Why we need to talk about good work

Eyes opened wide by my wife’s experience of “bad work”.

Public school, university, career in Royal Navy; it was only in 2015 as my Ethiopian wife came to live with me in Rochdale, UK that my eyes were opened wide to “bad work”.

A worker at heart and keen to gain some financial independence she decided it would be good to look for some part time work whilst also studying Maths, English and Catering at our local FE College.

We quickly realised that given my wife’s situation — no UK recognised qualification and a need to master English reading and writing — that the best means of finding a job was to go straight to businesses armed with a comprehensive skills based CV.

With a stint of volunteering at our local British Hearth Foundation shop behind her as well as many no replies from businesses approached, my wife was eventually offered a position at a high street brand, well known for selling low cost health, hair and hygiene related products at the main shopping centre in the heart of Manchester. On the same day she was lucky enough to be offered a second position in a café also in the same shopping centre. Both roles were for 10 hours a week on the Government’s recently introduced Living Wage.

However it was only after the short interviews were conducted that the reality of “bad work” started to bite. Despite only being 10 hour a week contracts, my wife would be expected to be available seven days a week for any time between 9am and 8pm and because of the limited hours she was contracted to work she would not be covered by a number of key employee statutory protections.

My wife had hoped to be able to manage taking both 10 hours a week jobs in order to bring in more money. However the managers who interviewed her would not commit to specific days and times for her shifts so she was left with no way of de-conflicting one job from the other jobs. In fact the café manager simply pointed to a pile of CVs she had in front of her; stating they were all from people who were prepared to work any time any day of the week.

Anyway my wife took the contract with the health, hair and hygiene business.

The staff handbook was the next eye opener as it set out a series of requirements:

· Employees were required to work extra hours if required

· Employees were discouraged from talking to each other

· Employees were to be searched on leaving the workplace

The list went on. This wasn’t the type of workplace I had ever experienced — although it did remind me of what I had seen and heard about 19th century working life in the mills.

And as time went by the reality became clearer. Shop temperatures over summer spiralled uncontrolled with only one of several air conditioning units being used. Keeping a bottle of water for re-hydration in the back room was not allowed, staff had to go all the way down to the basement to get a drink before returning to the shop floor.

There was talk of an NVQ programme; however in my wife’s six months no tasks or learning were knowingly accomplished or signed off.

Draft shift rotas were published only a couple of weeks in advance and finalised the week before. Until then staff were expected to keep their weeks free of commitments — and even after that point might still be called upon if something changed.

Shift timetables were scrawled in handwritten Biro on endless pages of numbers with no effort to offer any kind of pattern or consistency. Special personal appointments that needed employees to attend required four weeks’ notice — regardless if such notice was possible.

This got to the point of my wife being told she could not attend a short college interview to start an English course at the start of the academic year that. She had been waiting for this for many months.

She was also forced to take holidays in two week blocks regardless of whether or not it was the right time for her. Otherwise a full one year’s notice was needed for all holidays.

New to the treatment of employees in this way, I watched on in horror. Meanwhile my wife noted that several of the other employees had worked there for many years. To them this was “normal” life — their lot, their reality and there was no cause to see it as wrong.

What I saw was an employer’s behaviour actively undermining social mobility, robbing employees of their freedom, shrinking their life horizons to a week and ultimately entrenching deprivation.

Trust was not something to even be aimed at.

Worse still was the psychological impact on employees. All power taken by the employer with workers stripped of any understanding of freedom, aspiration or equity; leaving them with dehumanised world views.

And with a rich supply of vulnerable employees in the North West, unused to defending themselves in the face of power, for the employer the situation was ideal and the process of snatching power both simple and smooth.

And indications are that this is widespread.

My eyes have been opened and shall stay so. I am now committed in life to turning this socially destructive behaviour around. This will take excellent campaigns such as that being led by the RSA, but also tackling the widespread and heavily entrenched corporate governance position which sees the prime purpose of business to be making profit for its owners rather than delivering an important social purpose alongside the rest of society.