Zero Hours

Tim Maughan
7 min readSep 19, 2013


For a workshop on future London, five individuals — Arup, Social Life, Re.Work, Commonplace, Tim Maughan and Nesta—created 10 Future Londoners for the year 2023. This is a short fictional piece describing the working day of 19 year old Nicki, a zero hours retail contractor.

0714, Wanstead

Nicki is awake even before her mum calls her from the other side of the door. She’s sat up in bed, crackly FM radio ebbing from tiny supermarket grade speakers, her fingers flicking across her charity shop grade tablet’s touchscreen. She’s close to shutting down two auctions when a third pushes itself across her screen with its familiar white and green branded arrogance. Starbucks. Oxford Circus. 4 hour shift from 1415.

She sighs, dismisses it. She’s not even sure why she still keeps that notification running. Starbucks, the holy fucking grail. But she can’t go there, can’t even try, without that elusive Barista badge.

Which is why she’s been betting like mad on this Pret a Manger auction, dropping her hourly down to near pointless levels. It says it’s in back of house food prep, but she’s seen the forum stories, the other z-contractors who always say take any job where they serve coffee, just in case. That’s how I did it, they say, forced my way in, all bright faces and make up and flirting and ‘this coffee machine looks AMAZING how does it work?’ and then pow, Barista badge.

But Nicki doesn’t work like that. She’s not one of those girls, she doesn’t feel comfortable playing it that way. She just likes to keep her head down and get the work done, get out, get home.

Her tablet pings once, flashes a notif, pings again and flashes a second. Two auctions won. Both lower than she’d like, both lower than the national minimum, but it’s a start. It’s a reason to get out of bed. Her mum shouts her again, she hollers back. Before she gets up though she’s got the CopWatch wiki open in front of her, checking her route. London Transport Police drone spotted at Mile End, actual cops doing spot checks at Bank. Fuck it. She’s gonna have to change her route — she’s not put credit on her legit Oyster card for time, and she’s only reasonably sure the three hacked ones in her wallet will get her through to Zone 1 from right out here in the forgotten sprawl of Zone 4. Even if they do, re-routing round these checks are going to put an extra half hour on her trip.

She’s out of bed, pulling on clothes, before her mum calls her for a third time.

0920, Oxford Circus tube station

As she reaches the exit barrier at Oxford Circus there’s some kerfuffle on the other side, cursing and shouting, and as the crowd gets out of the way she can see what’s going on; security theatre breaking its own fourth wall as two cops wrestle with a guy and get him to the floor, gloved hands pulling back his hood to reveal the shock of his warped face, mutated beyond machine recognition into a disturbed alien mask. Nicki has seen it before, but it still surprises her that people would go to those ends, pumping their face full of QVC home botox injections just to fool the cameras. Misuse can lead to dangerous long term side effects, the EULAs warn. Plus they just look fucking painful. Apparently the swelling goes down after a while, but the stretch marks remain — plus if that’s the only way you can do business inside Zones 1 & 2 then you need to start jacking your cheeks and forehead up with that shit all over again.

Nicki’s in the barrier gate now, people crowding behind her, eager to get out or crane a look at the guy that’s pinned to the floor. She glances back. No retreat. She steps forward and pops her wallet on the reader, hoping the right card is out of the RFID blocking envelope. She holds her breath. The gate bleeps dully, the barriers swing open, and she’s stepping out, head down, pink hoody up, past the sprawled, screaming guy with the face made of balloons.

1235, Pret A Manger, Oxford Street

Two hour shift down and she’s not even seen a coffee machine, let alone some hipster barista she can flutter eyelashes at. She’s been stuck in a cold backroom sticking vacuum packed, pre-sliced organic cheddar into authentic French artisan baguettes she pulls out of a box from a bakery in Croydon.

Her phone chimes in her pocket, vibrates against her hip. Shift over. She peels and drops plastic gloves into the bin and heads out to the main counter, is surprised by the sudden mass of bodies — it had been dead when she got here, but the early lunch crowd is in now. There’s the fucking coffee machine, steamy and hot and out of touch. She contemplates hanging around to see if she can grab the barista’s attention, but it’s getting too busy in here for that sort of shit, plus she needs to clock off and go, get to the next job.

She finds the manager, he’d been all gruff and short with her when she turned up, but he seems more chilled now, friendlier — despite the fact the shop is getting busier. Maybe that’s why. He smiles and winks at Nicki, and she pulls out her aging Blackberry and scans the the QRcode he shows her on his tablet.

Another chime, cash register sounds kerching, kerching, kerching

Shift completed!

£12.64 received.

Achievement unlocked!

Sandwich Stuffer Pro badge!

1330, outside Starbucks, Oxford Street

Nicki sits soaking up skyscraper focussed rays, eating self made ham sandwiches out of tin foil wrappings, leeching wifi from Starbucks. Somewhere overhead rotors buzz, and she catches a glimpse of one of those tiffin drones straining against it’s own payload as it vanishes behind cliffs of steel and glass, delivering Indian food to penthoused analysts in those tall, metallic tins that swing like bombs from its underside.

She glances back down at her Blackberry, checks CopWatch again. More random stops on the Central line. Safer to walk. Lunchtime over.

1415, Boots the Chemists, Holborn

Boots is busy, a steady flow of post lunch shoppers. Occasionally one of them stops and asks her or one of the two other zed-contractors she’s stacking shelves with for directions to some product they don’t even recognize the name of. She smiles politely, tries to explain she’s zero hours, and offers to find someone to help them. Invariably the customers just tut and twirl on their heels, walking away from her mid sentence. The two other girls she’s working with keep their heads down, don’t even bother to look up. Maybe it’s the best strategy.

The work is fiddly, annoyingly so. Usually shelf stacking is pretty straightforward — but this time they’re all on lipsticks and each one needs to be slotted into the correct little plastic hole on the display depending on colour and shade. Get it wrong and the shelf knows, and buzzes the app on her phone. She guesses it’s probably telling someone else too, building stats on her, trails of data ranking her for efficiency.

She watches the other girls, both about her age. Similar clothes, with the oversized Boots t-shirts they were given over the top. She wonders how much they are getting paid — all the auctions are secret. Did they undercut her or the other way around?

As she gazes at them the one nearest her, the one with the tight, straight black bob of hair, slips two of the lipsticks into a silver envelope and then into her jeans pocket. She recognizes the envelope, it’s made of the same material she keeps her Oyster cards in when she doesn’t want them to be scanned. RFID blocking. She pretends she hasn’t seen anything, turns back to the shelf and the lipsticks and the endless stupid holes.

1845, Boots the Chemists, Holborn

Nicki and the other two zed-contractors are in the manager’s office, waiting for her to get off a call. It’s nice in here, Nicki thinks. Warm and quiet. There’s chairs and one of those old desktop computers with the big displays. Nicki wonders what it’s like to have a job where you get to sit down all day.

The manager gets off the phone, and near silently walks over to them, showing them each her tablet so they can scan the QRcode. Nicki is last, before her the girl with the bobbed hair and light fingers. Chimes and kerchings. Nicki glances a look at the surface of the girl’s two-seasons-ago iPhone, catches perfectly rendered text on its OLED screen.

Shift completed!

£19.84 received.

Nicki feels a rush of jealousy, anger. The girl is getting paid more than her. It’s pence, but.

The manger reaches Nicki, presents her with the QRcode. She scans it. Chimes and kerchings.

Shift completed!

£19.24 received.

Achievement unlocked!

Shelf Stacker Pro Level 2 badge!

The manger thanks them all, and the three girls shuffle out of her office, Nicki at the back. Something stops her before she makes it through the doorframe though, a cold grip of rage and injustice. She turns back to face the manager, who looks at her over the rims of her Samsung branded spex.


Nicki looks at her, at the floor. Rage tinged with shame.

-That girl, with the black hair. She took some lipsticks. Put them in an RFID bag.

-I see.

The manager touches the side of her spex, talks to an unseen security guard. She thanks Nicki and taps her clipboard-tablet, gives her another QRcode to scan.

Chimes and kerchings.

Achievement unlocked!

Shop-cop Pro badge!

£5.20 bonus received!

2127, Wanstead

Nicki lies on her bed, surrounded by books from what’s left of Wanstead’s library. Dali, Gaudi, Piccaso, Bosch, Warhol, Giraud. Her sketchbooks sprawl open around her, pencil scribbled designs sprawling across multiple pages; figures and textures, architectures and crowds, trees and towers.

Nicki is on her tablet, transferring credit from the RetailWarriors app to her PayPal account. She checks the total. £3,467. Still not enough to cover the first term of graphic design at the Wanstead Community Academy.

Maybe next year.

She slides the books off her bed onto the floor, sets the alarm for 0645, and slips under the sheets. She’ll have to wake up early again, before even her mum calls her.



Tim Maughan

Writer. Debut novel INFINITE DETAIL out now on FSG. Bylines at BBC, Motherboard, New Scientist.