In the olden days, when I was a less jaded 16-year old I got my first ever job at a ubiquitous clothing shop. I’d forgotten I’d applied at all - unemployment was high back home, and it was rare for anyone to even reply to your job applications, let alone offer you a job. I started just before the Christmas rush and my new manager, who’d laughed when I sounded so shocked at being offered the job, casually mentioned I’d be on a zero-hour contract “for flexibility” though “obviously you won’t work zero hours, ha ha!”.
Seven other women started at the same time as me, a few my age, looking to make some money outside of school. Others were older, and were clearly anxious about making enough to cover their bills. One was a single mum, who dropped her daughter off to her mother’s house before every shift.
After being trained up, we all got plenty of hours over the Christmas period. We were told our uniform had to consist of jeans and shoes sold in store, and though we were given a discount, this still ate up a day’s wages easily. After Christmas, as the New Years sales wound down, our manager told us she’d be revising the rota to “get back to normal”.
This was when it got tricky. Some of us had managed to pick up enough shifts to work almost full time at first. Now I was offered one full day a week, which suited me fine. But the women who were trying to support themselves realised they were going to struggle quite quickly.
At this point, it became clear our manager, with more time on her hands, was getting to know us a bit better and clearly amassing favourites.
One colleague was slightly late two weeks in a row, and when asked why replied she’d had trouble finding a parking space. She didn’t come in the following week. Looking at the month’s rota I saw her name but with no shifts allocated. Two months later I saw her near my house. “Have you got a new job?” I asked. She explained she hadn’t, and that while she’d not been sacked, she hadn’t been offered any shifts and there’d been no explanation.
My manager started offering me more shifts as she warmed to me. This meant other women weren’t getting them. The single mum asked if I was desperate for work that week, as she’d had her gas bill and it was bigger than expected. I asked my manager if she could take one of my shifts, and was curtly told that under no circumstances was that allowed to happen.
The politics increased with the precarity of work. One small slip-up or clumsily phrased sentence could find you silently blacklisted when the next rota was drawn up. Accidentally accepting a fake note, failing to spot a shoplifter, or most often - being ill, invariably meant you had your hours drastically cut. With no obligation to allocate shifts to zero-hours staff, there was no need for our manager to explain the decisions she made on staffing. And there were always far more staff than shifts - the company were very relaxed about offering zero hours contracts, and the more a store offered, the more desperate staff became to tow the line.
Shop politics oscillated between intense rivalry and cliqueness in the scrabble to curry favour, and protective camaraderie, where we’d sign in for someone we knew was running late, or lie about how many toilet breaks a colleague hiding illness had taken (we were allowed one per eight hour shift and had to document it. How generous).
It’s no surprise zero-hour contracts have boomed - for businesses, they abdicate managers of the responsibility of justifying their hiring and firing decisions. It wasn’t a coincidence that the only people who seemed comfortably enployed in our shop were young white or asian girls with no caring responsibilities. The black women who were hired, those with children, older women and anyone who had the temerity to ever be ill quickly found themselves in effect fired - but on paper, this never showed up so required no scrutiny legally. A handy get-out clause.