related calls come through to me. One morning I received an email advising myself and fellow colleagues we may get calls from journalists after a tenant hung himself in a communal hallway of one of the buildings.
I have a social conscience that I can’t just put away. As I walked away from the office for the last time, I remember thinking “so, that’s why they pay so well.”
Oh dear. It was only July and already I’d been through two different jobs. That’s more jobs in one year than in the first decade of my working life so far!
Onwards and, as it turned out, downwards. I won a decent little job for Chubb, the Fire and Security experts. I’d been such a hit at the interview, they couldn’t wait for me to start, or so I was told. After one week of being informed I’d got the job, I was still waiting for Chubb to give me a start date. After two weeks(!) of waiting, and after a good deal of metaphorical arm-twisting, I was finally informed, over the ‘phone, that the company was having an internal “head count” and all new starters had to wait until the audit was complete. Okaay then.
Getting fed up of waiting for Chubb to finish their audit, I found a job working for salvage giants, Co-Part. I was told I’d be earning £9.89 per hour. It turned out to be £8.69. Not to worry, I thought. It was something stable at last, and unlike the housing association, everyone there cared very much about what they did. Oh boy did they care. They cared very, very much and ran themselves ragged over it. There were frequent arguments about the best way to do something. Never have I encountered such strained bonhomie in between those bouts.
Staff fighting amongst themselves for the best end result is great if you happen to be at the top profiting from this posturing, or even the customer, but it’s not so great when you have to liaise with these hard-at-work jobsworths every day. People who take you to task for – gasp! – writing in the wrong notepad! Clearly it wasn’t enough that I was doing things on their internal system people who’d been there 5 years couldn’t be bothered to do, that’s nothing compared to committing the apparently cardinal sin of jotting down phone numbers to bodyshops on the wrong piece of lined paper.
As Christmas at CoPart was slightly less preferable than spending the festive season smeared with Marmite in a shark tank, I figured if I was going to work all day with grumpy 50-somethings, I might as well go back to where I started my working life, with Royal Mail.
It was with absolute delight that I relieved myself, via resignation, of encounters with the most sullen and grumpy people I’d ever encountered in one place, in exchange for the comparative paradise of Royal Mail. Good pay, fair bosses and decent colleagues. At last.
My joy was short-lived. Royal Mail paid me £1 per hour less than I’d been contracted for. It was discussed with my managers week after week and every week I was promised it’d be rectified, and every week it wasn’t. Then one week, the week before Christmas, I didn’t get paid at all. Why? It turned out, again after much metaphorical arm-twisting to get to the truth, that the payroll department processed a ‘change of bank account form’, submitted by another employee, and mixed up their details up with mine. Two weeks later, I finally got the wages I was owed, but only after I’d threatened to blockade the entrance to the mail centre with my car and stop the lorries laden with mail from entering. So much for a fair day’s work rewarded with a fair day’s pay.
Next Clothing were up, erm, next. I’ve only once left a job with nowhere to go, so to anticipate the drying up of Royal Mail’s seasonal work, I signed on with an agency and was given a warehouse job. This overlapping buffer job also helped to fill that increasing shortfall in my other pay packet.
According to the agency, Next a was twelve weeks guaranteed work. But like Royal Mail, there were days when the guaranteed work dried up and everyone were sent home 2-3 hours early. It’s a frequent occupational hazard for menial workers.
I think the lowlight of the two months I spent at the clothing warehouse was being yelled at by a woman enjoying a little power trip. I’d apparently incensed her by placing a coat hanger in the wrong box. One day, the same team leader asked an exhausted group of 20 people, to wait around at the end of a 9 hour shift. I stood, trying my best not to get annoyed, as she berated us at the top of her voice because somebody had failed to fold a swimming costume for a whale correctly. Well, that’s what this horrendous swathe of navy blue with white polka dots looked like. You see, those of us who weren’t getting £7.98 per hour and were blessed to be earning an extra fifty pence each, were therefore expected to live, breathe and shit Next Clothing for every under-paid hour of our association.
In the end, the guaranteed twelve weeks of work dried up after eight. Ah well, such is life. After all it’s unwise to expect two companies (the agency and Next) to communicate effectively to one another, and completely unreasonable to hope Next would have a tighter control on the huge influx of unwanted staff they received courtesy of their appointed agencies.
My time at Next Clothing at least re-awakened my long forgotten skills at folding trousers. The job consisted almost entirely of removing garments from their polythene bags, folding them neatly, and then sealing them into a new plastic bag. That’s a plastic bag for each garment individually. The people who run Next obviously didn’t watch the Blue Planet but I bet they’re relieved at not being charged 12p per bag like the rest of us.
So, we’re into 2019 by now and with Next in the past, it was time to press on with our plans to move onto our two acres with the shed. Events beyond our control forced us to move, before we had adequate funds but if we could find some work within 1 month of being there, we’d be fine. And we did.
Dominique had already landed herself a job in a chip job when we were both taken on by a local insurance company called Go Life. Two days before our training was scheduled to begin, Dom packed in the chippy (so to speak) and we readied ourselves for the oncoming of some much needed cash. It was a bit of a blow when the training was postponed once. When it happened again, it was not welcome but we hung on because they assured us it’d be happening on March 27th. It didn’t.
To digress for a moment, Go Life told us we’d each get £150 for the first week, which would consist of just three days training. When the training was cancelled, it took just a day for us to be contacted with yet another start date they had in mind. This time training would last five days, between 10am and 5pm, still at £150 each for the week. It doesn’t take any calculation at all to find this falls some way short of the legal minimum wage adults over the age of 25 are entitled to. But what can workers do about this?
You can report such companies to the local authority, who then investigate it and contact the company in question, to find out if this was deliberate or an honest error. This process usually takes weeks to complete so, there’s a good chance the worker has moved on in the meantime, no doubt feeling short-changed and quite possibly poverty-stricken. It’s obviously over stating the case to say Dom and I would be poverty stricken for being paid £150, before tax, after just a week of earning lower than the legal amount, but what if we were stuck on those wages for months? In areas like west Wales, where jobs are not as plentiful as other, more built up areas, it’s not inconceivable that somebody might find themselves in a position where they’re forced to simply carry on, put up and shut up, as it were, because even if the council had found the employer guilty of breaking the law, they’re not going to fight for your back pay. In other words, the current system allows employers to get away with whatever they like.
The gender pay gap between equally skilled male and female staff with the same job has been allowed to fester away unchallenged for decades under this system. Even when the disparity hits the headlines, companies still don’t feel challenged enough to act. Stronger, enforced government legislation is what’s needed, but with so many politicians owning shares in some of the biggest and most corrupt companies in the land, things aren’t likely to change any time soon.
Back to my story, then. So, March 27th comes with the early morning news that the training we waited two weeks for, was now cancelled. With our money pot empty, it was with heavy hearts we decided to return to Bristol where opportunities for skint 30-somethings are more plentiful. In fact, a recruitment agency were able to put me in a job for Monday 1st April. Excellent, I thought. Money coming in at last. No. I received a call just a day later, “Sorry, they’ve drafted in someone from another branch so you’re not needed on Monday.” It was apparently a mad scramble for the agency to contact me before Monday, because their client sent an email at 4.55 on a Friday afternoon to advise their agents that I wasn’t required. An email. Not a phone call. What if the agency hadn’t seen it in time to warn me? Their client, Hills Waste, obviously didn’t give a damn about whether I might have a wasted journey on Monday morning, they’d covered themselves by sending the email, so to hell with whether or not the message would be passed to me, the nothing worker, in time. The excrement continues to snowball.
So, over here we have somebody who, although incredibly cynical and weary with the bollocks of it all, is switched-on, experienced, keen to work and eager to earn. Hello! And over there we have a bunch of reputable employers and agencies that couldn’t organise a fart in a baked bean factory.
My first job was with the (still) heavily unionised Royal Mail. I can tell you, the staff under them probably wouldn’t even believe my story, such is the protection from exploitation they enjoy under their trade union, and it’s exploitation that’s the problem. Companies are built-in the UK on cheap labour. Everyone is in constant competition for a never-ending series of exploitative company policies or just plain old stich-ups.
The job market is a certainly buyer’s market, from an employer’s point of view. After all, there’s 27 other EU member states absolutely teeming with workers to exploit, many of whom have no idea the standards that were fought for in previous decades. Workers from countries whose parents would’ve “disappeared”, had they spoke out about situations such as this. Bottom line: big companies like foreign workers because they’re easily trampled over. Not only that, it forces everyone to fall in and accept the situation, or lose out, instead of holding on for that increasing rare beast; a fair deal. My experience of the last 12 months has shown me how consistently companies, big or small, simply do not care about their workers – be they casual or permanent. How has this been allowed to get so bad?
To me, it seems the mid 1990’s were the start of three decades of worker apathy. Too trusting in working directives from the European Union, and benefiting too nicely from guaranteed holiday and maternity leave to think twice about the rapidly deteriorating situation. Coupled with three to four decades of increasingly impotent trade unions, suffering waning support year on year, it’s given birth to a system where companies can exploit unrepresented workers without fear of reprisal. To them, the shelves are constantly full of interchangeable, low-paid staff. There’s even less incentive than in the past to treat employees, or potential employees, well or with a little respect.
The employers have got it all sewn up with the system heavily stacked in their favour but what about the worker? Well, you can have your start date postponed, cancelled or forgotten about. You can have the terms of your permanent contract changed on a whim because companies know the only way you can really “fight” it, is to vote with your feet and leave. It’s a system where they can pay as little as they like, without recrimination, public or private. Now, with a system like that – is it any wonder the populace kick against it when they’re given the opportunity?
How can we have some social commentary on No Script for Life without mentioning that all-prevailing big ‘B’? We can’t, sadly because the UK coming out of the EU could mean the end to free movement, meaning there’d no longer be a bottomless well of staff for companies to mistreat. Those who voted ‘Leave’ in the 2016 referendum may well feel vindicated by reading about this experience of mine but there’s a good chance the UK’s exit will leave a clear a path for politicos of the not-so distant future to gradually strip away guaranteed stuff like holiday, minimum wage etcetera, until they fade away, never to return, except in the form of company perks, or “benefits”, as they’d no doubt be called.
I will recap.
The Pharmacy – changed my contract without warning and replaced it with longer hours, less pay, and revolting conditions of employment..
Stonewater Housing – Expected me to put my social conscience and human decency in the bin in exchange for £20,000 P.A
Chubb Fire and Security – offered a job without a start date. I’m still waiting, guys.
Royal Mail – paid me the wrong wages for the whole of my 3 months with them and failed to pay me due to an internal cock-up the week before Christmas.
Next – paid low wages, expected the Earth and ditched 40 members of staff without warning. (And used up single use polythene bags like the resulting environmental crisis didn’t matter).
Go Life Insurance – postponed the start date 3 times and offered wages for the week of training far below the legal average.
As we’re all consumers, and some are very environment-minded consumers, you’re entitled to know what these companies are like, before you choose to send that parcel via Royal Mail, or before you buy a polo neck shirt from Next.
I apologise if I sound somewhat annoyed, bitter or angry. After all, nobody wants vitriolic hyperbole slammed down their throats. To be honest, I’m more shocked than anything. The last twelve months have been a real eye opener. At least these confused companies have given me the time to write this. If you didn’t enjoy reading, please remember it’s their fault, not mine.
If you did enjoy reading this, please tell your friends because it’d be great if I got enough visitors to make this website pay!
Copyright Martin Gregory. 2019.
Credits: Featured image copyright hrdailyadvisor.blr.com. Capitalist cartoon copyright Greg May