It’s unclear when unpaid trial shifts became a thing in the UK. The Trades Union Congress, representing England and Wales, has only become aware of the practice in the last 10 years, through complaints made by workers. The Office of National Statistics does not track unpaid trial work or any form of unpaid labour, so data on the issue is scarce.
But a search of “trial shift” on Twitter for a two-week period in May brings up 126 tweets, 63 percent of which were confirmed to be located in the UK.
Many of these tweeting, job-seeking hopefuls fall into Gen Z, those post-Millennial young adults still under the age of 24. They tweet about their anxiety before a trial shift, how friendly the people they worked with were, and whether they hope they get the job. Trial shifts aren’t generally traumatic for this cohort, they’re just life.
Stella’s 18, and she recently scored her first bartending job in Glasgow after a successful three-hour Friday night trial shift. Technically they didn’t tell her the trial was unpaid, but she’s not expecting to receive wages for those hours. She’s heard from friends in the hospitality industry that unpaid trial shifts are the norm.
“I’m fine with it because in any case I don’t have a choice, and also I get to see if it’s a place I would like to work in or if it’s a pass,” Stella said.
Not having a choice is something young people have simply accepted. Luke is 23 and lives in Bristol, and he’s been unemployed for six months. He was in need of work when he accepted a trial shift as a kitchen porter at a chain restaurant. The manager told him it would be unpaid unless he got the job. The three-hour shift was tough, but went well, Luke said. During a chat with the head chef, Luke was initially told he’d get a call after another person’s trial shift, but the chef had a change of heart and gave Luke four shifts to start working the upcoming week.
“Though I hadn’t signed any paperwork, a handshake is considered a done deal as far as I’m concerned,” Luke said.
That quickly fell apart when Luke showed up for his first shift and the head chef was on holiday. Suddenly Luke found out that the other person had been hired, he still had no job, and he’d paid for a second return bus trip on top of losing out £24 in wages for the trial shift. He was given a vague reassurance that there would be other openings and he may get a later offer.
“I’m still very angry with them,” Luke said. “Honestly hoping they do call me back just so that I can tell them where to stick it.”
The money adds up. Nottingham resident Collette, 21, estimates that she’s worked 24 hours of unpaid trial shifts over the last few years, all in hospitality. Her jobs in the care industry have not required trial shifts. And not only is it the money, but 23-year-old Rebecca in Manchester points out that it’s time and energy and hope as well, when there may never be a phone call to explain why a job offer was not extended.
Rebecca said she left a three-hour bartending trial with the impression that the job was hers. She’d had a great time, and the management staff seemed keen to hire her. But the promised phone call never came. This was the second time she worked a trial shift with that result, and she said it left her feeling exploited.
“I think it should be protocol to follow up with somebody who took the time to do a trial shift because it’s honestly a horrible feeling to be waiting by the phone all day to not receive a call, especially after being told for definite that you would,” Rebecca said. This trial shift was during a busy bank holiday weekend, and an earlier one was during a major event. “This made me think that maybe they wanted somebody to help out over a busy event with no real intention of hiring them afterwards.”