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What It's Like to Work for Less Than the Minimum Wage

My boss gave me a GPS tracker, I lost a stone in weight, and barely earned enough money to live.

by Richard Owain Roberts
06 December 2016, 12:05am


Illustration: Dan Evans

It is 5:30AM and Paul is explaining the core ethos behind his leafleting business. "I've got no time for moaners, bitchers, weak-minded individuals. I'm literally paying you to walk. Walk hard. Get paid. Go home."

I grin and nod my head as Paul talks me through the company history and importance of workers "representing the brand positively on each street, close, and cul-de-sac". I get the impression that Paul has frequently imagined delivering this spiel direct to camera. After a possibly improvised bit on the evils of snapbacks ("They literally scream drugs") Paul segues into a vague explanation of the benefits of being self-employed and thus avoiding the many punitive constraints of traditional employment law. "If you walk quick enough and work hard enough you'll be on a good amount above minimum wage, so... like is true in life, you'll get out what you put in," he says, handing me a tablet so I can sign on and officially embrace his utopian work-scape.

One of the "benefits" of being self-employed is that Paul doesn't have to pay us minimum wage because we don't actually count as workers. Other ways people like Paul get away with not paying the minimum wage, according to Citizens Advice, includes hiding staff rotas so staff cant prove how many hours they've worked, docking pay for no reason or to cover accommodation costs, or just not paying up at all. The charity helped with 380,000 employment issues in 2015. One in six of these related to pay and entitlements – which was a four percent rise on the year before. And they're just the ones who've reported it.

I start my job on June of 2016. As I wait to go out on my first shift I notice that the other workers – there are about 10 of them when I first arrive – are talking mostly about getting "good map" (densely housed streets that will be quicker and easier to deliver to) and wanting to get going as soon as possible. I'm conscious that I wouldn't normally be awake for another couple of hours, but I feel grateful to have seen the online advert for this job. I start talking to a Belgian guy called Phillipe who introduces me to a few of the other workers. I get to know most of the early starters fairly well and find it relaxing and fun to be in such mixed company; one car journey sees Kieron, a part-time mechanic, asking an anarchist fregan called Doom to explain dumpster diving.

Four of us drive 20 minutes to an affluent suburb and load each of our bags with an assortment of 2,500 leaflets advertising pizza takeaways, letting agents and a mobile barber. It's still dark outside and my backpack feels incredibly heavy. 'At least the persistent drizzle will keep me nice and cool,' I think. Seven hours later I deliver my last leaflet of the shift. Sweat drips from the tip of my nose onto my phone screen as I calculate the hourly wage for today's shift as £5.20. 'Probably a one-off,' I think.

Over the course of my first week, my hourly wage averages £5.50, a shortfall of £1.70 on the £7.20 minimum wage for adults over 25. I ask Roland, who has worked here for over three years, if this is normal. "Ups and downs, mate. Paul's a piss-taker – always gives me the shitty maps. I'll be leaving in the new year anyway; I'm looking at getting an ice cream van." Roland tells me that along with this job, which he does seven days a week, he also works three evenings a week delivering for his brother-in-law's Chinese takeaway. I ask Roland what kind of jobs he had before this and he tells me he went straight from school into a metal works factory, where he worked alongside his four brothers for 25 years until the factory shut. Now in his late fifties, Roland has gone from earning £600 a week at the factory to barely clearing £300 from two jobs.

On my last day working with Roland, I get chased through an estate by a Shar-Pei pit bull cross. I tell Roland that I was terrified and threw half a bundle, about 150 loose leaflets, directly up in the air as I ran away. When Roland stops laughing he asks me why I threw the bundle in the air and not at the dog. I say that I don't know; perhaps I was afraid of making the dog even angrier. "Fair play at the end of the day," Roland says, trying, I think, to make me feel less pathetic. I ask him if he's considered looking for better paid and less dangerous work; he tells me that he applies for countless jobs but that his age, along with an absence of formal qualifications, means he rarely gets an interview. "I'm a grafter at the end of the day, but I'm getting to an age now... fuck it, I'll keep going... but I promise you I'm getting that ice cream van next year," he says.

During my second week I start arriving for work a little later, hoping that going out with different people will lead to a change of luck with the map allocation. I end up spending most days with OJ; he's an interesting guy and I like listening to him talk about his Volvo 480, the apps he has in development with his wife, the sci-fi novel he's writing and the massive amount of drugs he regularly ingests. I ask OJ if, as a computer science PhD, it bothers him working for less than minimum wage. "Listen, buddy," he says, "rain's expected by 11, we're not staying out longer than half 10, quarter to. Don't worry – we'll make it right with the numbers."

OJ goes on to explain the techniques that allow him and his team members to get away with posting only around 60 percent of the leaflets and therefore finishing in a time that will mean they'll have earned at least minimum wage during their shift. The most interesting method is called "phantom posting". The process involves stopping in between houses, stepping towards where an imaginary door would be, waiting a second and then carrying on to the next legit house. The GPS tracker we have to carry in our backpacks will suggest an extra house has been delivered to, meaning that if this is done often enough a significant portion of the daily target can be safely written off. There are other less embarrassing ways around the ludicrously high delivery targets, but OJ tells me that, to his knowledge, this is the safest method.

I finish this shift at quarter to 11, meaning my hourly rate is just over £9. In the car on the way home I ask OJ if he has any reservations over what we've done. "No. I mean, if you treat people like idiots they'll try and fuck you over in return," he says. "Paul can arbitrarily sack as many people as he wants, trying to scare people into not dumping leaflets or whatever, but it'll keep happening. Just make sure you dump smart – this is a nice gig to have if you do stuff outside of work."

In truth, the energy expended on manipulating the rules – plus the paranoia and tension it creates every morning at the office – feels like a lot of effort for not that much concrete reward. It's definitely enjoyable to feel like you're getting one over on a pretty unpleasant boss, but it's strange to have to go to these lengths to avoid ending up with such a dire hourly rate.

Three weeks in, I call Paul and tell him I won't be coming back in after the weekend. Paul says OK and immediately hangs up. People like me and OJ could easily quit when we get sick of the job. We'd find something else if we got fired. We were just doing it to tide us over for some ease extra cash.

But then I think about Roland and how hard he worked, how tired he always looked, and wonder whether Paul always gave him the shitty maps because he knew how much he needed the money. There are plenty of people like Roland – working as cleaners, in care homes and in illegal labour exchanges, ostensibly protected by the law but in reality exploited every working day.

Immigrants might be leading the charge for British workers' rights and pay, launching lawsuits left and right and winning concessions from companies like Deliveroo, but this only works when employers are held accountable. Unfortunately, so many others manage to get away with it, meaning it's not hard to find others in a similar position to Roland: grown adults working for less per hour than a teenager would serving popcorn at an Odeon.

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