Letter from an agency worker

Agency work is exhausting, precarious and increasingly the norm but, as one former agency worker writes, recent campaigns around tips offer a glimmer of hope. 
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As a history student I suppose I have a tendency to look at things from a historical perspective. It often used to occur to me on the way to work that if a nineteenth century factory worker or docker (like many of my own relatives) were to walk from Epsom rail station to the racecourse early on the morning of a race they might find the scene familiar.

It also occurred to me that those who argue that the working class has disappeared or changed beyond recognition in recent years could learn something from watching the hundreds of young workers travelling to sports stadiums across the capital on Saturday and Sunday mornings. We may wear shoes instead of boots, own smartphones and drink take-away lattes, but we still face the exploitation, uncertainty and bullying managers of our forebears.

A distant dream
Since the nineteenth century workers have been calling for the working day to be limited to eight hours, with one or two days set aside for rest and recreation. In many sectors in 2015, from education to hospitality, this is still a distant dream. Many agency workers sign up for exhausting 12 hour shifts day after day, usually with long commutes on either side. On top of this they have to arrive for shifts half an hour to an hour before they are due to start (supposedly to sign in) and then wait around for hours to be allocated a job. Sometimes, on better days, workers are paid for the time they spend standing around in the rain. Agencies such as these always book too many staff incase someone doesn’t turn up or more people than expected are needed. This means that there is a chance of being sent home without actually getting any paid work, a ritual that dockers who had to stand outside the gates of the dock hoping for a day’s work would understand only too well.

It is also impossible to predict how many hours of work you will get. You may be asked to work on a bar that doesn’t close until late, or you may get a restaurant that only serves lunch and be lucky to get 6 hours work. Once I was made to work at a burger stand in Wembley. I only got about four hours work after standing around for three hours. As a vegetarian with an eating disorder who didn’t exactly revel in assembling greasy burgers this definitely goes down as one of the worst shifts I’ve ever done. The terrifying precarity faced by workers at the very bottom of the pile has barely changed.

Agency work is gruelling and the atmosphere from managers nothing but bullying. If you go to the type of parties where waiters stand around with trays of drinks and  canapés spare them some sympathy and take a drink from the tray because after an hour of standing in the same position those trays weigh a lot. Admittedly I don’t have the best upper body strength, but the day after shifts like these I could sometimes barely hold my spoon my arms hurt so much. When, inevitably, arms give way to cramp, the tray tips and the plates or glasses smash to the floor waiters are shouted at and left worrying whether this will mean they miss out on jobs in the future. This kind of aggression is notorious in the catering industry, but being screamed at by chefs for the smallest mistake or not working fast enough is still horrible. I often had to console anxious 16 and 17 year olds who has been screamed at by others.

Not so pleasant Twickenham
Once in the ‘Green and Pleasant Lands Bar’ at Twickenham, which people spend hundreds of pounds to gain access to, the waiting staff were told that if bowls weren’t scrapped out properly the left overs would be mixed into the food we would be given for lunch. This was said without a hint of humour and although it was probably a joke I think we all inspected our food carefully before eating. The plus of working in a bar like this one was that when everyone left to watch the game we got to eat.

Often on an eight hour shift we would be given the minimum 20 minute break. Once we had walked five minutes to where ever food was being served to staff and queued for a meal we were left with a couple of minutes to eat before we had to leave to get back to our bar or restaurant within the 20 minutes. Between ourselves we often complained about all this, but one of the biggest topics of discussion was tips. We all heard stories about the time when someone served Beyonce at Wembley and she told them they were beautiful and gave them a £270 tip. However, I never got a single tip and nor did anyone I worked with.

When we were occasionally offered tips (behind bars in public spaces, never in private bars where everyone was very wealthy) we had to decline because we would be searched going in and out of the venue and if any money was found on us we could be accused of stealing from the till.  Being searched was horribly demeaning, especially for women on their periods with sanitary products in their pockets. It was these endless awful conditions and the bullying atmosphere that drove me to quit, despite needing money. My heart goes out to those still putting up with it.

The campaigns around tips at Pizza Express, Giraffe and Cote, to name a few, have exposed the poor conditions in hospitality and catering industries. It would be amazing if, on the back of this, people could recognise the difficulties faced by hospitality agency workers. It would be even better if agency workers could take a leaf out of the book of Pizza Express waiting staff and find a way to expose and resist the worst elements of their exploitation. People are being treated disgracefully and it needs to change.

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