The helplessness of the redundant

Before letting rip at HMV staff, remember that while you have lost your £10 gift card, the person you are screaming at has lost their livelihood.

On Christmas Eve 2008, I found out I would be losing my job. There is no day of the year to find out something like that, but it seems that Christmas Eve is a particularly bad one. I remember it very clearly, even down to what I was wearing. I was packing to go home over Christmas and I got a text off my friend Susie, telling me that the shop we both worked in had been taken over by administrators. And just like that, I knew my job would be gone.

The truth is, it was actually eight months later that my job finally went, but it did go, in the same way a terminal illness sucks the life out of a human. Long, slow, arduous. I worked in Zavvi, previously Virgin Megastore, in Cardiff. I started out as a Saturday girl, and when I graduated university and still didn’t know what to do with my life, I went full time. I’m not looking at it with the rose-tinted spectacles of time, but I loved that place. I loved the fact I was surrounded by music all day. I loved that I worked with strange, beautiful people, who liked all the same stuff I did. If they ever read this, they may laugh, but that shop was the first place I ever felt like I belonged somewhere. I did a lot of finding out who I was while I was there. And let’s face it, as full time jobs go, mine was a complete doss. Maybe I was just lazy. But there was always time to stand around, debating over what music went on next, gossiping about the last night out you had, sleeping off your hangover in the stockroom. It was a wonderful place.

There were tell tale signs for ages. Little things that, had I been more clued up on life, might have made me realise what was coming. Overtime stopped getting paid, fewer Christmas temps, problems ordering new stock, etc etc etc. I remember there being rumours of trouble, talking about it behind the tills. But when I got that text off Susie, I felt like I’d been smacked in the face. And so I reacted in the way any rational person would. I cried all the way home on the train and then I drank two bottles of rum with my friend Brett. I don’t have very good memories of Christmas 2008.

When I went back to work, on 27 December, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To this day, that shift is still the worst eight hours I have ever had. That day I realised how selfish and horrible other people can be. We all got to work and there was a grim determination in the air. It was like none of us wanted to be there, but we would get through it together. Then trading started, and all I remember is being shouted at by angry people who couldn’t use their gift cards. If you know anything about companies who go into administration you will know that gift cards immediately become invalid. It is not the choice of the staff. Let me say that again. IT IS NOT THE CHOICE OF THE STAFF YOU ARE SHOUTING AT. If you are the kind of person who would get angry about that, then think about this. You have just lost your £10 gift card. The person you are screaming at has just lost their livelihood. You may not think there are many people who would be that thoughtless, I certainly didn’t. But for the following six weeks, its all I can remember. We had people who were very understanding, kind, sorry for us. But my overriding memory, sadly, is not of our regulars who came to offer best wishes, but the many people who were angry at us for their loss. I understand the frustration, but I was too busy worrying about how I would pay my rent or find a job in January to be too sympathetic.

So Zavvi remained for a further six weeks. In that time, administrators tried to find buyers for the company as a whole, and then as parts. Smaller shops were closed and their stock passed to bigger stores like ours. It was like bucketing water out of a sinking boat, except it wasn’t water, it was people and their children and their mortgages and their homes and their ability to support themselves. Finally it came down to the last day. We learned from our manager, a long-haired jumpy character named Pete who loved caffeine and flowery shirts, that there was a potential buyer for our shop. He was buying five other Zavvis, turning them into his own company and he wanted ours. But there were negotiations first and it might not happen. So we had to pack up the shop. Literally everything had to be put into boxes and taped up. Every single shelf cleared, every corner of every stockroom emptied. It was the most depressing day ever. I remember wanting to cry, and being really glad my friend Jess was there. She ran the book department and I don’t know what I would have done without here in those few weeks. After work I went to the cinema with my housemates. When I came out of the cinema, I had a text.

"We’re bought!"

Someone had bought Cardiff Zavvi! I still had a job! The next day we rushed back to work, signed new contracts and unpacked the boxes. We were trading by the afternoon under the name Head Entertainment. It was amazing! Back to the pub, this time to celebrate.

But the joy didn’t last long. The following seven months were a stark lesson for me in just how underhand and ruthless some people are in business. It’s quite shocking really. I won’t ramble on with the many, many details of how the whole Head Entertainment mess began, but a basic description would be; evil man buys out desperate shop, evil man screws desperate staff about, desperate staff realise they will lose jobs and also any redundancy entitlement. Evil man wins, desperate staff lose.

It’s a long, complicated story, that I don’t understand entirely, even now, but suddenly, less than a month after we were bought out, we found ourselves in the awful position of knowing that our jobs would end, and that we wouldn’t get any money at the end of it. Somehow it was even worse. And for the months leading up to summer, we all worked not knowing if we’d have a shop to come to the next day. But we had to work. I couldn’t find another job. Some people left. But the ones who remained were all in the same position. Stuck. Helpless. When the final cut came in July and we learned we were closing for good, it was almost a relief. We had to pack the shop up again. We all walked to the pub and had our last lunch together. Then we spent the whole night drowning sorrows. It was nice in a way, the whole thing bonded everyone quite tightly. Some of those people are still great friends of mine, and I hope they will remain as such. But really it was terrible.

It would be another month before I finally found a new job, this time in HMV. I didn’t want to go, and true enough, I hated every day I worked there. I don’t know why. I made some great friends there, people who became a big part of my life at the time, and we had some amazing times together. But I was utterly miserable, and less than a year later, they cut my hours down to one day a week, with 24 hours notice, essentially making me redundant again. And the old feelings returned.

In a society that is built on debt, when you spend two months out of work, and you have credit cards and rent and an overdraft to pay, you can easily be defeated. I had to admit defeat. I moved home, more experienced, maybe wiser, but completely broken. It took me a long time to pull myself back together. It took even longer to get the redundancy money owed to us by Head Entertainment. A two year court battle between us and the owners, entirely put together by our incredible floor manager Ev, a wonderfully funny, eccentric man, with a love of birds and woolen hats. He took them on, at an incredible cost to himself, and he won us the money in the end. But he shouldn’t have had to.

At the end of the day, you can't rant for hours about the government, and corporate companies and business and management. You’d probably be right. None of it is fair. People are screwed over all the time, just because they are small and the companies are big. Companies go under all the time because of mismanagement and greed and power hungry egomaniacs, and the people who suffer most are the people who started off at the bottom anyway. They just get trampled. But ranting doesn’t change anything. Neither does blogging about it. Because now HMV is in trouble and if they doesn’t find a buyer, that’s another 4,000 jobs gone, and whatever you read or write about it on the internet isn’t going to change that.

Except it's not 4,000 jobs. It’s 4,000 people. 4,000 families. 4,000 homes. Just like when our shop went under and it was me and my credit card bills. Jess and her mortgage. Dan and his kids, Tony and his retirement plans. People’s lives thrown into absolute chaos. It’s the scariest thing that ever happened to me, and probably to a lot of them too. I hope people realise that in the next few weeks, when they walk into a HMV and find out they can’t use their gift card anymore.

This piece originally appeared on A Barefoot Girl

People walk past the HMV shop in Piccadilly on January 15, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caitlin Leyshon blogs at A Barefoot Girl.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.