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By Damaris Garzon
Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair. Elie Wiesel
Anyone who cannot come to terms with his life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate... but with his other hand he can note down what he sees among the ruins. Franz Kafka
To the desperate
-1INTRODUCTION. THIS IS LONDON
Welcome to the city that never sleeps, because its army of workers keep it awake. The soldiers are those guards, cleaners, carers, caterers who serve you your morning coffee…all those people who routinely cross your life. But the soldiers, rather paradoxically, have nothing to defend themselves with. The thing they should be able to defend themselves from, is one and only one. Low pay. Of course, low pay is not a free-floating entity with no origins or implications. And yet, the majority of low-paid workers do not ask themselves –or ask anyone, for the matterwhy this is the case. Apathy, resignation and no real choice are some of the causes of the ‘just put up with it’ attitude. Therefore, this book is intended to make these low-paid workers ask themselves what is wrong. Why are they not getting what they deserve? This book is intended to make you think by yourself, since I guess that this is something that you are not usually encouraged to do in your workplace. Especially, if thinking by yourself also means thinking for yourself, and not for the company’s benefit. I love books. The last superb thing I have read is Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘Work, consumerism and the new poor’. Usually, books like this give me stuff to think about while I work in my own dumb low-paid job. But now, because I could not afford its fees, I am banned from the university library, so no more free books for me. Instead, I watch odd DVDs. There is a scene in Nuri B. Ceylan’s film ‘Uzak’, where one of the characters walks into an office where there is a note on the door saying ‘we don’t need personnel’. The character asks for a job and gets shouted at ‘there are no jobs!!’ I thought this perfectly illustrates the wishful thinking state in which many jobseekers find themselves. While you are unemployed, you wishfully hope that you will find something decent. When you do not find it, you wishfully hope that things will change. When things do not change, or at least, not for the better, you either stop wishfully thinking, or you selfdeceive yourself for life. The latter is dangerous, because it is one of the reasons why low pay is so widespread. If you stop hoping, in the same way as if you stop thinking, dodgy employers will take advantage of your “nevermind” attitude. And you will never get out of the circle of low pay, low self-esteem and low expectations. This happened to me. This is why I decided to vomit it all on a computer’s keyboard. But there is a problem associated with realising injustices. There is a scene in Adolfo Aristarain’s film ‘Lugares comunes’ where Alfredo Luppi, a retired professor, reflects on the fact that lucidity is painful. Because the more you think, usually, the more lucid you
become. But the more lucid you become, the less conforming you are. And the world, as you and I know, is not made for non-conformists. Having said that, I will also say that I prefer a thousand times the problems associated with lucidity, to the problems associated with unquestioned and unfair low pay. I came to London seven months ago. Before that, I had been living in Southampton for almost four years. And before that, a long time ago, I had been working in Cornwall as a waitress. One of the things that you do to improve your English. Wishful thinking, because of course you only improve your culinary English, if that. While I lived in Cornwall, and because I had signed a dodgy agreement with an agency back in Barcelona, I was to be paid only £50 per week for the first six months. Accommodation and board would be provided, though. The Falmouth Hotel’s staff house was a mouldering construction attached to the main building. There were rats in my room, mildew in the bathroom, and assorted rodents in the kitchen. But I tolerated that, because I was barely eighteen, and I had learnt not to fly too high. After the first six months, I began to get £90 per week, for a forty-hour working week, filthy accommodation and restricted board included. But I thought that, back then - in 1999- and back there – in God-forsaken Cornwall- £90 per week was ok. Particularly if you were working for a four-star hotel. Between the Cornwall experience and my second intrusion in England, lots of things happened. So by the time I moved to Southampton, I was not ready to accept mildew in my bathroom or rats in the kitchen. I still got rats in the cupboard, but you cannot stop Nature. I was not too convinced that I should accept £90 per week either, but after all, I did. And not £90, but £60. Someone convinced me, and I believed it, that after all, I had no qualifications. I knew, but that was also why I had come to England. I knew what I wanted to study, I guessed what I could hope for myself, and I tried. Three years later I was still earning £120 per week, but I had a first class honours degree. Sounds good to me. I also had an offer from the almighty London School of Economics, to do a Master degree. And finally, I had a room to live in, after weeks of flat-hunting and everincreasing anger at London’s unreasonably steep prices. I am not stupid. I know that money gives you quality. Usually. In London, a lot of money gave you substandard accommodation. Then I was told that the money you pay for accommodation in London is not really for the accommodation itself, but for the privilege of living in London. Privilege? I said I am not stupid. The privilege story, of course, was narrated by estate agents and other privileged Londoners. I was not so bothered by London’s lack of quality accommodation –at affordable rates- but by London’s lack of quality of life on the whole. This is something that estate agents and other privileged Londoners would never understand, because they take quality of life for granted. Mainly, because they do not have an underpaid job. I moved to London. Transport for London informs us that, four out of five London buses have now CCTV in operation. Maybe this is why we pay sucking prices for a bus pass. Despite the sucking prices, London buses are often full of filth. It is not odd to travel between dog’s poo and other travellers’ lunch leftovers. And despite the investment on
CCTVs, I was robbed twice while travelling on a bus. The third time, I was mugged at a bus stop in central London, at 7pm on a weekday. While I lived in Southampton, I used to travel a lot. On a trip to Dominican Republic, my camera and mp3 were nicked. The previous summer, Tunisian robbers had stolen my camera, my mobile and my money. But while I lived in Southampton, I could replace these items with a reasonable amount of hard work, which I have never feared. In London, these items could have never been replaced, because no matter how much hard work you put into your irrelevant job, wages only cover your basic expenses. This is because you are likely to be paid £4.85 per hour. It has gone up now, by 20 pence1. Still, some workplaces do not give a shit about the law, because they only give a shit about amassing money and profits, so they pay you rates below the already low minimum wage. After two weeks of being in London, I was beginning to get nervous. I have never been unemployed for more than two weeks. I do not love working, but I do not like lazing around either. So one day, I saw a patisserie in Stoke Newington where staff was needed. I walked in, and I was lucky that the manager was there, so she set up an interview. Usually, it is not a good sign that, while the manager is downstairs looking for her interview guidelines, you overhear staff calling the same manager bitch and other delicacies. It is not a good sign that on your trial shift, staff complain about the low wages they get and the never-happening pay rise promises, but then, they laugh at their naivety and say that, after all, they are not getting paid at all. Despite that, when the manager told me that she would pay me £4.85 per hour, and would only give me three days of work per week, I accepted. After all, I was almost desperate because I had not found a job for two weeks. But I did not go back after my trial shift. £4.85 per hour may buy me a buss pass, but it will not buy my pride. Certainly, £4.85 per hour do not buy me any quality of life. Also, £4.85 per hour is what Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘economic coercion’ (2005: 22). The only reason why you accept it is because otherwise, you will starve. Better misery than nothing, or so they want us to believe. But I wonder where does a £4.85 per hour rate leave the so-much praised working values of motivation and dignity. Moreover, economic coercion is not quite in line with the basic Constitutional liberties that we all are entitled to. The story went on that I kept going to Jobcentres, buying the Evening Standard, sitting on bus routes while trying to spot ‘staff wanted’ signs, but I still got no job. I kept trying, and I still keep trying, but sometimes I am tired of no’s. I am tired of selling my soul while my brains rot, doing jobs that mean nothing to me. I spent ten years doing jobs I did not like too much, just because I needed the money. Then of course, singing in a latenight pub, working for an international commerce firm, reporting for TV, being a PA, babysitting and these sort of things give you what employers call ‘transferable skills’. Besides, once in London, I had a very good degree as well. So I thought it was my turn to get something in return, in the form of a decent-paying-stimulating job. But nothing happened, and nothing happens. I applied to Office Angels, Brook Street and all those agencies offering good things for good people. I never got a phone call back. I went online and tried travel agencies. After all, I know about the world, and I know almost all the airport codes. And I know how to sell, although I do not like it. The day I got a text
Figures based on 2006 rates
message from one of the travel agencies, I was thrilled. The text asked me to call back to arrange an interview. So I called back a Manchester number four times, was put on hold, asked to leave my name and number, and then nothing happened. In Spain we call this ‘my thrill in a well’. I was convinced that the £4.85 per hour rate was only a bad dream, and soon I would find something better. But I did not, and to this moment, my life quality has only increased by 50 pence per hour. Which as you may know, does not get you anywhere in London. So what follows are some of the thoughts that came to my mind in the last seven months. As I said before, the problem with thinking is that the more you think, the more you think. This is the problem of lucidity that I mentioned above. But I maintain that I will proudly bear the burden of lucidity, rather than bowing my head to bear the burden of unquestioned low pay. I am going to tell you why.
-2IS SHE HONEST?
I dragged myself down to Victoria. It hadn’t had a good start that morning, stuck between Seven Sisters and Finsbury Park for over thirty minutes. My trip to Victoria was motivated by an ad I had seen the day before. A temping agency seemed desperate enough for staff so as to offer good rates of pay. Wishfully thinking, I walked in and asked. Plan Personnel has several agencies in London, each varying in the type of jobs offered and the personal charisma of its staff. The branch in Victoria was particularly appalling. You access the office through a narrow corridor, decorated with tempting prospects of a well-paid career, which seem designed by kindergarten pupils. I thought this tells you something about either the type of people they try to attract, or the type of people who run the agency. Because, resorting to contrast, you will never see ads where the ‘managing director wanted’ is painted on phosphorescent yellow paper, using coloured markers. It looks cheap, because it is a cheap job, and because it is cleverly implying that only ‘cheap people’ will take it. I went up the stairs and into the office, where the fat woman at the desk seemed annoyed to answer my question about what was needed in order to register with them. She pointed at the door with her head and said ‘bring those documents on Tuesday at eight in the morning’. There was a list of the usual proofs of identity and address stapled to the office’s door, which if I were to play the anthropologist, was a good symbol of the division between ‘us’ –the dross- and ‘them’ –the job-givers- The list is on the door, using the same colourful designs of the corridor, but never neatly printed on a Word document –it would have taken two minutes if they could actually use the computerPresentation matters, but not if it is addressed to hopeless jobseekers. The list is also a divider which prevents, quite intentionally in this case, the agency staff from wasting their time talking to jobseekers. I was to learn later that when they actually talk to you they are not pleasant at all, so I thought they might be saving energies to that purpose. I took note of what was needed and left. I was very tempted to walk into Blue Arrow next door, but after my experience with them when I first arrived in this country, I gave it a miss. Almost four years ago, during my first days in Southampton, I was employed by Blue Arrow on the kind of zero-hours contract that has become so common. One day I was to go to Cheltenham, after which I would spend a week with no work at all, to be called one random day to cover an office cleaning job for someone who had not turned up. I wonder why. Another week with nothing to do, another last-minute call, and so it went. A job is not a hobby that you do on your spare time, specially when you have bills to pay, so I stood them up and moved on.
On Tuesday I went back to the agency, waited in a decaying couch after being motioned by the fat woman –and when I say motioned, I mean she used gestures to address me, never words. Maybe she thought that I did not speak English. They might be used to it, which is cause of concern among the employment agencies’ staff. Just the day before I had overheard a conversation between two employees of Randstad, who were on their fag break near the bus stop where I was waiting. The over-powdered lady seemed very offended that ‘theeese’ –for which she meant jobseekers- ‘dare to bother us with I want a job when they don’t speak any English! I mean, learn to talk first!!’. The fake tan lady next to her shook her head infuriated ‘they don’t know no shit really, should all go back to their country’. Oh dear, I see some grammar dissonances in here. Anyway, back to where I was, I was sent over to Benata’s desk2. First I had to listen to her phone conversation with whom I guessed it was one of her clients. Apparently they were in the shit because someone had not turned up (again, I wondered why). Benata assured the person on the phone that she would find someone. ‘I’ll call Anna, she’s excellent, she always takes any job I give her’. This is interesting. That is how you judge a good employee, if they are always ready to give up anything they might be doing, no matter how personal or important it may be, to run and save the agency’s ass in front of their client. Fine. After putting the phone down, Benata looked at me inquisitively. ‘Yes?’ she asked, as if I could be there for a thousand reasons. I stopped using the ‘I’m looking for a job’ thing long ago. There are levels and levels of belittling yourself in front of certain predators. “I was told to come and register” I said “Have you got all those documents?” she asked pointing to the symbolic door “Here” I said, and handed them to her. She flicked through them, said she was going to make some photocopies, and ordered me to fill in a couple of questionnaires and a few tests. It even sounds like a serious place with that careful sieve. Never mind that the staff does not actually look at you when they address you. The tests were about basic food safety and etiquette procedures in a restaurant, things like ‘from which side should you serve drinks to a customer?’ There was multiple choice on that one: from the right, from the left, or wherever there is space. I thought that was quite insulting. Why would you otherwise put the third option there, was it not to laugh or despise whoever was ‘uneducated’ enough to mark it? I went through the tests while Benata took her time making the photocopies. When she was back, she marked the tests, said ‘it’s ok’ looking at her desk, and THEN looked at me for the first time. ‘Look, this is how we work. We give you a job, usually for one week, you do it, you make sure you sign for your hours, otherwise you will not get paid, you bring your timesheet on Fridays, and then we see if we’ve got something for you the week after. Because this is not a regular job, you understand that –this was no question, it was an
All names have been altered to protect the guilty
affirmation- I cannot promise you anything. If you need to work, I can give you work, but I can’t always give you work. If you are sick, you call us and let us know. We are open at seven in the morning so no excuse. If you have a doctor appointment or things like that, you ask us first. If you decide to go on holiday, we don’t pay holidays but you can go at your own expense. But if you tell me on a Wednesday that you are going on holiday the week after, when you come back, you have no job. If you are late often, you have no job. If you are ill often, you have no job. Are you healthy?’ That was awkward. Her question, and this time she was expecting an answer, took me out of my amazement while listening to her speech. Maybe she was not expecting an answer, anyway. She pierced her eyes into me, forcing a doctor’s gaze, and said ‘you look healthy to me’. If you say so. I was actually starting to feel quite ill. She threw some papers on her table –the table may have been another instance of symbolic divider, as she could as well have handed ME the stuff, but consciously did not do so“That’s your employee handbook there, make sure you read it and understand it. If you get something wrong, it will be your fault. You are supposed to read this so don’t come crying with ‘I didn’t know’. We pay around £6 per hour, usually. Depends on the customer. We cannot guarantee you any rate of pay. But if you don’t sign your timesheet, you won’t get paid”. I KNEW that already! Or was she enjoying the idea of me not getting paid so she kept repeating it? “Here are your blank timesheets” she went on “don’t loose them, we pay some money for them so we can’t keep loads of them for staff to loose them. Do you have a travel card?” “Yes I do” “Because you will need to start early, you know. Most of our shifts start at 7am, so if you live far away…where do you live?” It was clearly stated in the second line of the forms she had in front of her, but why bother reading. “Seven Sisters” I lied. It always sounds better than Tottenham “Huh. Far. How do you get around?” “I have a bus pass” “Bus? From Seven Sisters? Huh. You can’t be late to work, you know that. It’s no excuse that the bus was late. Why don’t you get a travel card? Use the tube” – that was not a question, either. She was actually ordering me to use the tube “Yes, it could be better” I lied again. Well, not really. It could be better to use the tube, but not for my pocket. Being unemployed, I could not possibly afford the £90 that a monthly 3-zone travel card costs. And with a £6 per hour job, which she could not guarantee I would always have, things did not look too feasible.
“Where are your references?” she said looking at my application “Ah, hmmm. Falmouth Hotel. What did you do there?” “Worked as a waitress, I used to do breakfasts and dinners, and some functions on the weekends”. I did not mention that I only did two functions though, because after I kept dropping the vegetable platter on some guests in a wedding and cried about it in front of everyone, the duty manager thought I was ok having the weekends off. “Ok. Did you do silver service?” “Yes” In the function where I dropped the vegetables, I thought “Ok” A silence ensued. She looked at her desk again, quite concentrated this time, and then asked all of a sudden “What are you doing in London?” It sounded like an accusation. Like the kind of questions that police ask you if you get arrested. And, anyway, was it not obvious? I was looking for a job “I came to do a Master” Benata looked at me as if trying to decide whether she should believe me or not. “Well, I can’t promise you anything, you know. I can’t promise I’ll have a job that suits your studies” “I know, it’s ok” I lied “By the way, I forgot to tell you. You are responsible for your own uniform. You need a uniform to work. Have you got one? You need black and whites, you know what that is?” “Yes” I said, and despite that, she went on “Black trousers or skirt, knee length, black socks or stockings, white collared shirt, long sleeves. And black waistcoat plus bowtie”. Waistcoat? Bowtie? I had not thought about that. But of course, this was a £6 per hour job, so you are supposed to look elegant and professional, I guess. “I had a waistcoat but cannot find it…” I hoped “No waistcoat no job. You must work in full uniform”. I must have looked sad, so she was touched. “I know of a shop where you can get one. Trafalgar Square”. And she wrote down the address. “It’s £35 for the waistcoat and around £12 for the bowtie”. Damn it. That is what Polly Toynbee meant by ‘the real cost of starting to work’. The waistcoat alone was my budget for the monthly bus pass, and the bowtie…how can a bowtie cost £12? Benata was back.
“Well, your references. I can’t give you a job if I can’t get a reference, so…Falmouth Hotel”. She got on the phone and was put on hold by the receptionist. Apparently, no one there remembered me. I was not on their files, either. Benata asked the person on the phone to wait. “They don’t know about you” she accused me “When did you work for them?” “In 1999” “Who was in charge then?” she barked at me “Mr. Gields”, an upper-class man who only ever addressed me to ask if all Spanish people were as rude as the staff he´d had. Of course not, I thought. Some of us are worse. “Can I talk to Mr. Gields?” she asked to the person on the phone. He was out. “Ok anyway, I can’t get anything from them” she said to me. “What’s your second reference?” “KFC in Southampton. Mile Hanks” “Let’s see”. She rang them and Mile was off. And he was going to be off for a couple of weeks, he was on holiday. Mile was probably the only person that would give me a good reference, for the reasons I will put forward in due time. “Who am I talking to?” Benata went on. It was Sary, the store manager. “I’m calling from Plan Personnel in London. I have someone here looking for a job and she says she worked for you. Her name is Damaris. Do you know her?” Sary said yes. But he did not say he did not know me personally, just by seeing me in another store. “Is she honest?” I was appalled. Is she honest. And she said that while looking at me in the eye. First, I felt like I wanted to hide under the scruffy chair. But then, I felt I could use the chair in a rather violent way, or leave the agency and Benata’s phone, or leave London. “Oh so you never worked with her. Ok. Well, I’ll try to call back when Mile is in then, bye”. I knew what she was going to say next. “I can’t get a reference from anyone, as you see. I have tried. No reference no job, that’s how we work” “I have a written reference from the Falmouth Hotel”, I said. “It was signed by the Manager, would that do?” I was beginning to be desperate for the maybe-usually-£6 per hour job, and annoyed with myself for wanting it and looking like I did.
“Bring it in. If I can prove it´s original, and get the Manager to confirm it, it’s fine”. Oh well. That is insulting, again. So, following the employers’ ethical code, Benata was telling me that, in the first instance, she was going to assume that I had produced a fake reference. As I had seen so many times, the employee is always guilty until proven innocent. “I can bring it today, before you…what time do you close?” I asked, trying to calculate how long would I have to be stuck on buses. “Tssk” she was annoyed. “Listen, I can’t wait until you come here, you know. We close at 5 but I can’t wait until you decide to bring it last minute. I have a job to cover tonight, so if you want the job, bring me the reference by 3”. I was starting to wonder who was more needy. She needed staff, I needed a job. In any case, employers always let you know that you are the desperate one. Never, ever, let it slip that they depend on people to keep their salary –and commissions as well- coming in every month. “Are you coming in, then?” she asked, impatiently. “Yes, will be here before 3” “Fine. Read the employee handbook before you go to work” Was I or was I not going to get the job? This was confusing. “I've told you everything, I think. Any questions?” NO. As I left the building and walked past the corridor, I glanced at the written promises of a satisfying and well-paid career. I rolled my eyes and sighed. Patience, I said to myself.
-3OPEN DAY, TOP RATES OF PAY
In one of my errands, I passed by a restaurant in Piccadilly Circus which advertised its ‘open day, interviewing now’. Wishfully thinking, I jumped off the bus and looked at the A-sign more carefully. That could be my lucky day, I thought. No more wasting time and money, wishfully hoping that some of the uncountable CVs, covering letters and application forms I handed in were read by someone. The place in question offered top rates of pay working for one of the best outlets of the West End. Peering inside the restaurant, it did not look quite so, though. The Angus Steak Houses’ decoration is old-fashioned, its restaurants characterized by ill-matching green seats and red serviettes. But as the company’s operations manager told me on my induction day, ‘we pride ourselves in the old style kind of service’. I should have known better. That could only mean that they pride themselves in the old style kind of wages, too. I went upstairs, where the ‘open’ interviews were taking place. They were not that open, I thought. There were around ten people waiting to be interviewed by a skinny lady who had the same evil look as Cruella Deville. Cruella – I never knew her name, since after asking mine she ignored the rules of polite interaction and did not tell me hers – took on a Polish guy. She went through his –oh no- hand-written CV and dismissed him with ‘why the hell do you think we want to know your address in Poland?’ Very open interview. Next were a group of four girls –Polish as well- Apparently they were looking for work for some of their friends. They were sent off. Next it was a black lady. After two minutes of talking to her, Cruella sent her to the back, where another bloke, with a more serious appearance, was interviewing the lucky ones who survived the first ‘open’ sieve. When it was my turn, I was about to hand her my CV, when she waved her hand and said ‘I don’t need that now. Let’s see how’s your English first’. I noticed that English was not her first language either, so it was going to be a fair assessment of my linguistic abilities. I was asked where did I come from, what was I doing in London and whether I had any experience working in catering. She must have been satisfied that I could pass an IELTS exam, so she sent me to the guy. That was going to be my lucky day, I thought quite comforted. The bloke in question even seemed happy to see me, shook my hand and invited me to take a seat, please. Did I want anything to drink? Wow. Like a proper interview. He looked at the form I had completed before talking to Cruella, looked impressed, and asked me if I could come back the next day, for a chat with the Operations Manager, and ‘we’ll see how we go on from there’. That was my lucky day. I truly thought so. I even went on a shopping spree at Waterstones, spending £70 worth of
books. Finally. I was going to get a job. The following day I was there fifteen minutes before my interview was due to start. My interview began half an hour late. What I noticed in the meantime was the terrified spirit of most of those who were waiting to be interviewed. For what I could understand, that was caused for two reasons –which I myself shared- First, we had not been given any information about what we were meant to do that day. It was ‘a chat’ with the Operations Manager. We had no idea about the fantastic top rate of pay yet. We did not actually know if the job was ours or not. Second, we were desperate. I had been in London for over a month and did not have a job. I had saved some money though. Others had no money coming in, and no savings either. What they did have was a job that did not pay them their wages, an impatient landlord, and an empty fridge. Or so I overheard. It was my turn. Mr Tampbell seemed pleased to meet me too. I was asked the drinking question again. He went quickly through my application form and exclaimed “Oh, so you have a degree from Britain!” As if it was difficult to believe. Because to me, it was certainly difficult to believe that someone with a British degree was looking for a job as a waitress. “Well done” he said. “Thanks”. It reminded me of the high-position guy who handed me my diploma during my graduation ceremony. Some sort of Dean. He said ‘I hear you did rather well’, in that very English anti-earnest tone. Well, I had got a first class degree. ‘Well done’ he said. It sounded as if he was saying it to himself. I was about to say ‘what about the money?’, maybe due to the nerves of the situation. What I meant was that I knew that in most medical and engineering degrees, if you have got a first, you have got a cash prize. Not me. Us, the useless holders of awkward degrees such as Applied Social SciencesAnthropology, should be content with a well done. “Are you looking for full or part-time work?” Mr Tampbell asked. “Full-time for the time being” I replied. He made a note of it. He also made a note of what was supposed to be a top rate of pay. £4.85 per hour. I was shocked. I tried to calculate how many hours I would have to work to cover expenses and to pay for my university fees in September. I’m not good with numbers, and Mr Tampbell did not want me to make calculations, in case I said thanks but no thanks. “Do you have any questions about the job?” Well. WELL. Actually I did not know anything about the job. “What about the uniform?” I cautiously asked, remembering Benata’s waistcoat. “This is it”, Mr Tampbell said, showing me a picture of a waiter who, quite visibly, had been forced to smile while wearing such a disguise. Goodness me. There was a waistcoat! Dark blue with white stripes. But they provided it. And also the apron. My
Goodness me again. Bottle-green apron, long enough to wrap yourself in it in a beachy sarong fashion. Clearly they would have to provide for that as well, as I could not think of a place where they might sell such an outfit. So I only had to bring in my own black trousers and white shirt. “Fine, good, excellent. I’m sure we will be happy to have you working with us. And you speak good English”. My god, what an obsession. I had not said anything further than hi and thanks, really. Maybe that was all it was expected. You are not employed to speak English, even if you do. Just to understand ‘catering English’, for which a few monosyllables should do. I was asked to wait until all the interviews were done. Then we were told to come back in two weeks´ time for an induction, closer to the time when the new restaurant would open. So we had got the job! I could take two weeks to recover from the stress of a month of job-seeking in London, and then start thinking about September, when my Master was due to start. The only thing I was really looking forward to. Two weeks later, we were all back. Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes went on, and no Mr Tampbell turned up. Half an hour, and a sweaty guy ran upstairs to excuse the company. London’s traffic of course. London’s traffic, I remembered, could excuse a thirty-minute wait for managers, but as Benata had told me, ‘the bus was late is no excuse’. I was beginning to get annoyed. Finally Mr Tampbell came in. His face looked grim. “I’m sorry guys. London’s traffic” he looked at us, and looked consternated. “I’m very sorry that I have to say this, but unfortunately I have bad news. For us and for you”. Oh no, please no. “The reason I was late is that I had a phone call from one of our contractors”. Hang on, didn´t he say he was late because of the traffic? His blatant lie pissed me off, because he could only have said something like that thinking that we idiots would never catch on it. “They were supposed to have finished their work on the new restaurant yesterday. When someone went to check, it was discovered that there were some mistakes, so the whole restaurant needs to be brought down and rebuilt. We reckon it’s going to take some three weeks to be open”. There was a silence in the audience, although the guy sitting next to me muttered ‘fucking fuck’. That would have been good English to Mr Tampbell. “So, I understand that some of you will not be able to work for us after three weeks, as you may want to find yourselves something else. To those who after the three weeks are still able to work, I can assure you that you still have the job. I’m very sorry about this, but obviously I’m not happy, as the company is loosing quite a sum of money with this now”. Of course, the company’s money. “Shall we get back to you after three weeks then?” someone asked. “No, just keep an eye on the Evening Standard, we’ll place an ad there. It should be there in three weeks’ time, on a Wednesday. But don’t worry, if after all you are still
interested, I’ll keep your applications and contact numbers, so that your application can be fast-tracked. I’m sorry guys”. And he left. Pfffff. You could feel that in the air. Like a punctured balloon. Some people were clever and got themselves something else. I was stupid and decided to wait the three weeks. I had not much self-esteem left after the job-seeking experience and associated rejections. At least, I had the job. I only had to wait. Two weeks passed, and one night that I could not sleep I started browsing old newspapers. When I got to the jobs section, I almost cried. That was the Evening Standard of the past Tuesday. Two weeks after the neverhappened induction. And there, in front of me, there was the ad. ‘Restaurant staff wanted. Top rates of pay for all positions, working for one of the best outlets of the West End. Open day and interviews on Thursday and Friday at Angus Steak House Coventry Street’. Fucking fuck. It was Sunday, two days after the open day. I could not sleep. I felt cheated upon. Where were all those Mr Tampbell’s promises of ‘you still have the job’ ‘fast-tracking applications’ etc.? I would have to start all over again, having lost almost two months without a job, and now it was urgent to get one. Next month I would not be able to pay for my rent. I could not gather energies for more rounds of CVs, application forms and covering letters, let alone for more refusals from prospective employers on who knows what grounds. The next morning I went to Coventry Street. The guy at reception listened to my story of having been selected for the job and then missing the ad. He agreed that it had been a mess. Apparently the people ‘at the top’ were not working for the company anymore, so all our applications and CVs had been lost, and they had to take on new staff, beginning from the beginning. The staff had been selected and the restaurant’s rota was full. I looked sad and he seemed touched. “But…let me think… Yary’s here today. He’s the manager of the new restaurant, let me ask him first”. Yary came downstairs and I repeated the story. He said he did not need more staff, but maybe…yes! Deter, the manager at Haymarket, needed a waitress, as someone had just left. He called Deter, who was not there to their surprise. Alnna, the assistant manager, spoke with them and asked me to go to Haymarket to talk to her. So I went. After all, I could still get the job. When I walked into the restaurant, it shocked me that it was empty. Only Alnna was sitting there, drinking coffee and holding hands with whom I supposed was her boyfriend. I was told later that the guy was a cook who worked in one of Angus’ restaurants. The guy was constantly criticised by everyone, including Alnna, for flirting with all female staff. Then I thought that you do not have to hold hands with someone if his flirting annoys you, do you? Anyway. Alnna asked me to write down my name and
phone number so she could contact me later, once she had spoken to Mr Deter, the manager. “I take you have experience” she threatened, both with her tone of voice and with her spiteful look. “Yes, I was a…” and then, she interrupted me. “Fine, because I don’t want to get someone who has to be told everything from the beginning”. That was nice. I should have been wiser and realise that, that precisely was going to be the pattern of attitudes. I was called in the next day for a trial shift. I hate these. You feel, and everyone treats you, as if you were in some sort of limbo position, being but not being, doing but not doing, getting every small insignificant detail wrong, and getting mad at yourself for doing so. The only ones unaware of your limbo status are the customers, who keep asking you questions that you cannot possibly answer, so you have to bother other members of staff, who reinforce their opinion that you are such a useless pain in the ass, here she comes again. The ‘uniform moment’ was memorable too. I brought an old white shirt and black trousers. I was given ‘the’ apron. I took ten minutes to get it fixed. A full sari would have been faster. No waistcoat though. Apparently the girl who left had not returned her uniform –that is a sin. Employers will deduct from your final pay anything up to £100 for a shabby, shaggy, overused and ill-fitting uniform. I was on trial for three hours, doing rather nothing. All I was told is that as soon as a customer sits on a table, you must give them a basket with bread and butter. So I spent three hours giving and taking bread and butter. A first class degree for that. Before I went home, Mr Deter told me that the next day I would have to go for an induction at Coventry Street. “But remember to be nice and smile. Smile. The girl who left before you were hired, she left because Mr Tampbell didn’t like her. Nobody liked her. She never smiled to customers. So make sure, when you talk to Mr Tampbell, that you smile all the time” Rubbish. And wait a second, did he say Mr Tampbell? The operations manager? Was it not that all senior management had left the company? I did not like it. Fishy place, fishy people. And I hate, hate, HATE the smiley issue. But more on this in the Starbucks’ chapter. For the time being, I smiled to Mr Deter and thanked him. The following day I went to the induction thing. Mr. Tampbell was late again. We were around fifteen people there. The induction consisted of basic fire procedures, food safety questionnaires and a funny video designed to keep the attention of 4 year-olds. It featured a diner that was breaking all health and safety laws, starring a Chinese chef who spoke very poor English, by the way. I was beginning to be really amused by the association
‘good English-good people’ that seemed to run around the place. The thing is, I thought while Mr Tampbell talked about what a meeting point was, the thing is that, if good English equals good people … well, my English is good. I had a first class degree from an English-speaking, writing and reading university. So I was “good people”. Then, why was I about to start earning a living through the minimum wage, dressed in a nightmare uniform? I thought that the implication of being good people is that you deserve good things. Maybe not. I did not have to smile, and the induction finished. I went back to Mr Deter. He was outside the restaurant, hanging out, idle in the street. Later, I realised that that was his semi-permanent state. The other half of the ‘semi’ he spent it bullying his staff. “Mr Deter, I just finished the induction” “Yes. And? Did you smile?” he asked indifferent. Actually not. Actually I was about to tell him about the good English-good people thing. “It seems I passed” I said equally indifferent. “Ok come inside”. I followed him and we went downstairs. We walked past the kitchen where he did not bother to introduce me to anyone, and into the staff room. “I don’t need you today, but if you come tomorrow for the evening shift I will have the rota rearranged for you, ok?” “Fine, thanks” “Do you want to eat anything?” he asked. Oh. Maybe I had been to fast judging him. Maybe he was a nice man after all. “Well, I did not work today, so I don’t think I’m entitled to a staff meal” I said. “Oh, doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter, just for today” and winked at me “Go on, ask the chef for something to eat”. And he disappeared upstairs again. So what was I supposed to do? Suppose that I was really hungry, which I was. I was to go to the chef, who did not have an idea of who I was, and ask for food. Or I could do what Mr Deter should have done, and introduce myself to all the kitchen staff. I left with no food, having met all the kitchen staff. There was Bedro, a Spanish guy who was grill chef. There was Eigar, a middle-aged Russian who was a kitchen porter. He spoke no English, so management must have thought that he was a bad person. Maybe that is why he was a kitchen porter. Mr Leno was the Philippino head chef. They were friendly and welcoming. I thought it could be a good place to work in. I was wrong.
On my first proper shift I was on with Nichael, a Kosovan student at the London Metropolitan University. He laughed all the time –but did not smile all the time in the moronic way that was expected from us- and since it was not busy, we talked all the shift through. Then Mr Deter came in. He smelt of alcohol and cigarette smoke, but was welldressed. “What is that shirt?” he shouted in that Chinese accent. It reminded me of the foul Chinese chef, and I would have laughed, was it not because he was really shouting at me. “You told me to bring a white shirt, is the same one I wore yesterday” I said. “But this is not acceptable. Look at your neck. It looks disgusting. You can’t work like this, is not acceptable. Get downstairs and fix it. Now” My neck. I forgot to say that the uniform had a new addition. A bowtie, yippee. Green like the apron. For some reason the bowtie did not look straight on, but kept hanging no matter how many times I tried to fix it. Then the other Alnna – one of the waitressescame in. She told me that there must be some shirts lying around in the staff room, so I could change into one of those. There were some sweated shirts lying around. They were men’s shirts, three or four sizes bigger than the one I use. Mr Deter was impatient, knocking on the staff room’s door –which never shut properly, so you had to dress and undress keeping the door closed with one of your feet. Difficult“What are you doing there, how long does it take to fix your bowtie?!!!!! Customers are waiting upstairs, you cannot leave the rest of staff alone, next time get a proper shirt on before you start the shift, not after, I should not be telling you this, are you a useless baby or what” and he kept rambling. For God’s sake, those were my first fifteen minutes in the job. How could he talk to me like that? I walked out in the ‘new’ – i.e. sweated- shirt on. Oh no. “What is this now?!!! Can’t you see that shirt is too big for you?!!! You look like a ghost. Where did you get that from? Anyway, anyway –he looked disgusted, seriouslyrun upstairs, run! Quick!” And while I WALKED upstairs, I heard him saying to the chef “Disaster, what a disaster of a woman”.
Effectively, I was thought of as a disaster of a waitress. Ever since the veg-dropping session at the Falmouth Hotel, I was reluctant to take any job as a waitress. Even so, I did –I had to- a few years later, when I was living in the Basque Country. It seems I was not that bad, after all. I was quickly promoted to assistant manager, because to be honest, I knew the bosses thought that I was the best in that restaurant. But, having said that, I never prided myself in being the best waitress in any god-forsaken restaurant. Had I wanted that, I would have taken an NVQ in catering, which I did not do. But this type of things are not always clear to employers. Who cares whatever qualifications you have, if
you cannot get a bowtie on. Who cares how good English you speak, write and read, if you set the table and the glasses are put to the left of the customer. Disaster of a woman. The job is the job, and that is what they pay you for. On my third day Mr Deter told me that I did not smile to customers. ‘Joke with them’, he suggested. My skills as clown are limited. Maybe he was good at it, in which case I could learn. He laughed with customers often, and more often than not, the ‘jokes’ that made him and the customers laugh were ‘Oh oh, that new waitress…I’m so sorry that you got the wrong steak…it’s difficult you know, these days you never know which helpless soul will end up working for you’. That said while I was taking an order less than a meter away from him. Some of the customers laughed, some did not and left me £20 tips. I could not be that bad if during my first week I was making an average of £30 per day in tips. Mr Deter had something to say about that too. One night I was cashing up my till and when he saw the £70 tips I took home. “Wait, wait. Sit down again. How much have you got in tips? Let me check with the system because it can’t be that much” I can’t be that much implies I do not deserve it. His suspicious look also implied that he might have been thinking that I was stealing. He checked with the computer and the computer did not think I was a thief. The rest of staff was nice. There was Alnna, the Russian waitress who got all the easy, fixed Monday to Friday mornings shifts. There was Nichael, who said he liked to work with me, although he confided that the management did not like me at all. There was Zasha, the Russian waiter, who hoped someday he could study Law in England. There was Parel, the Polish waiter who, alarmed, ran to my rescue telling me not to clear the tables with a dirty plate facing the customers. Better put it facing the wall or the bar. In Thailand, you should not stand, sit or talk to anyone while the soles of your feet are facing that someone. In Turkey, you must not talk to someone while keeping your thumb under your index finger. In Angus Steak Houses, dirty plates must face the wall, not the customer, despite the fact that the customer is the one who made them dirty. For an anthropologist, this is interesting. I was certain we all felt like exploited humans. I could tell what the look Zasha gave to Mr Deter meant, I could tell the words that Mr Leno was keeping inside every time he got shouted at by Alnna, the assistant manager. It was clear. Everyone read everybody else’s mind, and you could not go wrong. Most staff – all except one- thought that Mr Deter was a tyrant and a bully. Most staff – all except three- thought that since she got promoted to assistant manager, Alnna thought too much of herself, and her demands were irrational. People also thought she did not have any people skills, as she could only boss about and shout ‘don’t answer to me, end of the conversation’. Some things were sad to listen to. Parel was married to a university graduate. They had come to England a few years ago because there was no work in Poland. ‘You know’ he told me once ‘people don’t want to hear about communism anymore, not even remember
that it was our recent past. But under communism, everyone had a house. Everyone had a washing machine, cheap but your own. Everyone could make a living. Now, even being educated and prepared, we have to leave our country and come to a place where we are treated as the Eastern European plague. We work like dogs and employers steal from us. What to say about communism now?’ He forgot to say that a considerable number of British capitalist households do not have a washing machine. More importantly, Parel omitted what he had undoubtedly had to hear more than once: “if you don´t like it here, go back to you country. No one asked you to come”. And surely, no one puts a gun to immigrants´ heads (well, at least, this is not the case of Polish immigrants), but the widespread lack of opportunities force you to leave your home country, and if you have dignity and the chance to do it, you will. That is called, once again, economic coercion. Bedro, the grill chef, also told me his story. He was raised in Madrid, and some friends who had already moved to London enticed him with the golden promise of big money and easy work. He came with all his savings –not a lot- and moved into his ‘friends’ house. These guys worked day and night –so much for an easy job- so Bedro was thrown into the rudeness of London on his own. No one told him about Jobcentres, national insurance numbers, bus passes and some other essentials. He walked all day long around central London trying to spot ‘staff wanted’ signs. At least I was not the only one. Weeks passed and no big money for him. Not even an easy job. He did not have anything to eat. His friends called him ‘softie’. He used to go to Soho’s park, exhausted after hours of walking and “no thank you we don’t need staff”, and cry. One day someone left a newspaper in the park –not even that he could afford to buy- and Bedro saw the ad for ‘top rates of pay…’ He got a porter job in Haymarket where he was paid £3 per hour, and although he put loads of overtime, never got paid for it. He was always put on night shifts, left to clean the greasy kitchen, and got home in Walthamstow not earlier than 4am. Now things were better. He lived in Elephant and Castle, was a grill chef, and got paid £5 per hour. Things were better. I wondered how low desperation sets that ‘better’. I wondered where had the expectations of these educated people gone after years of low paid jobs and miserable working experiences. There was also the issue of the hours worked. Mysteriously, they were being changed by the only four hands that had access to the clock-in system. When people finished at midnight, the computer –and payroll- got eleven pm. When you finished at 1.30am, the computer said midnight. Some people had whole days of work missing –deleted- While I worked for Tikki in KFC, I learnt that this is what you call ‘labour control’. You do not want your area manager to shout at you when you give him Monday’s figures, just because after years of being a restaurant manager you cannot put together a sensible rota. So what you do when you have too many hours of labour and ‘just ok’ sales, is delete your staff hours. This way your P & L report is perfect, and this way your boss will think you are brilliant. My problem was that I did not get paid at all. I had to pay my rent, no wages came in. ‘There must be a problem with payroll’ Mr Deter said. The following week, no wages came in. Mr Deter asked me to bring in a copy of my passport. Maybe that was what payroll was missing, he said. The following week, no wages came in. I had to break into
the bond where I had most of my savings to be able to pay for my rent. Then of course, I was penalised with a substantial sum for early withdrawal. Mr Deter asked me for my bank account details. The passport and bank account details farce kept on going for several weeks. I had handed in all of these during my induction day, in which, I forgot to say, I was not given any contract. Nor did I sign anything. So technically, they could get away with the no pay issue, and then claim I was not working for them. No money came in, so I was surviving on tips. At the beginning it was just fine, but then we came to the over-staffing issue. When I started the job, some of the staff was on holiday. I was given thirty hours per week. That was fine with me. Thirty hours at £4.85 plus tips could pay for expenses and maybe save some money for the course fees – although I was starting to lose all hopes, as we were already in September and I was almost overdraft- But then, the staff started to come back. Mr Deter found himself with lots of people and no customers. Some days the restaurant did not even serve twelve people. Still, he kept putting a full regiment of staff on. Just in case, it was his theory. Just in case the business picks up. By the way, I was told that recently, the menu prices had gone up. So we had burgers –Steak House burgers, that is something- at £12 each, after all the tricky extra charges had been added. The 90 pence cover charge was one of the worse. How embarrassed could one be, having to explain to a customer that we charge 90 pence for sitting down. Anyway. That summer was horribly hot as well. We were sweating it in our old-style uniforms, under layers of shirts, aprons, waistcoats, all topped up by a strangling bowtie. The air-conditioning was not working in the restaurant. So the murky heat plus the cheeky prices brought the clientele down. But we were over-staffed, and since it looks awful to have that many people hanging around in an empty restaurant, and there was nothing else to clean, Mr Deter started sending people home. Every day the same person, Marinise. She was a Brazilian student who had been hired just when the business began to go slow. That is what I call strategic vision. After her, it was my turn. I was put on five till close evening shifts, five days a week, starting earlier on Saturdays. I got there at five, and by eight Mr Deter would send me home. It took me one and a half hours to go from home to work, and the same or longer on the way back. Three hours travel for a three-hour shift, at £4.85 per hour, and as an unwanted tip, Alnna’s or Mr Deter´s hatred and verbal abuse. I ended up working just over ten hours every week. But what did it matter, if I was not getting paid anyway. The week before I left, some wages came in. The payslips were kept under key in the manager’s office, and only if you had the spirit to nag and nag and nag, he would mumble something and give you your payslip. When I got mine, my National Insurance number was wrong. My tax code was wrong too –in the Tax Office’s favour, of course- I gave up. The nasty thing about working in that place was the psychological harassment, but there was a good physical workout as well, included in the top-range rate of pay. The restaurant had two floors, and the kitchen was in the basement, two flights of stairs below the main floor. As punishment for being a disaster of a woman, I was always sent to work on the top floor, which meant that I had to run three floors up and down every time an order was ready. In a non-air conditioned restaurant, that makes you sweat. Still, you are supposed to keep impeccable in your uniform. You cannot sweat. You cannot moan you
are tired. You cannot stop to get a glass of water, or Mr Deter will accuse you of wasting time. You have to be nice and smile. You have to be a robot. The customers’ toilets were also downstairs, although no one told me so, and so when customers asked, I did not know what to say. I could not be bothered to ask, either. What sort of workplace does not tell you where the main facilities are? What this meant is that you would not get any training either. So much for fire training at the induction, and I never saw a fire exit. I am not saying there were not any, just that no one bothered to show the new staff where they were. All you could expect as training was that you must have this happy-chappy attitude, and that you must put bread and butter on the tables AS the customer sits down, which to many customers was annoying. But otherwise you would get shouted at. You could also get trained in time-wasting techniques, such as the whole paraphernalia about setting and unsetting tables. My God, what a dumb job. During the shift you were supposed to make sure that all tables had their serviettes, cutlery –in the right (?) order- crockery –idem- salt and pepper, drink menus and ashtrays on. Depending on funds you could also have some extra gadgets such as flowers or candles. All in all, a lot of rubbish on the table. Once a table was empty, clean it, set it again. Up until here it kind of makes sense. But then, if a table left 10 minutes before closing time, we were to clean the table, set it again, and then un-set it after we closed. Because it looked bad to customers, we could not clear tables all at once, even when we were about to close. We had to take the salt and pepper first, the menus later, the spoons, next, etc., etc. And then, there was always an asshole who came in for a T-bone steak two minutes before close, so to make up for the sales that we did not do, we had to set the tables again and wait for the asshole to finish steak, garnish and after dinner conversation. And then, un-set the tables again. By the way, I had a couple of friendly conversations with Mr Deter regarding the cleaning table issue. On one occasion he yelled at me that I could not leave the clean cutlery on a table next to the one I was setting. As loud as he could, and in front of the four only customers, he shouted ‘that is not hygienic!!!!’ Then everyone looked at me as if I had used soiled toilet paper to wipe a table. “What are you doing, woman?!!!!” he shouted once. And in front of all the customers, he went on. ‘Come here, come here. Look. Did you clear this table?’ I did ‘This is DIRTY!!! Look’ He ran his finger across the table and showed it to me. I could not see any dirt, to be honest. ‘This is dirty, how can customers sit and eat here?’ and looked for approval in the couple sitting in the table next to us. ‘Come with me. Heeeeere –pointing at the bucket with sanitiser- you see? Water and sanitiser’ Really. ”Now. You get a cloth…..Noooo!!!! Nooooo!!!! Whattt are you doing?!!! Is too much wet!!!!” Good English to be a manager, I thought. ‘Like this you make it dirty, not clean. Come here, I’ll show you how to clean’ That was the last thing I was to hear. How demeaning. He took me by the hand to the table in question, cloth in hand, and made me wipe the table again. I was almost in tears. Of course he did not care; I do not even think
he realised. Nichael, who was working with me that evening, did realise. I saw his look and we understood each other. He said ‘don’t worry’ and changed the subject to the course he was about to start. Better that way. Otherwise, I would have put Mr Deter’s head in the fucking bucket until it was “too much wet”. That night I was sent home at eight again. I was dying to leave the place, and I thought this way I could drop by Essex Road, where I knew of a Moroccan restaurant that was looking for staff. Before I left Haymarket, I heard Mr Deter talking to someone on the phone ‘she is nice, but nothing else. I don’t know where did they get her from. She can’t even clean a table, she looks like she’s lost, she gets nervous, doesn’t smile at customers…’ I left. Was I that bad? That is how bullying works. As all forms of self-esteem destruction, little by little it chips away any sense of self-worth you may have. At first you may even laugh with the bully. You do not take it personally, but you do, even not knowing it. You only realise when there is no self-esteem left, when the shield is gone and any arrow is painful and fatal. I left through the back door, crying. I got on the bus crying, until Essex Road. That was the always-overcrowded route 38. But the good thing about London is that you can cry in the middle of its eight million whatever inhabitants, and no one will ever ask you if you are ok. I got off in front of the Moroccan restaurant and when I asked about the vacancy, the owner told me that they already had someone. I did not even have the strength to ask why did they still have the ‘staff wanted’ sign on. “But leave your CV with me anyway”, she said. What for? I thought, and I refused. My CV is not free to print, and if she was saying that just to get my hopes up, then thanks but no thanks. I had no hopes left, and that day I could only think that the world –at least London’s world- was against me.
-4FROM THE FRYING PAN TO THE FIRE
I did not leave the steak house until a few days later. The problem was that I could not leave, as I did not have any other job, nor I was hoping to find any. Anything better, that is. The problem of being caught by the balls, even if you are female, is that your appreciation of what is better and what is worse gets deformed. You cannot think critically, let alone logically appraise the situation. That is why I went from Guatemala to Guatapeor –this is a very beautiful ironic Spanish expression that you might want to look up- or from the frying pan to the fire. The “too much wet night” I went home in tears. I tried to stay calm before I walked through the door, because I knew my boyfriend was in. I said I tried. Obviously he realised, and then I did not stop crying until three in the morning. There were a hundred thoughts in my head, but above all I kept thinking ‘why’. Why since I came to London I was going backwards. Why I felt the same or worse than when I left home at fifteen and had to do all sort of demeaning jobs, putting up with nasty bosses and miserable pay. Why I had to waste three hours of my life every day stuck on a bus. Three hours per day, fifteen hours per week, sixty hours per month…Why was I in that situation when I had something to offer? I was not fifteen now, I was not a teenager who has just left home and has to survive. I was twenty-five, with ten years of working experience, six languages, a first class degree and well-travelled. So why? My family has always said that I am proud. I would rather say I have certain standards. In London the standards dropped and dropped. I could not help making comparisons. Ever since I left home, I kept advancing. I had started cleaning other peoples sons’ asses, and then I was working as a sports journalist for TV. I had started living in a box room in the outskirts of Barcelona, and just before I moved to England I was renting a whole penthouse for myself by the beachfront in one of Spain’s most beautiful cities. I had always been locked in my parents’ house, and then I was travelling to Thailand, Africa and the Caribbean. Even as a student in Southampton, I could afford a meal out with friends. I could buy books, clothes, air tickets, I had a nice double room for myself, all that with three days of work every week. Basically, I had worked out a life for myself. And now it was almost gone. It is hard to accept that as an adult, you cannot manage your own life, especially when in the past you have done so without problems. It is even harder to accept that there is little you can do, and little you can hope, because these are what sociologists call ‘structural problems’. I had never seen so many of them concentrated in a single place. I avoided travelling to South London. I had heard about the slums that I was not ready to see without wanting to blow it all. During the long bus trip to work, I crossed many housing estates. Woodberry Down in Manor House was one of the worse. I do not know where the difference lies between this and the hush-no-mention ‘communist-style’ blocks of
flats in Poland or Ukraine. In Britain, we can only guess that one of the reasons to keep housing estates in such a derelict condition is that this way, the Government has someone to blame. This way, we have someone to punish for anti-social behaviour. This way, David Blunkett can encourage people housed in estates to ‘get off the telly and go to work’. This way, capitalism identifies its easy targets, constructs an ambiguous story around them, and when everyone swears by the ills of housing estate yobs and their unemployed-neglectful parents, what we have is a society that only knows how to blame the victims. This is especially true (and convenient, too) in a meritocratic society, something Britain has repeatedly claimed to be. Think about this: in a society where social mobility depends on personal merit, who are the ones who do not advance? Those with no merits to speak of. If you couple meritocracy with purported equality of opportunities, things get worse, because the implication is that if you have not managed to improve your social standing, it is only because you have not bothered in taking advantage of the plentiful opportunities offered to you, courtesy of the rich and powerful. In plain English, it´s all your fault. On a moral note, I might also add that the only condition for poor people and other parasites to exist, is that there must be well-off people. I am not talking rubbish, in case you were about to say so. Despite what the experts may say, the economy has nothing to do with equilibrium, and the same goes for society. At least, not in the one we know. A nation’s resources and its politicians’ capacity for theft are limited, but tend to accumulate on the morally correct side of the upper classes. Therefore, where you see wealth, suspect robbery. Where you see prosperity, suspect poverty, where you see capitalism, suspect blatant and cruel egoism. Of course I am right. I was trying to explain how I left the steak house. ‘That’ night, my boyfriend promised he would get the job issue sorted for me. Even so, I went around looking for work. There is a café in Camden, near the tube station, which is permanently looking for staff. That is a bad sign, I know. But I was desperate. I walked in with my CV. I am sure that despite my efforts, I could not do away with the mega-bitter look in my face. The manager had a look at the CV. ‘BSc eh?’ he smiled ‘Clever chick’. I walked out. If I am clever, which I am, I cannot be “chick”. So there must have been something wrong with him. A few weeks later, by the way, I saw the same ad on the café’s door –staff wanted- and on top of it ‘manager wanted’. Anyway. So a couple of days later I was told that there was a job. I was to go that evening to Kings’ Road. Wow. I was almost happy. Until I looked it up in the map. Chelsea, on a slow traffic day, was more than two and a half hours away. Anyway, did I say I was desperate? I went to ASK Kings’ Road. I had been told that the manager was Spanish. She was nice, seemed overworked and deserving something better. Despite that, she said that it was a good company and she had been working for them for seven years. ‘Who knows’, she added, ‘you might like it as well’. Obviously SHE did not know. I was never to spend seven years in a company where, even though you are the district manager as she was, you can and will get shouted at by your area manager because a customer said in one of
those infamous mystery shopping reports that you, the district manager, did not smile to them as they left the restaurant. But it was a good company, I see. I was put on the rota almost immediately, which meant I had to stand up the steak house. I never minded less. I thought that they did not even deserve me to go in person to give notice. But then I thought I could go, it would not take too long. I walked down Haymarket, with a written notice in my hand, but then I saw Mr Deter, hanging out, idle in the street. The very thought of standing up in front of that man, getting wafts of his stinky breath probably coupled with abuse, sent shivers through my spine. Literally. So the next morning I slipped the enveloped notice through the back door. They did not deserve more. A week later, I remembered my unpaid wages. So I sent them a registered letter of which I am still proud of, with all sorts of legal threats in response to their illegal actions. The following day I had the money in my bank account. Still so, it is sad, to say the least, that one has to resort to threats to get only, and just only, what one is due. ASK Chelsea. I was shown around the store, and introduced to the staff. They were mainly Albanian or from Kosovo. Here there were no English-speaking rules, as Albanian was widely spoken and I was left out most of the times. Anyway, I knew they were talking about me. And no, I was not getting paranoid. As you know, I am a disaster of a waitress. On my trial shift –eight hours for which I did not get paid- I dropped a tray and its drinks over the customer’s trousers. This is Chelsea, so they were Armani trousers. In my defense, I will say that table 32 was almost impossible to serve. Cornered between the wall and three more tables, there was no space to maneuver. So, for the time being, they put me behind the bar, which means cleaning, cleaning, more cleaning and occasionally pouring drinks. One of the supervisors, I cannot even remember his name, shouted at me across the room ‘Damaris, you make THE WORST cappuccinos I have ever seen, THE WORST’ he repeated. That was my second day of work. As you will see in the Starbucks’ chapter, I CAN make proper cappuccinos. You only need a proper coffee machine with a good steamer. The rest of staff kept moaning that they had to do everything despite me being there. But to my face, they were neutrally nice, or plainly indifferent. They just bore with me. The kitchen staff were particularly nasty, all but one. They were offended that I did not know each of the hundred types of pasta and dressings they prepared. They would not give me any hint either, they just pushed the ticket under my nose and then I was left to match name with dish, in my own time. One of the cooks tsssk-ed and put a grumpy face on every time I walked through the door. One of the supervisors, Nancini, practised his rudeness with me. The first Saturday I worked there, I was given one of the restaurant’s sections. What a coincidence, it was full of the ill-behaved children of the posh Chelsea’s population. They made the job difficult, but it was not my responsibility to keep children under control in a public place. I was taking an order, and then Nancini pulled me violently by the arm and shouted ‘What the fuck are you doing?!!! Your section is a messy shit!!!’ In normal conditions I would have had an equally rude reply ready. Not then. I wondered what was wrong with my section, other than the spoiled brats. I asked him. He said ‘everything’. Fine. That day I was meant to finish at five, but I was ordered to stay on until I was not needed. I was picking up some drinks, and then Nancini attacked again. ‘You! What the fuck are you doing? Go to the smoking section. I don’t want to see any ashtray with more than two butts on it.
You have five minutes!’ I have never, EVER, been talked to in such a way. Just put yourself in the situation. The problem is the type of people that get to supervising positions in this sort of jobs. I had three years of experience in KFC, seeing how all restaurant managers I knew were people who left school with no qualifications at all. They got a job in KFC, they were submissive, they made friends with the right person, they showed permanent availability, and they were promoted up to where they were. That is how you have twenty-one year olds in management positions. Now, these people have very little options outside KFCs and the like. So they must exploit their rank while they can, which means, you must do whatever it takes to please your district manager. Most of the time, this entails being a slave-driver and just worrying about boosting sales. Despite occasional courses, most of these people have little in the way of people skills. I have seen very able people leaving a KFC job because of the treatment they received. These managers do not know, or do not seem to know, that there are different paces and styles of learning, so if you do not master the till after a week, no matter the reason why, you are useless, and you will be treated as such. The issue of learning styles is never more poignant than in KFC-style companies. They purposely recruit foreigners, so you end up with a mix of people with different backgrounds and qualities. These, together with cultural issues, must be taken into account to the purpose of ‘smoothly running a restaurant’. But who cares. Nevertheless, the cultural thing was taken into account when it came to selecting staff. Tikki, the master of ‘labour control’, only employed Chinese people. Despite being English herself, she admitted that English youths are lazy and unreliable, so she preferred the neverdissenting Chinese, who would even ask permission to go to the toilet. She knew about the strict Chinese teaching-styles, so she knew that they were the perfect prototype of robot that will learn by heart the eight steps of selling and similar anomalies. When someone - as it was my case, and a couple of Chinese dissenters- dared to contradict her, we were classified as thieves, and the rest of staff were asked to ‘keep an eye on us’. This way you build teamwork spirit. This way too, employers like Tikki are not only buying your labour for £4.85 per hour, but also your obedience. Luckily, obedience measurements do not yet appear in Monday’s figures, although I do not doubt that one day will. At ASK I was also given four-hour shifts. Mostly closing shifts, which meant I was never at home before 2.30am, because of the long run on the bus. I was beginning to wonder how could I manage after a week, when my course was due to start. That was to be my main priority, but how? And besides, I do not live on my own. It is hard living with your partner, and not having time for each other. And when you actually find time, you are so exhausted and pissed off that all you want is to sleep and forget about the world for a few hours. It is no secret that personal relationships suffer in big cities. But it is not wellunderstood that people in low-paid-stupid-hours jobs have no choice but to make big sacrifices in the way of personal relationships. After all, I only have a partner. But what about parents who are in this sort of employment? If you want to be a direct provider of your children’s necessities, instead of committing the mortal sin of letting Government benefits to do so, you are forced to forego your family’s psychological needs of warmth, timely guidance and quality time together. The result is that yobs and evil black people
abound in certain areas of London. How blind is this world! I was very tired. Nancini complained about me to the manager in my presence. I could not even call him a liar; I was not supposed to say anything. One thing he did not mention is that I had no interest whatsoever in the job. A year before, after having my face and neck burned by a deep fryer, due to KFC’s flagrant breaches of health and safety rules, I had abandoned the Protestant work ethic. Up to then, I sported an impeccable track record of non-absences, no no-show ups, and no illness either. But then it dawned on me to think for whom I was striving. It was not to my own benefit. After all, despite going to work no matter illness, exams and other similar stuff, I was quickly deemed a thief by that manager I was trying to please. If this were a useful job, I would care considerably. If this were a nursing job, a teaching job, or something of the like, I would put a lot of effort. But you tell me what contribution does it make to the world to be serving spaghetti carbonara to Chelsea’s jet-set. It is an irrelevant job, and as such, it is irrelevantly paid.
Of course, what customers expect in return is five-star service. More on this in a minute. A lecturer at the LSE told me once, in reply to my complaints of irrelevancy, that actually these jobs make a contribution. London is alive and kicking with business and retail, eating-out options and drinking venues. Where had I seen that, other than in London? This is relevant. Also, the job is relevant because it is a job. What would I do otherwise? It helps me to earn a living. It helps hundreds of thousands of immigrants to earn a living, something that would not be possible in their countries of origin. Oh well. This is typical. London the provider written by London’s top earners. First of all, I have always been able to earn a living. Sorry, I have always been able to do more than that. I am not in this country to earn a living, because that expression is dangerously associated with ‘survival’. I am not in this country just to survive, thanks to an irrelevant job. I aspire to and I deserve a dignified life, because I have done my part. Now, it is London the provider’s turn. Secondly, about those hundreds of thousands of immigrants…the first question that comes to my mind is not whether they would be able to earn a living back home, but rather why not. This is an echo of the people-off-work argument. The point is not that people do not work, but why not. The point is not that immigrants cannot earn a living in their home countries, but why not. There are poor countries because there are rich countries. Saying otherwise is sitting behind the fences, and holding a superficial analysis. It surprised me that a superficial analysis came from an LSE expert. The problems at ASK Chelsea were not only related to Nancini’s aggressions and subsequent relegation to cleaning work, but the treatment we received from customers. When you go to the Ritz’s restaurant, you expect top service and food. When you go to McDonalds, you hope that the burger is not raw. But Chelsea’s inhabitants paid less than £10 per head for a meal, and complained about the food, the service, the noise and the decoration. As I said before, I have a problem with irrelevance. I cannot take it. The thing is that even Nancini was bullied by customers, and he resented it, swearing in Albanian. But then, he would go back to the table, being nice and smiling, saying thank you and I hope you enjoyed your meal. I also have a problem with hypocrisy. But then, hypocrisy is a result of what? Guess. Why was Nancini forced to smile to assholes? Because the
customer was paying. The power of a few banknotes goes far beyond the expected. It is not money, but being hungry for money and profits what causes hypocrisy. The hypocrisy problem can be related to something else. Page 25 of Bauman’s book. I am going to quote this integrally because there is not a word to waste. The context is that he is arguing that consumer societies are irrationally demanding –or so I understand- I quote: ‘Consumed goods should bring satisfaction immediately; requiring no delay, no protracted learning of skills and no lengthy groundwork; but the satisfaction should end the moment the time needed for their consumption is up, and that time ought to be reduced to a bare minimum. This reduction is best achieved if the consumers cannot hold their attention nor focus their desire on any object for long; if they are impatient, impetuous and restive, and above all easily excitable and equally susceptible to losing interest. When waiting is taken out of wanting and wanting out of waiting, the consumptive capacity of consumers may be stretched far beyond the limits set by any natural or acquired needs or determined by the physical endurability of the objects of desire’ And, quoting Taylor & Saarinen, Bauman argues that ‘desire does not desire satisfaction. To the contrary, desire desires desire’ Difficult? I will explain with reference to ASK Chelsea and its customers. ‘Consumed goods’ -i.e. spaghetti carbonara- will be consumed on certain assumptions. The first is that there shall be no delay. This is why some companies make big money through mystery shopping reports. One KFC shop alone will pay £90 every month for each mystery shopping report they are submitted to. There are 13 reports every year, now multiply for the number of KFCs in Britain. But KFC is not the only company who pays money for its employees to be criticised. Almost all low-paying companies use them. ASK did too. The majority of those reports set a ‘satisfaction time’, usually 30 seconds or so. So if you are not satisfied with the restaurant, waiters, spaghetti carbonara, etc. in your first 30 seconds, the place is rubbish. The second assumption is that thou shall not appreciate the skills involved in preparing spaghetti carbonara, nor any ‘lengthy groundwork’ they may take. Because remember, if it is lengthy, over 30 seconds, thou shall complain. The skills issue: to be honest, maybe making spaghetti carbonara does not take too much brain power. But then you too, oversusceptible Chelsea consumer, should be able to prepare them at home. Or ask your South American maid to prepare them. But no, you have to eat out, be impatient, swallow down your spaghetti as a hungry bull, and then complain. Ahh. Who cares about the spaghetti-maker, who is being paid £3.95 per hour. The rest of Bauman’s quote is selfexplanatory. Anyone heard of ‘impatient, impetuous and restive, and above all easily excitable and equally susceptible’ customers? That leads them to the consequences of ‘waiting out of wanting and wanting out of waiting’. So, as an impetuous spaghetti carbonara consumer, your head becomes messed up. You will not wait for the spaghetti that you do not want, but you will not wait for the spaghetti that you want either. This is because your ‘natural or acquired needs’ make no sense at all. You want spaghetti carbonara now, but now you don’t want them anymore, because they have not been
served fast enough. Or because they are not hot enough, or arranged in the plate nicely enough. So the conclusion is that what impervious spaghetti carbonara consumers take as need, is not need, but whim, caprice or desire. The problem with whim, caprice and desire, is that because it is false and unnatural, even if you have reasons to be satisfied, you will not. Desire wants desire, and spaghetti consumer wants something he/she cannot explain. So the end of the story is that, in ASK Chelsea, spaghetti carbonara consumers were never happy, and they made you feel responsible for it. Payday came. I needed money to buy a few second-hand textbooks. ASK pays cash, one wonders why. By the way, when I started the job, I was promised by the person who had worked seven years for the company that, tips included , I would be earning £250 per week. Sounded good to me. Tips were shared at the end of each shift. I was not given any for the first week, and some odd £5 during the second week. That was, so I was told, because I was not a waitress, despite of what my contract said. I was behind the bar, so I got no tips. When I was to sign my receipt for the wages, I read £121. I read again. For a full week of full-time hours. I do not know how the pay was calculated. In the receipt that I was not allowed to keep, it said £3.95 per hour. That was not even legal, but a few tricks in the small print of the contract made it legal. Even so, they must have been wary of someone reporting it, as you never got any payslips or receipt for whatever money you were paid. So I left. I did not turn up for my next shift, even though that meant that I lost another £121 or so, as we were paid one week in arrears. The job did not deserve an explanation; the people did not deserve any notice. One thing some catering managers must learn is that you cannot get away with yelling ‘what the fuck are you doing’. If you do not respect your staff, your staff will not respect you, and they will leave without notice, leaving you in the shit. Not everyone can do so, though, because for many people, choice is a luxury. I left because I got another job, but who knows how long I would have to put up with it all, had I not found anything else. But dodgy employers are well aware of who is less likely to move onto another job, and use this knowledge to their own benefit. The question here is one of why, again. Why are some people less likely than others to get another job that would lift them out of miserable working conditions?
I have one possible answer. It is a circle. The shorter time you have been doing low-paid jobs, the more chances you have to move on and up. If you are qualified for a better job, how do you explain your odd months working for Burger King to a JP Morgan interviewer? Maybe it was a student job, but Burger King and the likes have a bad reputation amongst JP Morgan and the likes. Because it is a matter of class. Social class trespasses individuals and moves onto occupations. A waiter is a low-class person. A banking investor is a high-class person. Between the low-class waiter and the high-class banking investor there are what sociologists call ‘glass ceilings and sticky floors’. So social classes are as closed onto themselves as ever, and their population feeds itself with untenable arguments to keep them closed. For the most part, these arguments refer to the division between ‘deserving’ and ‘non-deserving people’. For high-class gatekeepers, low-class people do not deserve to jump a couple of social classes. Theoretically,
qualifications help (because they are a trademark of merit). In practice, other things get on the way. When I lived in Southampton, I managed to have some research done on what graduates did once they were off university. Some British people had done pub work now and then, because they come endowed with student loans, so survival is not always a worry. Most foreign students had worked for agencies and Burger Kings (this is generic; I do not have anything in particular against Burger King). They had worked on a regular basis on permanent term during their studies. This is detrimental to such studies, but some managed to get very good degrees. Careers Services at universities have leaflets telling you that you can transform any working experience into an asset to get a graduate job. I agree, you should be able to transform it and employers should be able to see it. But CVs do not lie, even if you want them to. I found out that most British people with little or no working experience were the most likely to get a graduate job. On the other hand, they were also quite likely to live on benefits. Many foreign students who decided to remain in the country, kept working for agencies and Burger Kings after graduation. Some of them said a bit embarrassed that maybe it was because of their English. But their English had got them 2:1s and above. From experience, I knew that the longer you work for these companies, the less likely you are to find a proper job. You may have qualifications, but your working experience –and probably your accent- renders you under-qualified. I could not help thinking of the Camden’s café manager, the ‘clever chick’ bloke. Obviously, for other jobs, some people are over-qualified. I have a quiz for you: so now you tell me, what is the politically, morally and racially correct job for a graduate of working-class origins, with a good degree and a McDonalds’ past? The social class argument is interrelated with something else. In his book, Bauman states that we live in a consumer society (2005: 23, 24). This is no news. Now, what does it mean for a low-paid worker to live in a consumer society? This is easy. If you are lowpaid, you cannot consume. At least, not to consumerist standards. So if you are a not-upto-standards consumer, you are excluded, which in plain English means you are out. I will give you an example. Suppose you work for Starbucks –for more info see next chapter- Suppose you spend your working day serving coffees and muffins. The people who buy £3 coffees and £2 muffins regularly are up-to-standards consumers. If you like muffins, and if you work for Starbucks, you may as well consume them in your break but you have to pay for them- The thing is that, because primarily and visibly you are not a muffin-eater, but a muffin-server, the true muffin-eaters relegate you to a lower social class. They will realise that your consuming capacity is not the same as theirs, so more or less obviously, they will treat you as if you were from an inferior human category. To them, your low-paid job is the perfect ribbon on their flawed logic. You did not make the most of the opportunities available to you, therefore you have not accumulated merits. You have not accumulated merits, so you are not worthy of a better life. Therefore, you have a shitty job, and you deserve it. It all boils down to the same point, which is: you are what you do, and what you are seen doing. The last point is important. If you serve muffins and are seen serving muffins, you are a muffin-server. Even if sometimes you consume muffins too. My mother, who lives in Spain and works cleaning a doctor’s office, still wants to believe that she is not what
she does. She is a cleaner but she is not a cleaner. The first ‘cleaner’ refers to an occupation; the second to a moral attribute of your personality and worth in the world. The truth is that she is a cleaner, otherwise she would not be cleaning a high-class person’s office. In London, if you are a cleaner, you are a cleaner, and you are also probably black, Asian and living in Tottenham or Tower Hamlets. I have another quiz for you: who decides that, in addition to being a cleaner, you are a cleaner?
-5WELCOME TO STARBUCKS
On my way to the LSE, I walked past a Starbucks shop that was looking for shift supervisors and other lower forms of staff. Wicked if I can get this job, I wishfully thought, because it was literally three minutes away from the campus. The girl at the counter told me to come back on Monday, when the manager would be in. I did. I completed an application form that I knew too well, because I had applied to two other Starbucks shops with no results. The application form featured the usual smiley question: ‘why is it important that you smile to customers and provide them with good service?’ I thought hard about that. Possible answers included ‘because this way customers will come back and multiply the company’s profits while we smiling staff are paid minimum wages’, ‘because emotional labour is one the biggest assets in the working world’, ‘because money is king’ and ‘because we, perennially smiling staff are not expected to actually have feelings, just to fake them reasonably well’. I opted for a politically correct answer. After all, I wanted the job. Sheeja, the manager, went through the application form on the spot. This is usually the only way of getting an interview. If you drop your CV in, chances are that it will end up in some God-forsaken drawer, under the tills, thrown in the bin by the staff who took it, or something similar. This is why the ratio CVs handed-employers’ phone calls is so low. This is also why, although we kept the ‘staff wanted’ sign on for weeks, and got uncountable application forms coming in, some of them quite good, the one who got the job was the manager’s fiancé, who had just arrived from India. Anyway. So I got an interview, which was quite well-structured, I have to say. I did not even have to lie about my customer relations’ skills, because in reasonable circumstances, I can be a nice servant person. Sheeja asked me to come back in the afternoon for a trial shift. One of the things that attracted me in that place was that there were not embarrassing uniforms to be worn, just black shirt, black trousers and shoes, although there was an apron, of a green reminiscent of the Angus Steak Houses. There must be some market research study claiming that this awful green tone induces sales in some way. Otherwise, I can only conclude that uniform designers are despots who enjoy having a laugh at us, poor green-fitted persons. The trial shift went well, although the store was extremely busy and I could only clear tables and put the dishwasher on. The staff was hectic, which should have been a warning. Maurizia, one of the baristas, kept coming into the dishwasher room and shouting ‘mugs, mugs, I need mugs!!!’ as there were more customers than mugs. The following day I was taken on, and made to sign my contract and other paperwork which I was not supposed to sign. For example, the cash handling awareness form, whatever it is called. In it, I agreed that I had been explained the company’s cash handling procedures and understood them. I had not been explained anything, since all I had done so far was
putting the dishwasher on. I signed. While quickly going through the contract, in search of fishy clauses that might put me on £3.95 per hour, I was pleased to see that I was going to be paid £5.35 per hour. I was lucky that the National Minimum Wage had just gone up by a generous 20 pence per hour (while some salaried staff will get indignant if their annual pay rise falls below a few hundred pounds, but then, Starbucks´ staff do not fall into the same category of humans as salaried staff, isn’t it?). Also, I was lucky that Starbucks acknowledges that travel costs in London are irrational, so for staff working in Zone 1, the company adds extra 30 pence on top of whichever Minimum Wage is in force. A gesture of goodwill. One thing I noticed is that in this type of job, and especially in London, you do not ask how much they pay. If you do, employers will think you are either new to the city, or stupid. London pays minimum wage, sometimes less, and everybody knows. My contract said twenty-four hours per week. That was the minimum that the company guaranteed me. But the contract did not specify a maximum, so as usual, contracts were there to save the employer’s ass. I started to work 35 hours each week, while at the same time I started the pompous MSc Social Psychology at the not less pompous London School of Economics. It was difficult. No one respected the availability form that I had completed when I applied for the job. In it, I made clear that I would not work during lecture’s hours. Nevertheless, people in charge of the rota must have read that I was available Monday to Sunday, from open until close. I was not, but I had to be. I could not go to any seminar. On my only day off, I would go to the library, armed with my best intentions, and sleep over the British Journal of Social Psychology. I could not catch up, and I was only taking one full unit that term. To me, after knowing how well I had done and could do, that was plain defeat. I kept asking for my working hours to be changed, and they were one week, to return to a 35-hour week the following. The only thing that motivated me was that in a few months’ time, I could start with my dissertation. I love doing research, and doing my own stuff. I started cooking up a theme, and obviously it had to be an ethnomethodological study of low-paid jobs, and an examination of what is at stake in these workplaces. In what exactly consists the exchange relationship between Burger King managers and their underpaid staff? I was excited. Too good to be true, it was never to happen. But this is stuff for another chapter. By the end of my first week at Starbucks, people loved me, mainly because I knew how to make cappuccinos, and because I ran around like a mad rabbit all the time. I had applied for a shift supervisor position, because that was what I had been for the past three years. But obviously they had to see me work first. I have said before that I do not take part in the Protestant work ethic. I worked reasonably hard because I thought it was a reasonable workplace, with nice people around. I did not feel I had to prove anything to anyone. So, when I began to realise that the place was not so reasonable, people thought there was something wrong with me, because so far I had been so good. Until I opened my eyes, they were even thinking of promoting me to shift supervisor. That would mean a meager £2 extra per hour, with all the stress that involved. But after a few days working there, I realised that that would never happen, mainly because I was not given any training.
If you are really keen in becoming a shift supervisor, you have to do your homework and complete a few written modules for assessment. On my second day of work, I was given a thick spiral-bound booklet to read and answer. It made no sense to me. I spent ten hours reading things like ‘what is the pouring time for an espresso shot in a Verismo machine? If your store does not use a Verismo machine, go to question 15’ What was a Verismo machine? What was a French press? I learnt about the three visible parts of liquid coffee, which, because I like coffee, was interesting. I learnt about the ten second rule, which states that when you are preparing a drink, you must use the espresso shot within ten seconds of it being poured. Which was stupid. Clearly, it was not a matter of food poisoning. The fact is that, anyway, the customer is not going to drink whichever fancy coffee in ten seconds. On the contrary, they usually lingered around the store for hours, the so-busy LSE students. So the espresso shot was going to be in their drinks for more than ten seconds. Do not try to convince me of why this was necessary. It was not, other than to be an element of the surveillance that these workplaces put on their employees. It was not necessary, other that to substitute the disappearing nineteenth-century factories where everything was to be done in a certain time, by human machines that used an espresso shot within ten seconds. It was irritating. The problem was that, to know what a Verismo machine is, you need to see it. But because the store was so busy, no one had time to show me. I realised I was never going to be trained so I did not think anymore of the shift supervisor thing. After all, Abi was the perfect example of the progression opportunities that never happen in Starbucks-like workplaces. Abi had been in the UK for nine years. Yes, excellent English and lots of experience. He was even the store’s coffee master, i.e. the privilege of wearing a black apron instead of the much-hated green one. He knew all the rules, procedures and other irrelevant stuff that I had no interest to learn. He had been promised a promotion and a pay rise, but because the store manager was never the same for more than three months, it never happened. You are in good terms with your current manager, he/she thinks that you deserve something else, and then this person leaves or is fired. Another one comes, who has no idea of who you are, how you work, or what do you want, and if one day you feel ill or are fed up, you are deemed a lazy ass. The promise of a pay rise never materialises, and you are stuck serving ten-second espresso shots despite your potential for doing something more useful. The truth is that opportunities for progression exist, but not as a result of your individual merits. Britain is not a meritocracy, as the Labour government wanted us to believe, but a ‘chancetocracy’. By chance, you might become a shift supervisor. If a supervisor in your store leaves, or is fired, and you are in the right place at the right moment and with the smiley attitude, you might get it. People come and go, I was told once by a senior manager, so new opportunities arise. But people also stay and stay, stuck and stuck, because their value as individuals is not assessed in the right terms, except when there are staff shortages and the manager is caught by the balls. There were lots of rules and procedures in this job. Lots of rules and procedures also mean little or no choice for staff. Break time was one of the rules. No one will convince me that there is a reason to clock you out for your ten-minute break. I mean that there is no reason other than to prey on the already preyed-on staff, and so to increase the company’s profit. After all, I am sure that those Randstad staff who moaned about non-
English speaking jobseekers did not get ten minutes off their salary when they went on their fag break. However, when you are not even on a salary, but miserably hourly-paid, you get your break time deducted. And of course, you MUST go on your break, you have no choice but to loose ten minutes of your shift, even if you do not need them. This is the same complaint as the one about the London weighting thing. What a farce. The capitalist Bible says ‘reward the high-earner, punish the poor’. My London weighting allowance was 30 pence per hour, and that only because I worked in Zone 1. Starbucks’ staff working in Zone 3 get nothing. London is not cheaper just because you live or work in Zone 3. On the contrary, travel cards are more expensive, and travel time is longer. And in London, time is money. My ex-boyfriend, who worked for JP Morgan and lived in Zone 1, paid only £10 more per week in rent than I did, and spent nothing in public transport, as he walked to work. Still, his London allowance was a few £k. He also received a nice ‘golden hello’ in his previous job. In low-paid jobs however, you receive a royal kick-in-your-ass, in addition to, or maybe as a consequence of, having taken up a low-paid-low-class job. Obviously, my ex’s job in JP Morgan was not irrelevant. In one way or another, more directly than not, he was contributing to the fulfillment of the capitalist gospel. So that was to be rewarded. But people who, despite equally paying for exorbitant rents and ridiculously priced bus passes, spend their working life preparing tall-non-fat-sugar-free-vanilla-half-shot-extra-hot cappuccinos, and other ludicrous customer demands, those are blessed with a 30 pence per hour London Allowance, if they are lucky enough to work in Zone 1 and serve posh customers. But I was going to talk about break times. I often get carried away and diverge from the theme I am talking about. This is because everything is interrelated. Low pay has causes, allies and consequences. You can throw in as many controversial issues as you like, and you will not get it wrong. Low pay has to do with gender, with random promotion chances, with liberal ideologies, with racism, with hypocritical moral reformers, and the list could go on. So when you think about the global perspective, everything makes sense in its own way. When you gain a global perspective on who and why is underpaid, the nonsense makes sense. The only problem is that one rarely can live knowing this. If you are sensible, you get angry. If you get angry, you cannot keep playing the system’s game for too long. The only option then is to emigrate to Mars. Break times. A couple of months after starting that job, a new employee handbook came in. We were also given a letter, in which head office reminded us that we were looked after and taken into account. That was the reason why break time policy had been reviewed. Until then, breaks were only to be taken if you worked a four-hour shift. Then you got ten minutes stolen from your pay. If you worked a six-hour shift, the robbery increased to thirty minutes. For an eight-hour plus shift, you would lose forty minutes’ pay. I have a quiz for you: do salary-earners get their lunch time deducted off their pay? It it a yes or no answer. I have another quiz for you: why not? It is a multiple choice answer. Anyway, Starbucks’ head office wanted us to know that, because they cared for us, they had thought that any shift deserved a break. So even if you worked one hour, you would have to take a ten-minute break. What pissed me off was the patronizing tone of the letter. As if they were doing us a favour. Thieves!
Of course other low-paid workers are less lucky. They do not have head offices to care for their well-being. My boyfriend, for example, worked an eight-hour shift in a shabby night club in Old Street. Friday and Saturday night. Booze nights. Fight nights. Despite the fact that staff working in drunkard-contention tasks does need a rest, no staff in this night club ever got a break. Never mind the law. From time to time, if it was not busy, the manager told them that they could go for something to eat. Ten minutes. After that, I guess you should come back grateful as a sheep to its shepherd. It is disgusting. The thing is that some of these workers are made to believe that this is all they can hope for, because this is all they deserve. There are tacit understandings about what you deserve and what you do not deserve as a worker. It all boils down to the tricky circle of low-paid jobs, low-class judgements and low-expectations. If you are lucky enough to get a job in this night club, do not ever think of questioning why they are breaking the law. Because there are hundreds of thousands of immigrants out there that would die for your job. So shush and work. Some people believe the lie. Others do not, but what use is it, if that lie is the common language of employers. I, for example, do not believe that I should get paid £5.35 per hour. I do not believe that my breaks have to be stolen from my payslip. I do not believe that I am what I do. I can give you a hundred reasons for every one of these issues to be changed. But what use is it, if nothing is going to change? Why should anything change, if it benefits the power and pound-holders? As I said before, everything is interrelated. And as I also said before, we staff have no choice. Yet, one of the Starbucks’ ambiguities was that regarding customers’ choice. In the only staff meeting we had in five months, Sheeja told us not to even think of asking customers what size of coffee did they want. Instead, we were to impose a ‘would you like the medium or the large size?’ You are right, this is obviously up selling, so when it comes to the company’s profit, neither staff nor customers have much of a say. But when it comes to customers’ eccentric coffeedrinking choices, then of course they were always right. The underlying principle is that, in the realm of the fooled by capitalism, customers come first, and staff come last. Moreover, you must not forget to smile while you are handing out the quirky cup of coffee, thinking ‘sod off’. Ahhh the smiley issue. There is a lot to say about this. I am no expert in emotional labour, but at least I know what it is, and I know how to spot it even in its most subtle forms. In Starbucks though, it was not subtle. In KFC it was one of the eight steps of selling (smile, greet, look, listen, up sell, pack the order, take the money and thank). Now read the eight steps of selling again. Except for the up sell thing, the common denominator of all of them is that they are common-sensical. Trust me, I have an anthropology degree, mixed with some psychology units, and I know that in daily interactions, most people smile, look, listen and thank. In any retail-based interaction, in addition to the above, you will normally pack the order and take the money. Nevertheless, KFC’s tills were all decorated with small plastic printouts detailing the eight steps of selling. This can only mean one thing. Ok, two things, but again interrelated. First, that you do not trust your staff. That is why you remind them, want it or not, of every single step they should perform with each customer. Second, if you do not trust your staff, there must be a reason. The reason I can think of is that you think that
your staff are abnormal retards. You don’t? Subconsciously, you do. As I said, and you will probably agree, the look-listen-smile-thank thing is the norm. Maybe in London people do not smile as a norm. But again this is a matter of why. Except for employers like Benata, people usually look at you in the eye when they talk to you. People usually listen, and if they do not, they beg your pardon. And certainly, in Britain people say thank you. Kate Fox has published an excellent book about the thankful issue and other peculiarities of British culture, should you be interested. Therefore, there is no other conclusion to be drawn. When you constantly remind someone of the basics of life, of working life in this case, no matter how obvious these may be, this can only be because you think that someone is mentally impaired. As a first class degree holder, I felt offended. I do not need to be told when and why it is correct to smile. So, to be told that I have to smile smile smile, is the same to me than being told that I have to wear knickers. Obvious, unnecessary, and humiliating. Moreover, some customers do not give a shit about your emotional input. The ones who do are self-centered assholes. They share the same double-standard ethic of the plotters of the smiley rule. A customer who, in his paid leisure time –i.e. paid lunch, breakfast, fag break- gurgles things like ‘whoever will say you are going to a funeral’, only deserves a thirty-second leftover espresso shot. Because they are comfortable in their little cages, they will not think why that girl does not seem over-excited to be serving a never-ending queue. The only thing they can do is to attribute your long face to being a rude cashier, and complain because we have run out of Skinny Lemon Poppy Seed muffins. Irrelevance, irrelevance, irrelevance. I forgot to say hypocrisy. When I grow up, I would like to run survival workshops for Lemon Poppy Seed muffin-eaters in places like Somalia, Liberia or Haiti. That would teach them. For the time being, I had to put up with Halal. Sheeja left or was transferred, we never knew the truth. We had no manager, so one of the experienced shift supervisors took over. Sometimes, being experienced and witty is not advantage. If, on top of it, you are basically a good person, you are in the shit. So he took over, which means that he had to do his job plus the manager’s job for the sum of £7 per hour, minus breaks. To do this you must work over fifty hours per week, regardless the fact that you are a practising Muslim in the middle of Ramadan. So much for religious and cultural respect, understanding and tolerance. I will not go into this issue, because I myself am not quite religiously tolerant, being agnostic. But at least I am not hypocritical, and at least I realise small details such as someone needing time to observe religious times and dates. So for a few weeks, we had no manager. No one noticed, to be honest. Then Halal took over, and everyone noticed. This self-important asshole was truly amazing. Although he was in charge, this was not his store. So he only popped in every few days, stood in the middle of the shop floor looking at how we dealt with a queue that reached outside the store’s door, and not helping. He also spent his scarce time in the store kneeling around corners in the toilet and saying ‘this is filthy!!’ Of course, because he was never long enough in the store, and because he was a short-sighted self-centered asshole, he could not think that our store was the busiest of the area, so we lazy staff never had time to do any detailed cleaning. That was beyond his intellectual ability. The
first day he was actually in the shop for a whole shift, we had a conversation. It was a busy Monday, Mary and I were the cashiers. After his routine inspection of the toilet’s corners, he called me into the office “Damaris, you all right” It was not even a question. It was the type of time-fillinghopefully-vaguely-polite sentence that Kate Fox talks about in her book, of the ‘how do you do-how do you do’ type. Although I knew perfectly well that he was not expecting – or wanting- an answer, I replied “Actually I am feeling ill. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I am working the type of long hours that I was not meant to be working, because I should be studying instead. Maybe it has to do with the fact that yesterday it was stupidly busy, and there were only two of us working, because some incompetent keeps getting the rota wrong. So I finished an hour and a half late, and I had no break at all during the whole stupidly busy shift. Maybe it also has to do with the fact that YOUR beloved customers insist in leaving the shop’s door open in the middle if the winter, so I’ve caught a cold. So if you really want to know it, I am not all right” Wow. I felt better now. Halal looked blank and taken aback “So you are a student” clearly he was planning how to attack back “I’m doing a Master round the corner” I said, using non-earnest techniques “LSE?” he asked, and made a ‘I take my hat off-chapeau’ gesture “That is why I don’t accept certain things” I carried on “Listen, all I wanted to know is where are you and where I can expect you to be” he said. Actually, he could expect me to be anywhere but working for Starbucks on £5.35 per hour, I thought, and gave him a smirk “I am where people in charge left me. Although it is compulsory, I have not been sent to the Starbucks Experience training, and I have been working here for over two months. And about where you can expect me to be, it is me and only me who expects things about myself with any right sense” I just could not shut up. It happens this way. Once you are running wild, you can only run wilder “Fucking hell what a mouth” he said. Well, I had not sworn, had I? But sometimes the truth is offensive, in particular if you are a blind asshole ‘Look, because you are ill today, I’ll keep it short. I have been observing you, and you don’t smile at customers. People can’t hear you behind the bar. Do you know about the legendary service steps?’ Oh good Lord. Another pretence for mental retards or what? Legendary service…bollocks. What he said was to be analysed, though. First, he admitted to observing me. Anyone has read Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’? You will then know what I am
thinking of. Second, I did not smile at customers. I have already said what I think about smile props. Third, people could not hear me behind the bar. What was expected from us was the following: you take the order, pass it onto the person stuck at the coffee machine, between hundreds of coffee orders. You have to shout at that person what the order is. The other person, as if he/she had not enough work to do, has to shout the order back to you –and presumably to all the customers, as they should hear you behind the bar- Then, once he/she has finished preparing the drink, and while shouting back orders to you, he/she has to put the drink on the table, SMILE at the customer making personal eye contact, and shout the drink’s name for the tenth time. Sometimes it was really annoying. When I was cleaning the far end of the shop, clearing tables and so on, I could often hear hellish yells of ‘Venti Cappuccino, Venti Cappuccino!!!!!!!’ from behind the bar. It makes no sense, and it is disturbing, especially when it contradicts the company’s spirit. We are told that customers come in to have the legendary Starbucks’ experience –i.e., wasting their study time chatting up rich chicks while drinking the cheapest coffee we sell in the largest cup we have. They do that, honest – Even if you are a normal citizen and just want to have your coffee in peace, you would not like to drink it while listening constant shouts from behind the bar. Would you? You wouldn’t. So Halal was accusing me of not shouting, to keep it short. “I am not a loud person. Actually, I think quite lowly about loud people” and I laughed at my own joke. He must have thought I was nuts “You don’t need to be loud! I’m not asking you to be loud!” but he was being loud, and also, there was no further explanation of what he was asking from me “I know what you are saying But sometimes, you have to admit that it is difficult to be happy and cheerful, even if you are not, and even more difficult to look happy and cheerful, especially if you are not. You don’t feel like that when you have a queue that reaches LSE’s doors constantly” “Ha. Ha. You know what, being happy and cheerful is your choice. It depends on your mindset” There we go, I thought, again the same tale. Being happy written by a happy person. Of course it is easy. Anyway, Halal was saying something of his own personal experience ‘You know, last Friday I was opening my store. Alone, because the other member of staff was late. I had a big queue in front of me, and my till was broken. And I had a problem with delivery, because I was missing some muffins’. Oh poor happy person. ‘Even so, I was smiling and joking with the customers, so this way they were also happy despite the delay’ This guy must come from frigging Jupiter. Either that, or he enjoys self-deception a lot. Come on. Imagine you are a customer, in the middle of the morning rush hour. You go to Starbucks for your odd-named coffee and pastry. You walk in on your way to the office, to find out that there is a long queue that does not seem to move. There is only one cashier who is also preparing the drinks. So the service is slow. After the wait, it is your turn. The guy tells you that your Skinny Lemon Poppy Seed muffin is not available, blaming delivery. The guy also jokes about it. Now be honest, how would you feel? I do
not think you would be happy despite the delay. If I were a Skinny Lemon Poppy Seed muffin-eater, I would like to strangle that clown who is telling me, with a smile though, that I have no muffin this morning. I laughed. Halal was oblivious to my thoughts, so he was pissed off at my sudden good mood. “They are teaching you the wrong psychology in your course” he said, grumpily “And by the way, it is up to us to decide when you should get your training, and when you should smile and how” “But it is up to me to decide whether your decisions are sensible or not. And by the way, I am not being taught psychology in my course, I am being taught to think by myself. And I am going on my break, because I don’t get my money nicked off my pay for talking nonsense” And I went on my break, since I had been clocked off for the length of the friendly chat. After that of course, I was forever hated. In their majority, employers who pay minimum wages do not like their staff to think by themselves. But they cannot always win. Mary was given a similar speech, and she was clearly affected by it. She was one of the staff who had been working there for a long, long time. I guess she felt the ‘you must wear knickers’ after-taste. Because such employers do not want you to think by yourself, they make sure you have no reaction time to do so. So Halal would fire out-of-place speeches, that caught you out-of-thought. Abi told me that the first time Halal addressed him, was to say ‘Hey, you, Abi, yes you!! Do not do that to customers. It’s impolite’. ‘That’ referred to looking at the ever-beeping grilling machine, to double-check that the panini ready was that of your customer. Because you are supposed to multitask, but you are supposed to keep personal eye contact with customers while multitasking. Absurd. Also, Halal said that while leaning on the bar, from a considerable distance, and making rude gestures with his hand. That is also impolite, to tell off and ridicule your staff in front of customers and other staff. Moreover, when you do not have a reason to tell your staff off, it is also stupid and arrogant. I was not annoyed again by the arrogant. Sometimes I really wanted to, because I had lots of things to say in reply, and because I like getting into arguments that I know I have already won. It is a problem when your mind works faster than that of your boss. Normally your boss will realise, and he/she will not like it. But I have to say that I do not enjoy winning enemies, at work or wherever. So a bearable job ended up being impossible to carry out. I was constantly in a bad mood, and people around me noticed it. They knew why, but still, it is not pleasant to work in such an environment. Enough pressures you get from the muffin-eaters. Some workmates though, thought that the Starbucks’ job was something more than just bearable. A clever and capable Polish girl told me that the job was enjoyable. Really, I answered in a neutral tone. She went on to say that, who knows, one day, if you work hard, you might also become a store manager. The same as our current manager, who in four years had made it from the lowest form of staff to respectable store manager. I was not impressed, but I was not enticed either. Store manager…who wants it?! In the unlikely event that I made it to store manager, I would suffer from serious cognitive dissonances. Because being a low-paying store manager
entails either turning a blind eye to injustice, or holding onto a moral of double standards. Never, never, ever. But I was talking about the working atmosphere once I started to show that I did not like what was going on. One of the supervisors picked on me. He took me into the office –that is always a bad sign- and said that, if I wanted war, I would have war. He also said he could be the nicest person, but also the nastiest one. He said I had provoked him. He also ordered me to change my working hours so that he would not have to work with me. Another manager, of North African origin, told me that I should rather shut up, because I was lucky to be there, because if I was in his country, I would not be allowed to get outside my front door. I thought that, if he was in MY country, he would be lucky to be picking oranges for 50 pence per hour, and sleeping in overcrowded huts. That, if he was lucky enough of crossing the strait between Africa and Spain without drowning. What all of this means is that, despite being burdened by eight daily hours of emotional labour, you have no right to resent it. You are even lucky to be there. What this means in turn, is that you should not resent it because you are not expected to think and question the ethicality of emotional labour. To keep it short, it means that you are not expected to think. It confirms my hypothesis. You are not supposed to think, because of the extension that late capitalism has brought in from the factory line to the coffee shop counter. We no longer work in dull assembly lines, but we smile, look, listen and thank to the customer just because we are forced to do so. You have no choice, because you have somehow shown to the meritocratic society that you do not deserve to have a choice. A respected human being would have been granted the relative freedom of using his/her discerning capacity, and to smile or not, depending on the circumstances. We no longer work in Fordist factories, but we open cash drawers, close cash drawers, utter unfelt welcome to Starbucks messages like robots, hundreds of times every day, with the same monotonous dismay. Yes, you guessed it. The matter is one of why. Why, whose benefit is it to keep thousands of low-paid workers engaged in brain-numbing tasks that allow no room for autonomous thinking? Then of course you will always have senior managers telling you that, on the contrary, they expect and welcome staff’s individual personality and abilities. Because it’s people who make the company. Bullshitting hypocrisy.
-6STUDENTS WHO WORK: MORE CLASS DIFFERENCES
While I was working at Starbucks, and while I was looking for another job, I discovered a self-esteem-uplifting pastime. You go into that restaurant, newsagent or DVD rental shop that is looking for staff. And you break all hidden taboos, first and foremost, asking straight up how much do they pay. “Hi. How much do you pay?” “Sorry?” is commonly the answer. That confirms that there is a taboo, and a lot of hypocrisy that employers themselves have internalised. They do not know what you are talking about; they do not expect a jobseeker to ask for any wages other than the minimum. “The vacancy. How much do you pay?” “£5.05” The answers come with two lots of emotional loading. Some employers say it embarrassed. The majority say it puzzled, for the reason mentioned above. Some people say ‘I don’t know, better come and talk to the manager when he’s in’ Then you ask them if they work there. Yes. And how much do they get paid?. ‘£5.05’ is the answer. Then you ask them why. Then, they look at you as if you came from Mars, or as if you were the Saviour. If you do talk to the person in charge, you ask the same question. So how much do you pay? Five pounds per hour. Why? No answer. Then I opted for saying “Bullshit” and I left the shop It does work well to release contained anger. Because in addition to having to smile, in Starbucks and similar jobs you cannot show the minimal sign of displeasure. Even if you have a valid reason, such as being paid poverty wages. That is what emotional labour consists of; suppression of valid feelings, and induction of inappropriate feelings at inappropriate times. This implies that you are no longer a person, with capacity for decision or judgement. If you become aware of this, and still have to do the job, it is frustrating. So you must find ways to vent your frustration. And because it is not fair to vent it on your boyfriend, you do it on the culprits. Of course, the true culprits will never be available for your rage-venting sessions. I thought I would go on a hunger-strike at Tony Blair’s door with a big cardboard sign saying ‘WHY?’, until I got a decent job. But
probably, before that, I would be jailed for public order disturbance. So it is no use. The problem is that the more you think, the more you think. So even after going and saying ‘bullshit’ to low-paying employers, I felt pissed off and powerless. Big time.
On top of it, I had to wear black socks. In Starbucks and KFC, you must wear black socks, despite the fact that your socks, unlike your fake smile, are not visible. These are the type of things that irritate a logical thinking mind. Why black socks? This was not a food poisoning matter either. Nor a fashion dictate, as we had to wear the green aprons. So why would you have to follow arbitrary rules about sock-colouring? The answer I was given is that ‘this is just a job. We all need a few pounds every month to survive’. Precisely, this is JUST a job. So what authority does that job hold on you so that you have to wear irrelevant black socks? Is it that they are paying you survival wages? Imagine for a second that I worked for JP Morgan. No one would dare ordering me to wear black socks. But if they did, I would still question it, because, and this is important, I am not money driven. A job can pay millions, but if the price of being paid millions is to wear black socks and likewise absurdities, I will not take it. Although I am intellectually driven, I come from a working class foreign background, and that is not always something rewarded in capitalist self-appointed meritocratic societies. So, to sum up, for an intellectually-driven worker, a job at Starbucks is not the best it can happen. But then again, increasingly more and more, it is the only thing it can happen. I also have things to say about educational meritocracies, which is why I had my doubts about going to do a Master at the all-powerful London School of Economics. I had applied and got offers to study an MPhil at Glasgow, for an MA in York, and for two MA’s at the Institute of Education. But then, I wanted to be like some people, and I sold my soul. Then, I believed the fantastic job prospects of being a postgraduate at one of London’s top institutions. I should have been emotionally clever and think that the consequence of hating London is that you do not want to get a fantastic job in London. I came to London to get an education, because it seems that, in the style of Angus’ ‘goodEnglish-good-people’ motto, Britain runs a ‘good-cities-good-education’ policy. London in particular, runs a ‘rich-borough-good-school’ policy. Shame, shame and shame. I forgot to say hypocrisy. Anyway. So, Labour’s meritocracy says that, if you are to gain access to fantastic job prospects in unequal London, you have to have a 2:1 or above. It also says that you must to have a lot of money. Actually, the first requisite is that you must to have a lot of money to pay for the fees that in other universities in not-so-well-off cities, are half LSE’s amount. The issue here is one of what leads to what. So, big money and upper class, along with a good degree, lead to a top rank university. This in turn, leads to a top rank job in a top rank city. But…the reverse is also true. I am being unfair. There are also scholarships and other financial gimmicks set up by the Financial Office. These Merit Awards, properly named, are designed to sponsor prospective students of high calibre. However, the ‘high calibre’ criteria are not made public, so you never get to know why you do not get it, despite having a more-thanaverage academic record. I am happy for the people who got the full Awards though, as long as they really deserved them. That is another problem of meritocratic societies. The
discretion of the judges of social improvement awards is not shared out with the large population. It is actually hidden from them. In case you detect some leftist leanings in my attitude, don´t worry, I am not going to claim that this does not happen in Cuba. But at least in Cuba, high quality education at all levels, is free to high calibre students, no excuse. This way you do not have to be hypocritical and set up judges of Merit Award. Then of course, after graduation most Cuban students work as taxi drivers, earning £10 a month. But similar things happen in London, so let us not be pharisaic. In Cuba, you cannot live on £10 a month. In London, you cannot live on the minimum wage. When I say ‘live’ I mean to lead a dignified existence. People get confined to prisons and mental asylums, but they are still alive. Low-paid workplaces have become the morally superior equivalent of prisons and asylums. You are locked up, dispossessed of your autonomy, going to the toilet when you can if-it-is-not-busy, having your lunch break when the boss orders you so, wearing black socks just because…all of this for the minimum reward of £5.05, which is a subsistence pay. For the lucid person, this situation is painful. The problem is that, if you are lucid, this situation can turn you insane. But I’m wandering off my point. My point is that if your government does not have the money and/or the intention to provide good education to everyone who wants it and deserves it, because that money goes to areas and institutions that do not need it so much, then they do not have to promise heaven on earth –i.e. fantastic job prospects- Of course I am right. But I took up LSE’s offer, and was given a £3000 Merit Award. Despite the fact that my fees were over £8000, and despite the welcome letter that LSE’s Finance Office sent me, saying that the average London’s student budget was £12000 per annum. What proportion of that is £3000, it is something for others to answer. But it was better than nothing, and I was told that I should not ungratefully moan. The £3000 were halved because, since I could not get a job to sustain me, I had to change my mode of study from full to part-time. So I got £1500 for the first year, and had to pay the remaining £2500. Which I did not have really, as I had spent two months refusing poorly-paid jobs, one month asking for my wages, and a few weeks getting paid less than £4 per hour. And I was not going to break into my savings bond again, because those savings were the result of ten years of hard work. So for the first time in twenty-six years, I had to ask for money. I went to the Disability Office, because despite getting a good degree, I have dyspraxia. Disability funds, at least, are not means-tested. The staff was very understanding (and I am not being sarcastic this time). I felt ashamed and weak for not being able to contain my tears while I was asking them for the chances I might have to get some money. I had never asked for a penny, I had never been overdraft, and hopefully, I will never ask for a loan. But I had some chances, and I was granted £700. I thought that could help me to pay the next term’s fees. But I never started the next term. As I was walking to the bank to cash my cheque in, I had a revelation. This was only a short-term solution, like a plaster put on a bleeding artery. Ben Robinson, from Socialist students, has repeatedly called attention to the fact that a good deal of working-class students drop out of their courses. Dropouts, by the way, are usually thought of as empty brains who cannot be bothered to struggle a bit and keep their studies as their first priority. Instead, they spend their student loans getting drunk and behaving antisocially. True, some people do. But most people do not.
Remember, I have done my homework on this. Dropouts, no matter the reason they end up being so, are considered to be irresponsible. Then of course, those who are responsible have no much better prospects, as I struggled a lot to keep my degree as a first priority, and then I was working for Starbucks, and I got LSE’s door closed on my face. Hypocrisy, hypocrisy and hypocrisy. I forgot to say bullshit. So I deposited my cheque in, went online and used that money to buy a holiday in San Francisco, leaving in two days´ time. I had decided to quit my studies for good, and spent days thinking whether I felt more relief than anger over my decision. Quitting was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Several things led me to that action. The 2005-2006 MSc Social Psychology’s meritocratic prodigies, including myself, started out with the best intentions. We expected a lot. After all, that is why we were paying £8000 for being there. Some people however, were not paying for it themselves as I did. Their parents did, maybe because their parents themselves went to top rank universities and actually got fantastic jobs. I hoped that my parents had been like that, having the same life chances. That way, I could have finished the Master I started. But I could not. Anyway, my point is that we were right to expect a lot, both in terms of facilities and quality of teaching. We expected a lot, only to find out that there were not enough books in the library, which is one of Britain’s best libraries. Also, there were not enough computers. One of Starbucks’ regular customers, a sensible guy from an African country who was studying Development at the LSE, told me in dismay that he was hoping that there would be study and computer rooms wherein he could study overnight. Me too. But there were none, and the only twenty-four hour computer room that the university set up during the holiday break was suddenly closed, and as the notice on its door informed us, would not reopen unless there was sufficient demand. Maybe this is because meritocratic prodigies are expected to own £1000 laptops with wireless Internet connection, which I did not own. But most certainly, the shortage of computers was due to the institution’s greed. Every year, they increased their intake quota, so that they kept more thousands of pounds coming in, until we and they were under-resourced. This is not acceptable. Although the library did not have enough teaching materials, we could always pop into Waterstones Houghton Street, which was unashamedly overpriced and erratically open or closed. If you got sick of it, you could always go back to the top institution and its medieval facilities. In Southampton, there was quite of a fuss because medieval facilities and under-resourced libraries were ghettoed in one of the university’s campuses. Education inspectors came by, some politicians too, and it was decided that this was not up to meritocratic standards, so the campus was eventually transferred to the University’s main installations. But at the LSE, these ancillary complaints about freezing classrooms and dirty toilets were brushed aside. Because in a meritocracy, if you deserve it, you will succeed, regardless of how filthy or non-stocked the university toilets may be. Of course, the situation becomes understandable, once you find out that this model of equity, the LSE, has contracted out all its cleaning operatives, as cleaners are now called. This way, they are all Colombian, work unsociable hours probably with insufficient materials, and more importantly, they get paid the minimum wage, while all other hourlypaid staff at the LSE get paid not less that £6.80 per hour, which is called the ‘living
wage’. If I were a Colombian cleaner at the LSE, and if I knew that I was being discriminated against, I would think ‘fuck it’ and not give a damn about the job, which is what I actually thought about my Starbucks’ job. Most people in that situation though, do actually give a damn about their jobs, mainly because they need to eat and pay their bills. It has always puzzled me how come that productivity has not decreased substantially since the introduction of the miserly minimum wage. One possible answer could be that, according to LSE experts and other clever people sitting in comfortable offices, we humans act according to rational choice models. So you evaluate all available options, and then go for the best. This way, people keep working hard in low-paid jobs, because that is the best available option to them. Bullshit. What these armchair bureaucrats forget to include in their models of action is that most underpaid workers have no real choice at all. Polly Toynbee has written a few clear things about this issue; maybe rational choice forecasters should read her book. But the point I was trying to make is that, for the LSE (and for many other institutions as well), some people deserve a living wage –i.e. deserve to live with dignity- while others do not. The criteria for deservingness are still obscure to me, although this is consistent with the capitalist farce, remember? Reward the highearner and punish the poor. It is also consistent with the glass ceilings-sticky floors hypothesis. Being a student, no matter where, is also a matter of social life. As I said, when I was in Southampton, I had a social life. I also had a personal life. True, I was being paid rubbish all the same, but at least living costs were not extortionate. So that helped. In London, while at the LSE, I was invited to go for a night out with some of my classmates. We were to go to a drinking and entertainment venue that kept London alive and kicking, remember? The venue in question charged £20 for admission. I do not even enjoy noisy night clubs, so why should I pay for it? Not paying means not going, not going means exclusion. It was not always understood that £20 represented four hours of ‘hi welcome to Starbucks what can I do for you’ rubbish. Some of my classmates though, were Starbucks’ customers, and they were condescending enough to tell me that they felt sorry for me, when they realised I worked there. I know, I know, they did not mean any harm. But it helps you think more and more, and the more you think, the more you think, and the angrier you get. Some classmates, oblivious to my working life, asked me to join a study group with them. I would have loved to, honestly, but I could not. ‘How come?’, they asked. Because I had to work. ‘Oohhh, but…do you work?’ My goodness me. Work. Yes. That thing that some people do when, and because, they cannot afford a £20-night out. Because everything is interrelated, do not forget this. So by the end of December, I decided that I could not possibly continue studying there, unless it began to rain £50 notes. Long working hours, in a physically demanding job, left me with lots of hopes and the will to do well academically, but nothing else. In other words, having to work while studying in a job that did not match or recognise my skills, left me frustrated and depressed. The subsistence pay coupled with London´s irrational living costs left me broke. The Finance Office told me that unfortunately, there was nothing they could do to help me. Because the rules are that, if you willingly register under-funded, you and only you are responsible for your problems and your future. Which, by analogy, made me think that, if Tony Blair willingly takes up a Prime Minister
post, and presents himself for re-election a few times, then, he and only he is responsible for the country’s problems and its citizens’ future. Of course he is not, but this only means that meritocratic logic is faulty and hypocritical.
It is six thirty in the morning, and I still have not been to bed. I started writing all this the day I went back to my Starbucks’ job, after an unpaid two-week holiday. For some people, writing is therapeutic. For me it certainly is. But writing should also be informative, and reading informative stuff should be moving. Will Hutton writes, in the back cover of Polly Toynbee’s book, that hers is a book that ‘every member of the cabinet should be required to read, apologise, and then act’ effectively. But it does not happen. What happens though, is that altruism is losing its meaning and its force. Altruism and solidarity, of course, were never to figure in the capitalist Bible, let alone in the meritocratic rules of reward. These values are not needed in meritocratic societies, as you and only you as an individual are responsible for your woes or your success. Those who fail to succeed are guilty, faulty and undeserving of anything better. Therefore, no empathy is required. I do not know how long I will have to stay in my Starbucks’ job. But even after I leave, and even if the world is fair enough so as to provide me with a job that is fulfilling – because I deserve it- I will not forget about the Abis, Zashas, Parels and other neglected workers. In addition to thinking about them, I will like to do anything in my hand to help them out. Because they deserve it too. If we are to live in a meritocratic society, at least let us be fair and clear about which the ‘deservingness criteria’ are. This is my first conclusion. In London, which is what I know better, there is corporate and individual lack of solidarity. On 9th January, London Underground workers went on strike, in complaint against staff cuts and in favour of a thirty-five hour working week. The strike was a fiasco, and disappointed London Underground workers at Manor House station told me that, of course, some staff already enjoyed a thirty-five hour working week, so why should they lose a day’s pay in solidarity with others who did not have the same benefit? Individual lack of solidarity is understandable, to a certain extent. Remember, people do not always act according to rational choice models, especially if they are being underpaid. Some workers, regardless of how stuck and struck they might be, cannot possibly afford to lose one day’s pay. Sometimes, I could not afford it either. So, individual lack of solidarity is understandable, but corporate lack of solidarity is neither understandable nor excusable. It simply is not. Because corporations and their influential members play the game that Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘the induction of the hand-to-mouth existence; keeping wages at a level low enough to allow for no more than
physical survival until the dawn of the next day of hard work, and so make another day of hard work a ‘‘no choice’’, a necessity ’ (2005: 15). I do not need to add anything else to that. Actually, I do. We live surrounded by hypocrisy. Hard work is not the miraculous experience that will lift you out from a life of poverty, exclusion and misery. At least, not hard-low-paid work, which by the way is quite ubiquitous. Do not believe the meritocratic lie. Hard work does not guarantee you a decent life, because you do not decide the level at which the Minimum Wage is set. So, really, it is not up to you to get out of a deprived life, as meritocracy advocates want to have you believe. The truth is that upward social mobility was, has been, is and will be restricted, so even if you work hard, as long as you are underpaid, you will be stuck and blamed for it. Many hard-working people still live a life of hardship. The fact that hard work does not necessarily lead to a better life is not often mentioned. On the contrary, it is usually shushed. It is not mentioned because it does not make any meritocratic sense. It is also shameful, and contradicts the preachers of the ethical virtues of hard-work. As Bauman affirms, the ‘appeals to the morally ennobling capacity of the work effort fell by the board’ (2005: 22). When questioned, even if superficially questioned, the morally ennobling capacity of hard-low-paid work falls by the board, because it is neither financially viable nor ethically sustainable. Now I do not need to add anything else. I just have a question for you: what use is it to live in London, amongst its uncountable eating outlets, drinking and entertainment venues, if after a hard day of underpaid work, you do not have the money or the mood to go and drink a £5 beer? What use is it to live in a privileged city, in a privileged country, if you cannot enjoy the privileges, unless you run into debt? So corporate lack of solidarity is non-excusable. That is my second conclusion. Of course, senior managers and other irascible muffin-eaters do also have hard days of work. After all, that is why they get paid a lot. Because this is essentially an issue of exchanges and the conditions that make these exchanges possible. Because I could not afford it, I could never start my Master’s dissertation on this issue. Because university libraries are privatised and kept out of reach from non-fee-payers, I cannot access some valuable material which would help me write some serious stuff on this issue. So only those who can afford it can proclaim their research interests and PhD’s findings. This tells you something about the sort and the accuracy of information that gets spread around. It also tells you that despite living in a meritocracy -or so they tell us- not everyone who wants and deserves to do a PhD can do so. First, show me the money, or find someone who can show me the money for you. So the vital issue of what is it at stake in employment relations and exchanges –and I will tell you later why it is vital- will only be discussed by a small privileged section of the population, who by the way, are also earning nice salaries, because apparently they deserve them. Not all academics are like that, even if they work for the LSE; this is something I want to make clear. Most of them have genuine interest in their research areas. But so do we, dropouts who could not pay for stupidly high fees. The problem is
that because genuinely motivated dropouts cannot get their voice heard and their words published, we usually hear just a side of the story. In anthropology we call this ‘the problem of reflexivity’. To me, the key to understanding why lots of people are unfairly underpaid lies in detangling the connections between issues of deservingness, choice, social exchange and privilege. This is my third conclusion. If one day I am allowed to return to formal education, I will find out about these connections. My fourth conclusion is that most employers who pay minimum wages are not stupid. But intelligence is in the eye of the beholder, and also, in the true intentions of the employer. On the comeback to Starbucks after Christmas, I was getting changed in the shop’s only toilet –because we underpaid staff are not entitled to a staff room- See how employers and visual merchandising managers’ intelligence works. There was a new marketing addition, right there in the toilet. This is because these people are not stupid and know about the effects of subliminal advertising, so they put sepia photographs in the toilet. The sepia photos feature Harold, a lucky London’s barista, who is scrupulously following the ten-second rule. As if by magic, now the ten-second rule is not just a dirty leftover of nineteenth century factory spirit. Now, in 2006, it is also a product of science and a work of art. I swear that this is what the sepia-coloured board says. So much for a product of science and a work of art, and us, the espresso masters, are offering our scientific knowledge at £5.35 per hour. What a bargain. I am not being sarcastic. Actually, most underpaid workers have an intelligence and/or a potential superior to that of their bosses. The problem is that because we live in a “chancetocratic” society, most underpaid workers did not have the same chances as their bosses. The reason why, is for your to discover. So, if we have workers with scientific and artistic skills, I would say that instead of being stuck in irrelevant and poorly-paid jobs, these clever and deserving people could be doing something else. Something better and more respected. Because, let us not fool ourselves. In some cases, the Lemon Poppy Seed muffins get more respect than us, the ones who serve them. I know this because when we run out of Lemon muffins, people miss them. They also wonder where are the muffins, will we get any today? But when you are ill in bed, probably overworked, and not getting any sick pay, because this is a chancetocratic society, no one misses you. No compulsive muffin-eater wonders where are you, and when are you coming back. Do they? So my fifth conclusion is that in chancetocratic societies, what you get is the wrong people in the wrong places. Highly able espresso masters should be allowed to use their artistic-scientific abilities in areas of applied research, so maybe they could make a contribution to the messy London we live in. For myself, I wish that someday I am financially allowed to do a PGCE in Social Sciences, and then I will emigrate to any place where my skills are recognised. After that, I would like to do some research too. That way, I would be the right person in the right place, and I would feel good about myself. But the wrong people in the wrong place thing happens in meritocratic societies too. Therefore, it is the thinking heads’ task to figure out what other solutions can be posed. As Che Guevara said, another world is possible. I almost forgot to say: my sixth conclusion is that unmasking what lies behind working exchanges is vital; I said this before. It is vital because we do not live in isolation. Not
even in London. You personally might be ok, doing well, but your muffin-provider surely is not doing so well, even though maybe he/she deserves it as much as you do. These are moral reasons. There are also social scientific reasons, which because I am intellectually driven, I find exciting. If we were to discover why underpaid jobs are the norm, and why underpaid workers do not rebel, we would be on the right track to discover something about the workings of ‘the three analytically distinguishable levels of modern arrangement – individual, social and systemic-’ (Bauman 2005: 19). If we were to explore the real meaning of work in contemporary society, and especially the real meaning of underpaid work, we would also begin to glimpse some of the ‘pivots of individual life, social order and the survival capacity of society as a whole’ (Bauman 2005: 17). This is morally, socially and scientifically vital and justified. Moreover, we all deserve to know. Unfortunately, deservingness is not a right, and cannot be demanded by law. Perhaps one day it will be, but until then, I cannot just sit and wait. So in the meantime, I use the only weapon I have at my disposal: sabotage. Now, when I am ready to face a new day of ‘hi-welcome-to-Starbucks-what-can-I-dofor-you’, I do not comply. The other day, a couple of normal citizens came in for an afternoon coffee. They stared at the menu board in amazement. What is a venti toffee-nut latte? What is a Tazo Chai Tea Latte? Because if the circumstances are reasonable, I can be a nice servant person, I helped them out. I told them that Starbucks also does normal coffees for normal citizens, but in any case, even normal coffee is overprized. Benjys, just opposite, does 99 pence morally correct Fair Trade coffee. They looked at each other, looked at me, smiled, said thank you –you see, the steps of selling- and then left. I did not comply because I do not get anything out of it. Also, because my fellow workmates do not get anything out of it either. And finally, because customers do not get anything out of it really, although they may get something out of their pockets. This is my last and more important conclusion. I do not comply. I have a question for you, if you are an employer paying minimum wages: on which moral grounds do you think that your exploited employees should comply? And I have a suggestion for you, if you are one of the exploited employees: DO NOT COMPLY (for a reason: everything is interrelated)
London, 15th January 2006
This book was written during a long and painfully lucid night of 2006. Many things have happened since. I sent my writing to a few people I trusted. They all said they identified with the issues described, but one of them told me to edit out the anger if I wanted to get it published. I couldn´t possibly do that. The main driver for this book was precisely the anger I felt for such a long succession of injustices and nonsense. So I simply put the book aside, until recent events made me go back to it. At the end of 2009, Greece´s economy showed signs of serious illness. A few months later, anger erupted among citizens who staged protests that have continued to the present day. Anger and protest spread to other European countries, such as Spain, where youths took to the streets of major cities, labeling themselves “the indignants”. Yes, indignation. Indignation and anger coming from a generation who feels that society as a whole has failed them. The promises of a good life in return for a great deal of effort have long been unfulfilled for many young people around the world, but especially, around the western world. My theory is that globalization has had an important part in the demise of the wonderful world chimera. In an increasingly globalised world, skills and capabilities continue to lose value if you stay in your home country. I have already said that meritocratic societies do not really exist, as there are too many missing links in the application of merit and deservingness criteria. Also, there is a notorious lack of differentiation between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. For example: before top-up fees were disgracefully implemented in Britain, a substantial segment of the population had access to university education. Equality of opportunity was proclaimed by politicians and Deans again and again, until we were sick of it. And certainly, the number of graduates increased year after year. I distinctly remember this quote by David Lammy, who in 2008 was minister of State in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (a department which, by the way, was abolished in 2009 and subsequently merged with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Not a coincidence, as universities and the mismanagement of skills and innovation have become a business in need of regulatory reform). Anyway, Lammy stated the following: "The numbers of people going into higher education in England are at an all-time high, as more and more people recognise that having a degree is one of the best investments for their future and a rewarding career." Get your markers out and underline the key words here: degree, investments, future, rewarding and career. You know what I would do if I had the chance? I would write these words on a piece of paper. I would take the paper to Mr Lammy (a guy who, by the way,
claimed on national TV that Versailles was a French prison). I would then ask Mr Lammy to do a “connect the dots” exercise, and to please explain the relationship between the concepts he so adamantly advocated. In the Europe I know, there is NO RELATIONSHIP anymore between education and a rewarding career. Do not try to convince me that being a Starbucks´ store manager is having a rewarding career, especially for graduates who have a good degree. Meritocracy was a farce, yet they keep selling university degrees as if they were the panacea for unsustainable economies. Equality of opportunity policies have done nothing but increase inequality, because they have been mistaken for equality of outcome. These are two very different concepts. I shall explain. I had the same opportunity as my classmates to access higher education. There were slight differences though, such as the fact that I could not get a student loan, but that is a whole different story. So, I had the same opportunity to study, yes I will not deny it. Now, once we were blind, I mean, fresh graduates, did we all have the same outcome when it came to securing a decent job? The answer is a rotund NO. Sooner or later, many of my fellow classmates secured a graduate position. I remember hearing that one of them was working for HSBC´s Customer Services, and she was happy with the job, mainly because it paid for her booze and her student loan. I went online, read the job description and thought this was easy enough. I could do the job. So I applied for it. I got to the interview stage, gave the interview of my life, as the HR lady put it, and then was told thanks but no thanks. Equality of opportunity, one - equality of outcome, nil. I was later told that HR people are highly skilled at detecting genuine applicants. Admittedly, working in Customer Services has never been my dream job. But I would put my hand in the fire and say that it wasn´t my classmate´s dream job either. So, how on Earth was she more genuine than I was? I was also told that recruiters ask themselves three key questions while they interview you: a) Can you do the job? b) Will you do the job? c) Will you fit in? As I mentally review every single job I have applied for, the answer to these questions does nothing but confuse me even more. Could I have done the jobs? Absolutely. My problem was not one of lack of skills. Would I have done the jobs? Certainly. Do not forget that I was economically coerced, so yes, I would have done them. Would I have fitted in? Perhaps this was the issue all along. Could recruiters gauge my dissatisfaction? Did they sense that I could be a possible trouble-maker who would write about them in a book? I do not have the answer to these questions. Besides, they are not the point.
The point are the lies we young people have been told. Universities, cheered on by greedy governments, have mass-produced graduates who are now thrown into a job market that has no space (and no intention) of accommodating them all. We have been sold the knowledge-based economy lie, and now we are paying an incredibly high price for being gullible and believing it. In other words, we suffer from credential inflation, a process through which educational certificates continue to lose value in the face of a) b) c) d) policies that favour equality of opportunity over equality of outcome an unhealthy obsession over competitivity the stagnation of job markets the indiscriminate and unwarranted issue of higher education degrees
The results? We no longer know what employability consists of. In highly competitive societies, this is tantamount to suicide. Philip Brown and Anthony Hesketh (lecturers at Cardiff University and Lancaster University respectively) wrote a wonderful book on this subject. The book is entitled “The mismanagement of talent. Employability and jobs in the knowledge economy”. I cannot recommend it enough. Their principal thesis is that due to the saturation of academic credentials, employers have now begun to expand their employability criteria. “Personal capital” has become notoriously important, and by personal capital, the authors refer to “credentials, work experience, sporting or music achievements” as well as “interpersonal skills, charisma, appearance, and accent” (2004: 35). In other words, the myth of equality of opportunity and meritocracy demystified even further. Whoever wrote the blurb to Brown´s & Hesketh´s book was a genius. I could not explain it better myself, so I will literally quote from the back cover: “Those leaving the world of mass higher education find themselves in a scramble for jobs with increasingly high stakes for the winners and losers. It examines what determines the outcomes of this race when a degree loses its badge of distinction. It shows what really happens in the selection events of leading-edge employers. It also argues that talent is being mismanaged by many employers that have yet to come to terms with the realities and possibilities of mass higher education” In 2007, after an (unsurprisingly) unsuccessful stint in the Spanish job market, I moved back to the U.K. I chose Cardiff this time, and at some point I came across Professor Brown´s book. I devoured it. Research ideas raced through my mind to the point of making me feel dizzy. I contacted Prof. Brown at the University, and arranged an interview with him. What I wanted was to take part in the research program he was carrying out, but of course, after years of miserably paid working experiences, I had no funds available. I put forward my predicament. Prof. Brown was sympathetic, but redirected me to the Economic and Social Research Council for funding, which of course was not able to help, on the grounds of residency requirements. My thrill was in a well once again, and after that, I quickly spiraled into a nightmare of depression. Initially, I had moved to Cardiff to pursue the further education chimera, but I
became increasingly doubtful about whether or not there was a point in studying further. The situation did not lend itself to it, anyway, because I could only find a (meaning ONE) full-time job, which precluded studying. I will give you a snapshot of this job, to illustrate the mismatch between the real and the ideal criteria for employability. The job advertised was for a secretarial position at a private eye clinic. I was offered the job, but there was a catch: the job was not secretarial. I was supposed to be some kind of surgeon’s assistant (from helping out during surgery, to carrying the doctor’s suitcase into his room, to making tea and coffee on demand, to evaluating patients for surgery). In all fairness, my employers told me to give it a try and see if I liked it. Liked it? What kind of a macabre joke is this? I had no other option, so I stayed on. The surgeon turned out to be the biggest bully I have ever had the disgrace to meet. In addition to not recognizing my skills and personality, he ridiculed, patronized and belittled me over the motto “I do it all for your own good”. I will spare you the details, because they are still too painful to evoke. Things got to a point where I was physically unable to go to work and literally wanted to kill myself for having fallen in the trap of meritocratic lies again. My last resource was to do something radically different, I thought. So I re-wrote my CV, and I told my story exactly as it had been. I posted my new CV in Monster, and the following day my inbox was full of messages from recruiters. From “good for you” to “may I just say that you are amazing and I admire you”, the messages kept coming. I guess they had finally read something different that took them out of the routine of their tedious jobs. Eventually, I managed to get another job in Cardiff. I was to be paid minimum wages again, to work unsociable shifts, and to be disrespected by customers, but my mental health could not take the surgery job anymore. And guess what, there were no other options. The day I left, I met the lady who had had the job before me, and who was to fill the position again (Muslim family, related to the surgeon, so she was forced to accept it). She looked disconsolate. “Has he given you a hard time?” she asked me when we were alone. My eyes filled with tears and I could not answer. That bastard. So the treatment he gave me was not a one-off. Why did he employ me? I did not need to ask him, because both him and his wife volunteered the answer: “we hired you because we liked you, you seemed a nice girl”. That was the carrot. The stick was “I cannot for the life of me understand how you managed to get a degree, and yet after one year with us, you are not ready to replace Mrs Khalib (his wife) during surgery”. What an ass. As far as I know, a degree in Anthropology does not prepare you to be a surgical assistant. That was a job that a qualified nurse needed to perform. I was not going to yield to pressure, end up doing something I was not qualified to do, and risk other peoples´ eyesight. But that was beyond their understanding. They just wanted to save a few pounds in salaries hiring an unqualified person. So, did my degree have any bearing on their decision of hiring me? No. Did my previous working experience affect that decision? No. They just “liked me”, and that was it. If this
is, and I have reasons to suspect it is indeed, a common practice among recruiters, well, then everything makes sense. Meritocracies do not work, equality of outcome is conspicuous by its absence, and there are no clear employability criteria. To top it up, when -if you do- eventually get hired, you are guaranteed to be paid a poverty wage, now because the world is in trouble and the victims have to save it from hell. So where do I stand now? It is 2011 and things have changed for the better. During my stay in Cardiff, I sabotaged my two employers as much as I could. I had already decided that I was in the wrong place, both geographically and metaphorically speaking. In 2009, I took a training course for English teachers in Bangkok. That was my last bet. I then travelled around South East Asia until I felt psychologically strong enough to take on the job-seeking identity again. I moved to Mexico at the beginning of 2010, where unexpectedly, things have gone from good to great, in all aspects of my life. I now have a satisfying job where I am respected, given autonomy and an hourly wage higher than what I was ever paid back in the U.K. I feel confident that I will have a rewarding job wherever in the world I choose to go. And I would not choose a self-appointed meritocratic society. Mexico does not claim to be one, at least, not openly. Surely this is a classist society, where the problem is not what to do after university, but getting into university in the first place. So, a different set of problems altogether. Yet, these problems suit me. Things have changed. I have become less interested in fighting for a better (working) world. I do not care anymore for strikes, trade unions, socialist students or anything of the like. I have grown callous, uninterested and intolerant when it comes to working practices. But I am tranquil. I no longer worry about finding answers, because after writing and reflecting on this book, I have found my answers. During the year I spent in Spain, I went to a psychologist. After telling him how I felt about what had happened in the U.K., the told me that my problem was that “my American dream had been shattered”. Ok. It made sense, but paying 150 Euros for such an answer seemed too steep. I could have found the answer in myself or in the events that have rocked Europe for the last two years. Is insensitivity a tradeoff for leading a peaceful existence among so much shit? Are we creating indifferent monsters? Across the globe, there is a whole generation of young people who do not study or work. This is stuff for another book, but my theory is that their attitude is a form of social sabotage. As an 23 year-old told me: “we cannot expect anything from society anymore. They used us to their advantage, sucked out illusions out of our bodies, now there are only corpses left. My parents will never understand my stance, but in their day, things were different”.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen. Society has failed a whole generation of people. Some of us have needed psychological treatment, many others will. As the words stability and future
disintegrate around us, and as I hear 18 year-olds saying that they do not want to live in this world, I wonder, and I ask you: was it all worth it in the name of meritocracy?
Mexico City, June 2011
The following books and articles were food for thought in the writing process:
Author unknown (2011) Few options for Europe´s indignant youth, published in Toro Economics, last accessed online on 18/6/2011 on http://www.toroeconomics.com/2011/06/05/few-options-for-europes-indignant-youth/ Bauman, Z. (2004) Work, consumerism and the new poor, Oxford University Press Blackburn, S. (2007) A fair day´s wage for a fair day´s work? Sweated labour and the origins of minimum wage legislation in Britain, Ashgate Publishers Brown, P. and Hesketh, A. (2004) The mismanagement of talent. Employability and jobs in the knowledge economy, Oxford University Press Brown, P. et al. (2011) The global auction: the broken promises of education, jobs and incomes, Oxford University Press Coupland, D. (1996) Generation X: tales from an accelerated culture, Abacus Ehrenreich, B. (2002) Nickel and dimed: undercover in low-wage America, Granta Books Flintoff, J. (2007) Whatever happened to meritocracy? published in The Guardian on 4/2/2007, last accessed online on 19/6/2011 on http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article1324144.ece Garfinkel, H. (1956). Conditions of successful degradation ceremonies, American Journal of Sociology, 61, 420-424. Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: notes on the management of spoiled identity, Prentice-Hall Lyon, D. (ed.) (2006) Theorizing surveillance: the panopticon and beyond, Willan Publishers Smith, H. (2010) Greek debt crisis faces double blow of brain drain and early retirement, published in The Guardian on 20/5/2010, last accessed online on 18/6/2011 on http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/may/20/greece-brain-drain-retirement-crisis Sparkes, A. C. (2002). Autoethnography: Self-indulgence or something more? In A. Bochner & C. Ellis (Eds.), Ethnographically speaking: Autoethnography, literature, and aesthetics, pp. 209-232. New York, Altamira. Toynbee, P. (2003) Hard work: life in low-pay Britain, Bloomsbury Publishing
Toynbee, P. and Walker, D. (2008) Unjust rewards: exposing greed and inequality in Britain today, Granta Books Tremlett, G. (2011) Spain's lost generation of graduates join wave of migrants in search of jobs, published in The Guardian on 28/3/2011, last accessed online on 18/6/2011 on http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/28/new-europe-spain-graduates-emigrate Winnett, R. (2008) Biggest brain drain from UK in 50 years, published in The Telegraph on 21/2/2008, last accessed online on 19/6/2011 on http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1579345/Biggest-brain-drain-from-UK-in-50years.html