Labour Needs to Do More for People in Crap, Unstable Jobs
Their assault on the "Rigged Economy" is a good start, but it doesn't really get what a lot of work is like today.
A protester highlighting crappy hospitality jobs (Photo by Simon Childs)
This time a year ago I was a junior manager in a high-street chain pizza restaurant. Probably the one you're thinking of right now. While I was there I made friends with our area's assigned pest control operative, whose name was Liam, or "Rentokil dude", depending on which member of staff you asked.
Liam and I were about the same age, both doing work we hadn't really seen coming. We got on well: I practiced my latte art on his free drinks and he gave me updates on the wedding he and his partner were planning. There was also something else we'd chat about, too. He'd also been a restaurant manager for a high-street chain restaurant, and whenever people asked him how on earth he could be satisfied with daily rats and pigeon shit, his answer always hit me in the gut: "It's ten times more dignified than restaurant work."
I'd forgive you if you weren't completely convinced by my sample of exactly one pest control operative, but for me, this assessment rings true. After two years of 12-hour shifts, spending all day on my feet, having to choose between Christmas and New Year to spend with my family, being treated like a useful ghost by people who spent more on school fees per term than I got paid in a year, the pigeons were starting to call to me too.
I'm not special, though. The hospitality and tourism industries employ approximately 4.49 million people – around one in every ten UK workers. Many of them are young people and migrant workers, who are disproportionately precariously employed. While I share some of the concerns about labour conditions worsening as a result of Brexit, what I think people don't realise (even well-meaning Remainers) is that our labour protections have already been decimated.
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Take, for example, the EU Working Time Directive. It supposedly compels employers to make sure staff have a minimum 11 hours of rest time before ending one shift and beginning the next, that they don't work more than 48 hours in a week, as well as outlining guidelines for what breaks you're entitled to.
That's all fine, but the problem is in the word "directive". The WTD is a set of guidelines – when it was interpreted into UK law it came with a big get out clause, allowing employers to "empower applicants with the choice" (as they often put it) of opting out. If you want the job you've got to tick the opt out box – or they'll find someone else who will, and you'll find yourself empowered all the way back to Jobcentre+. Losing it will make barely any difference to many young people if we remain powerless in our working lives and continue to be governed by employment law that's full of loopholes.
The longest shift I ever did was 17 hours. The reality of bottom bracket salaried jobs in the service industry is that they allow employers to circumvent the minimum wage. A fixed salary often means that in a particularly long working week, the employer squeezes extra hours out of the worker as their actual hourly pay dips well below minimum wage.
Politics is so often focused on mythical, salt of the earth "small business owners" and "hardworking families", often with little consideration for the people working for the small businesses on wages too crap to think about having kids.
Over the last couple of weeks I've had countless conversations with people 15 or 20 years older than me who have been genuinely astonished to learn that time-and-a-half, much less double time, no longer exists in the vast majority of workplaces. I've been paid extra on a Sunday in just one of the countless service jobs I've held since I started working in 2007 aged 15, waitressing in a café when the minimum wage for under 18s was less than £4 an hour. Starting there, I plucked up the courage to ask my new boss – an ageing double glazing tycoon who hired exclusively young women for reasons I'd rather not examine too closely – about the pay. His eyes flashed when he told me: "£3.90. Don't spend it all at once, love."
"If we're going to have a discussion about labour protections and dignity for workers in the UK, we desperately need to make sure that discussion includes everyone."
The divide in our society isn't just between rich and poor; it's between precariously and securely employed. Mention the changes in labour protections to someone from the previous generation and they are incredulous. "We used to fight for bank holiday shifts – the pay was so much better!" (Great, wanna give me some of it?) "When did this happen? How do they get away with it?"
The answer is that they get away with it because people don't know about it. Labour's commitment to an end to zero hours contracts is admirable, but the one-dimensional commitment to introducing more bank holidays leaves me cold. It reveals the same gap in their thinking; that the service and retail workers who quietly lubricate the wheels of middle-class leisure time are invisible to them. For me, bank holidays meant busier shifts, more kids, longer hours and expectations that outstrip what we're paid for. I'll never forget the bank holiday Monday when I led a large family group over to the last empty table in my restaurant, and realised – at exactly the same time they did – that the little girl from the previous party had vomited under a chair and attempted to hide it with gravel from the garden, like a sickly cat with pigtails.
If we're going to have a discussion about labour protections and dignity for workers in the UK, we desperately need to make sure that discussion includes everyone. This can only happen if Labour's MPs and policymakers have a better understanding of how work actually functions in the country they aspire to run, and if their political imagination entertains a more radical vision.
We could start perhaps with holidays where everything shuts – they manage it on the continent, after all. Or even a holiday specifically for the people who usually make other people's holidays as stress free as possible, cooking their kids' pizza and doing their washing up in the back, unseen. Or even just holidays where people in the service industry are properly remunerated, like in the halcyon days your Uncle Kevin remembers and the men in my Twitter mentions keep telling me about, as if by sheer force of mansplaining they might transport me back there to see it for myself.
Improving the lives of young workers isn't just a moral stance, either; those one in ten workers are potential voters, too, and offering better labour protections means offering them a better quality of life. If Labour wants to be the party of the future when the Tory votes start dying off, they'd do well to think about work policies that mean recognition and dignity for young people and the jobs we do – or else they're going to have an improbably hefty pest control workers' union to negotiate with come 2025.