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“Get in a circle and say what you had for breakfast!”: what happened to me at an interview for a zero hours contract

Almost 700,000 people have a zero-hours contract for their main job, according to the Office for National Statistics. Ryan Ormonde shares his experience of an interview for a front-of-house role at a London theatre.

There are twenty of us in a studio space. Steve is our sparkly host for the next two hours. “Let's all get in a circle,” he says. “Classic drama style! Everyone say what you had for breakfast!”

Answers range from “a nutty cereal” to “chicken wings and two paracetamol”.

One of our number is not playing ball.

“Nothing,” she says.

“Nothing? How about for lunch?”

“Nothing.”

All eyes back on Steve: “Keep an eye on this one, she might faint!”

“Next up: I want you to imagine you only have half a minute left to live. Choose a memory from your past that you’d like to revisit for your last 30 seconds on Earth...”

I am at an interview for a front-of-house role in a London theatre, which includes some bar work and tearing tickets. We are competing for a zero-hour contract, and shifts are allocated to the people who reply the fastest to an email containing the new rota each week. There will be no guarantee of work for successful applicants, and whole months with no shifts on offer at all. 

In the spirit of theatre I am suspending my disbelief and trying to oblige Steve with an image of my last ebb of life.

Some people forget they are in an interview and reminisce on illegal raves and drug-fuelled euphoria. Catching up, the hopeful who skipped breakfast and lunch offers: “Cake…?”

Steve is now leading us in a game in which we throw and catch a ball while repeating things that we said before. This is followed by one of those team-building exercises in which we have to help one another get from one side of the room to the other without stepping on the floor.

Now we’re in smaller groups, responding to imaginary front of house scenarios, in order to win points for our team. One scenario: what would we do if a customer started shouting “this poster is gay”?

“Maybe they’ve got Tourette’s?” I suggest. 

Every now and then someone is taken out of the room for a “brief chat”. “Tell me about yourself,” says Steve. By now we have passed the two-hour mark, but Steve’s improvisation skills are serving him well. I like Steve; he makes the job sound fun – exciting even.

Afterwards I tell a friend with a full time job what I've just been doing and she looks alarmed: “It's like one of those crazy house viewings you hear about," she laughs, “where they have everyone round at the same time and they leave them to fight it out!”

The day after I get an email from the theatre. I didn't get the job. It's not my CV, it's me. Maybe I should change what I have for breakfast. Maybe I should work on my ball throwing. Maybe I should apply to be a contestant on Saturday Night Takeaway. I might win something.

Ryan Ormonde is a writer based in London. He attended the interview one evening after he had filled out an application form in which he included years of experience working front of house in a cinema and theatre. For the last year he has been self employed, picking up work where he can

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.