Tuesday, 31 March 2015

G1? - Tip of the iceberg

Tip of the iceberg

At the weekend Sunday Mail contained further coverage of our campaign to bear down on the poor treatment of staff, in the fast food sector, in pubs and club chains and further afield.

Last week, much of the focus has been on the G1 Group, owned by Stefan King, following its naming and shaming as having short-changed its workers to the tune of £45,000 through illegal non-payment of the Minimum Wage.  This is of course entirely reprehensible and its right that it should be reported.

But what has emerged since the start of last week has been a litany of accounts of poor employment practice, beyond the non-payment of the Minimum Wage, which should shock any reasonable person.

Short-hours contracts and non-payment for hours worked

The Sunday Mail, reflecting the general mood, is very focussed on Zero-hours contracts.  They have rightly exposed the very many companies, including Sports Direct and MacDonalds who use them. However simply focussing on Zero-hours does not portray the full picture.

For example, G1 protests that “there are no zero-hours contracts” at the company, however “Staff can be sent home where the bar is not busy enough, where permitted by the contract”.  Quick translation – we issue short-hours contracts and as soon as the small number of contractual hours are fulfilled we can treat the worker just as if they were on zero-hours.

This story in the Daily Mirror today shows how firms use short-hours contracts in almost exactly the way to zero-hours contracts (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/argos-homebase-tesco-exploit-workers-3630972)

So no surprise to hear comments from those who have contacted us such as:

“I would often come into work only to be sent home with no pay”.

And of course, when the places are busy, the opposite is true.

“We were never paid past 4am but weren't allowed to leave if they still needed us.”

“We stopped being paid when the bar shut, but we obviously had to stay for longer to clean up and sort everything out.

“I was regularly getting out at 5am when I had stopped being paid at 3am.”

So it’s very important to recognise that a company which is not using zero-hours contracts can very often find other ways get around it.  It should also be remembered that as soon as someone on the Minimum Wage works for any period of time for nothing, their salary goes below the minimum.  That’s illegal.

Unfair, but also dangerous

Stretching the working day into the early hours without notice is unfair and dangerous.  Many G1 employees speak of being forced to work late and then having to walk home in the early hours, sometimes miles, to avoid having to pay themselves for a taxi at significant cost.

“the cost of a taxi would have taken away about a third of the money I made that night”

“No staff taxis when I worked at Cab Vol for them either, finishing between 3.30 and 5.30 in the morning I had to either walk home alone or pay for a taxi myself, which I wasn't about to do. They also clocked us out before we finished a lot, or went back to alter our clock-out times later.”

Working hours and no breaks

Most of the people we have spoken to report an expectation that staff will work through their breaks.

“The worst part is we would work 12 hour shifts on our feet with a 15 minute break, sometimes no break.”

“My main qualm was the fact that we got no breaks in 8-10 hour shifts. And it was the kind of job where you were constantly running around glass collecting, working at the bar or serving – it was a really busy place. I think I could have had a break maybe if I'd really pushed for one, because my manager was a nice guy, but no one did so didn't want to be the only one, y'know how it is (I was 20 at the time and a little less sure of myself”

The regulations stipulate minimum breaks dependant on hours worked. So the latter case breaks the law. As for the first, frighteningly, it is just proves just how minimal legal protection can be.  Individuals working a 12-hour shift are only entitled to one 20-minute break, unless the contract says otherwise.  This is one of very many reasons why, currently, the law cannot be relied upon to provide adequate protection.

But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it.  That’s where trade unions and political and consumer pressure come in.

Paying for uniforms

Every worker and former worker who has contacted us describes having to pay for their own uniform.

“We were told that black top, trouser and shoes were the uniform and that don’t tell them you can’t afford a shirt/trousers as Primark is cheap enough.  We had to pay for our own uniforms and were never told that we could claim it back.  I was working 3 nights back to back at the weekends in a sweaty club so getting home and getting clothes washed at 4 am was not possible so the purchase of multiple tops and trousers was necessary.  Although I only worked part time (20 hours) it was easy to wear out shoes every few weeks.  The consequence of not being presentable or having the correct uniform would result in a dramatic loss in in hours with no explanation.  There would be theme nights a couple of times a month (poptastic etc) and at Halloween if you were on all weekend you would be expected to be in costume.  No one was ever recompensed for having to dress in theme but we were told it was mandatory.  The carrot would be that the best dressed won £50 best dressed prize with a team of 20 bar staff it is easy to see who was actually winning.”

Payment for training

“When in the office I scanned all paperwork, including new starts, which meant I soon was asked to process it all too. The contracts for bar/floor staff changed when I was there. The main contract said I agree to sign the attached form about uniform, and I agree to sign the other attached form about staff training. Both of which were agreeing to pay a deposit towards uniform, and one which said staff pay towards their own (compulsory) training. Which, incidentally, was mostly common sense rubbish, or things that don't actually provide any formal certification, and ignored any previous training/experience a person may have had. We had returning members of staff who, if they hadn't left, wouldn't have had to pay for the training, but had to in order to get their jobs back. Some chose not to come back.”

There is no justification for being forced to pay for basic training - although the practice seems fairly prevalent.  We will be contacting a number of major employers in these sectors to establish what their practice is.

A specific example of more general exploitation

All of these accounts, and many more, relate to the G1 Group.  But many of these practices are common throughout the industry.  Low pay is endemic. Zero-hours and short-hours contracts are everywhere. Workers are being routinely exploited and disrespected. Young people are at the forefront but it affects those of all ages.

So it is of course welcome to hear politicians from Labour and the SNP committing to abolishing zero-hours contracts and increasing the Minimum Wage (to £8.00 and £8.70 by 2020 respectively.

But the truth is we are in serious danger of creating a false auction of virtue, in which the politicians battle with each other over relatively minimal improvements in employment protection, whilst people in precarious employment are routinely exploited. As well as stronger employment law and minimum wage protection, we need the freedom for unions to operate effectively and the introduction of collective bargaining and sectoral bargaining, particularly in low pay sectors.  We also need consumers, parents, communities, organised groups and others to refuse to accept that this is the way things should be.

For too many young people, this is becoming a normalised experience of work, nothing more than an extension of what they expect in a society which treats them unequally and without respect.

The good news is that many young people are angry, and getting angrier. The STUC recognises that in order to support young people in fighting back against poor employment we might need to campaign in different ways, and most importantly perhaps, to find ways in which young people can lead our campaigns.

Watch this space …

Dave Moxham

To report your experience of work, or to receive further information about the campaign, call 0141 3378100 or email info@stuc.org.uk

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