When I graduated from my Master’s course last November, I was under no illusions about the job market. After my undergraduate course ended in 2012 I worked on what I liked to call a semi-freelance basis, which was basically a made up, fancy way of saying I signed on in between paid jobs. I took on a Master’s course after two years of voluntary work and short term contracts, finally figuring out what I wanted to do and swearing that I wouldn’t fall in to the same trap next time.
As it turns out, that’s only well and good when the situation is within your control.
A couple of weeks ago, I lost my job. Well, I say ‘lost’, as if there was something I’d done for it to disappear. What I should say is, it was taken from me. I’d been working in a bar since my dissertation term at university, and it suited me fine: I could study during the day and work at night time, working as and when required. It didn’t demand anything that detracted from my studies and it was an industry I’d worked in for the best part of ten years. I could do it in my sleep. As I said, I graduated in November. More accurately, the last week in November, not exactly a banner time of year for graduate job openings. I was quite happy to keep on keeping on until the new year, since the Christmas period in hospitality is pretty much like printing money (if you don’t mind being sworn at, not getting a break and crawling into your pit as everyone else is rising to their morning alarm). I stuck it out throughout Hogmanay, new year and beyond, all the while applying for anything remotely related to my degree. The Big Opportunity didn’t come, but I was undeterred. I’d only been an official graduate for a month or so. Very few graduates, even Master’s ones, walk into their dream career mere months after leaving university. Plus, at the very least, I still had the bar job.
Until, suddenly, I didn’t. A couple of weeks ago, on a Monday only notable for being freakishly warm, I got a phone call from my manager. It was an hour or so before I was due to leave for work, so I just assumed they wanted me to come in earlier (this happened on at least a weekly basis). Nope. Instead I was told that, effective immediately, I was to be removed from the rota. No warning, no reason and no explanation given at all. I wasn’t given a chance to appeal my case, or even work out the rest of the week. In the space of one phone call my source of income, and livelihood, were gone, and no one even had the good grace to give me a solid reason why. Having never been fired before, I wasn’t sure how to feel. I’ve been made redundant, but that’s different. Redundancy is usually because there’s a mass cull, because something’s happened at a higher level than you (like a company going into administration, or liquidation, or generally just shutting down). When you’re the only one being fired, and you honestly can’t think of a reason why, you can’t help but think it might be personal.
So you can imagine how amusing I found it when the aforementioned bar announced they were temporarily closing as a protest at “the state of the world”. You know what? That’s something we actually agree on. The world is a state. We live in a world where people on the lowest wage it’s possible to pay are treated as disposable and replaceable. People can say that they sympathise with you, but no one’s going to speak up when an unscrupulous employer has them over a barrel. If someone can be tossed out for no reason, you’re damn sure you’ll be next for complaining. There are over 800,000 people in the UK on zero hour contracts, and in today’s economy there are plenty more people who’d be willing to replace them if the opportunity arose. Hell, I’d take one right now, because there’s nothing empowering about being a 29 year old Master’s graduate applying for every job going in between job centre appointments. Zero hour contract staff might only be 2.5% of the workforce, but they’re probably about 80% of the workforce of the next bar or restaurant you go into.
Staff in zero hour jobs have absolutely no contractual rights, and it’s not only in the hospitality industry: last year fashion retailer USC made dozens of staff in its head office redundant when its parent company, Sports Direct, went into administration. This covered everyone from the warehouse to the office: I know, because I was one of them. Staff were called into a meeting twenty minutes after their shift to be told that they were surplus to requirements. These were people with homes, families and lifestyles to support. As for the staff on contracts, they were fine. Their jobs were safe, because it’d cost more to deal with the fallout from firing them than it would to keep them on. The government is trying to hold Mike Ashley- a man who looks like the human embodiment of the word ‘conglomerate’- accountable for Sports Direct’s treatment of their staff , and the case has been pretty well publicised. Even Glasgow-based chain G1 Group, synonymous with creepy two way mirrors and making staff pay for their own uniforms and training, reversed their policy on the minimum wage (after being publicly named and shamed for not doing so, but it’s all in the name of progress, innit).
So why don’t staff do anything about it? Why are these practices being allowed to continue?
It’s easy to say that people should speak up about it, but it’s hard to make yourself heard when you don’t have any rights. In my case, I spent a few days putting together a case for Citizens’ Advice over unfair dismissal. My claim met every single one of the points on their site: were you given prior warning? Were you given appropriate training to improve your performance? Was the correct procedure for discipline followed? Were you given appropriate notice? No, nope, nuh-uh and, guess what, heavy naw. It’s expensive to take your claim to a hearing, but I was certain enough that I had one to pursue. Unfortunately I was informed that my length of service wasn’t substantial enough, but that I might have a case for wrongful dismissal, and they were helpful enough to point me in the right direction. I reiterated everything I’d just said to ACAS, only to be dealt the blow that “you don’t have a right to a claim because you were on a zero hour contract”. Employers aren’t obliged to give you hours, and they don’t have to give you any notice when you’ve outlived your purpose. The salt in the wound?
“Staff on zero hour contracts aren’t regarded as employees, they’re regarded as workers”.
BURN. It was said so flippantly, but it hit home hard. The only helpful advice I got from this exchange was that I’d need to take the matter to my local MSP if I wanted to take it further. The benefit of having a left-leaning government (in Scotland, anyway) is that steps have already been made to address the issue of zero hour contracts. It’s been raised by the Scottish Business Pledge, a voluntary commitment by employers to address key issues faced by the Scottish workforce. There are a lot of great points on it: namely that zero hour contracts can be exploitative, that the living wage shouldn’t be a privilege and that principles of fairness and opportunity are upheld. It’s a great idea, sure, and could be the framework for a more developed and motivated workforce. However, it’s only voluntary, and I can’t see too many employers falling over themselves to pay their staff more or give them opportunities to progress. Not when they can fire them on a whim for someone who won’t complain.
That’s the downfall of a democracy, I guess- we have the right to speak up if something isn’t working but there’s also the right to opt out. In saying that, I wouldn’t rule this out as an avenue if you’re in a similar situation. My experiences with local government in the last week or so have been nothing but helpful, even if there’s nothing that can be done in the immediate future. Staff rights and legislation are a matter for Westminster (doom) but I was informed by my local MSP/First Minister’s office that the issue had been passed on to my local MP. I managed to discuss the matter at a surgery a few days ago, and they got back to me this morning (Monday 4th April). Yes, it’s still a Westminster issue but they’re not happy about it. There’s a definite move to get rid of dodgy zero hour contracts, but it’s a slow process.
The thing is, I’m not completely against zero hour contracts- not in theory, anyway. They’re great for people with commitments to work around, whether it’s study, family or other pursuits. However, that flexibility of hours shouldn’t come at such a high price. People shouldn’t be punished because of the contract that they’re on. I’m lucky that I have no dependents and had a bit of money saved, but what if I hadn’t? What if I had children to support, or a mortgage to repay? What about all the people who still work under these shitty conditions, who have to put up with low pay, their hours being cut or their tips being confiscated to make up for their employers’ debt? There are countless petitions online to ban zero hours contracts, but I’m not sure if that’s the solution. Sometimes people choose them because they need a bit of control over their work schedules, or because (in an ideal world) they can work as little or as many hours as they like. They allowed me to work around my studies and pick up full time hours during holidays. What we need to see instead is employers being held accountable, and for the efforts of zero hour staff to be recognised in the same way as contracted staff. Two people in the same role shouldn’t have different rights and job security, just because one of them isn’t protected by worker legislation. The same procedures should be followed regardless of the level, pay grade or contract that the individual staff member is on. We need a change in attitude wherein staff are given the chance to improve and progress before they’re thrown away. Zero hours shouldn’t mean zero rights and the longer it goes on, the worse off we’ll be.