My life as a “precarious worker”

Submitted by AWL on 22 November, 2007 - 1:03 Author: A bar worker from Sheffield

I’m a second year university student working part-time in a service-sector job (a nightclub). Having the job means I never have to choose between buying books or buying lunch.

Although elements of the job are enjoyable and positive (interaction with customers is sometimes very rewarding, and benefits such as free tickets to events held in the club are worth having as a student) the amount of casual and not-so-casual exploitation that takes place is outrageous. It’s nothing unique, though; it’s endemic right across the service-sector and particularly in workplaces employing high numbers of young and student workers.

Management’s lack of concern for the welfare of its staff seems to pervade almost everything they do. CCTV cameras point toward our tills, spying on us to make sure we’re not stealing, rather than towards the bar to monitor customer behaviour and protect us from the abuse we routinely receive. Despite agreeing that I would only work two shifts a week during term-time, to allow me to stay on top of my studies, I have ended up working three shifts several times, on occasion putting in up to 30 hours of work in one week.

Staff have also been given stern talking-tos from management at various times for “falling standards”, in which we are lambasted for not smiling enough and not looking like we’re enjoying ourselves. I was recently personally disciplined (and in fact threatened with dismissal) because of “complaints” management had received about my “lack of effort”.

When I pressed my boss, he explained that my failings amounted to “being slow on your feet behind the bar”. After I pointed out that working up to three ten or eleven hour shifts in a single week while also trying to study for a degree will tend to take the spring out of your step, my boss replied that “that’s just the business we’re in. You can’t be tired. You can’t have bags under your eyes.”

Because we have no formal contracts of employment (just a couple of sheets of paper detailing various aspects of workplace protocol — stuff like who to ring if you’re sick and so on), bosses are pretty much free to summarily sack whoever they want, whenever they want, for whatever they want.

Other exploitative and dangerous elements of the job include being made to pick up broken glass without any protection, and sift through rubbish bags (also potentially containing broken glass) in order to separate glass (which we recycle) from other waste. This recycling policy is relatively new in our workplace. While I’m all in favour of workplaces trying to “green” themselves, I don’t think workers should suffer as a result!

Workers are also expected to help with set-up before club-nights, which often includes heavy lifting and handling electrical equipment left over from gigs that take place before the club-nights. Management provides no training for this. Bar-workers are sometimes also used as makeshift door-staff, despite not being capable of dealing with the situations that security workers are trained to deal with.

Although management insists that it allows workers to take breaks (under British law, all workers are entitled to 15 minutes paid break for every six hours worked), the reality is somewhat different. Workers must request breaks from a supervisor and as most club-nights are constantly busy (from 10.30pm-2.30am), there is rarely a convenient time to take one.

As the bars are normally staffed at the bare minimum level necessary to keep them functioning, taking the breaks to which we are legally entitled would mean massively increasing the workload for fellow workers.

Perhaps the most outrageous example of casual exploitation is management’s practice towards the end of clean-up (which can take several hours, meaning that after an “all-nighter” event finishing at 6am, workers will not be able to sign out until 8am or later). Most of the main exits are locked as soon as the club closes (a blatant safety hazard), and only one or two managers have the keys. This means that after workers have signed out, they cannot actually leave until a manager with a key can be found to let them out.

I have remained at work, unpaid, for almost an hour after finishing a shift because the manager was “too busy” to open the door.

Low-level sexual harassment is also endemic, with male managers routinely making “laddish”, sexist remarks to female workers. When I’ve spoken to my women colleagues about this, they’ve said that it’s probably “just banter” and they don’t want to make a fuss. Our workplace is not an environment in which workers feel confident about standing up to their bosses.

I’m a member of the GMB trade union, and although I try to speak to my colleagues about workplace issues and workers’ rights, it’s pretty difficult. Most people’s attitude is that, given that none of us are planning to make a “career” out of bar-work and that we only work a few nights a week, there’s no point causing any real trouble over the way we’re treated.

Most workers are reluctant to pay out from their meagre wages (we’re paid £5.35 an hour, and even “supervisors”, who have huge responsibility but no real managerial authority, are only paid £5.70) for trade union dues. If my union, or at least my union branch, was prepared to put some effort and resources into organisation campaigns amongst young workers in workplaces like mine, I’d feel more confident about trying to build the union.

But my branch is run by inert old men and few unions in Britain seem ready to learn the lessons of campaigns like “Supersize My Pay” from Australia and New Zealand, “Hotel Workers Rising” from America and various campaigns launched by syndicalist unions like the IWW in workplaces like Starbucks.

Although my situation is pretty grim, campaigns like those show that it is possible to organise young, hyper-exploited workers in precarious jobs and help them secure real gains. There are signs that some trade unions in the UK are beginning to think along the right lines; Unite (formerly TGWU and Amicus) is slowly expanding organisation campaigns around student-workers, albeit in a fairly bureaucratic fashion.

Hopefully I can use my experience as a precarious, low-paid worker to agitate in my union and the labour movement broadly to get British unions moving in the right direction.

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