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14 April 2016

Outrage about Eat scrapping lunch pay ignores widespread exploitation in service sector jobs

There really is no such thing as a free lunch.

By Conrad Landin

It’s been a tough week for conscientious young professionals. First they faced a daily pang of guilt for their morning latte, after Caffè Nero slashed free paninis for staff in response to George Osborne’s £7.20 an hour “national living wage”. And now their own lunch is at risk. Journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer is leading calls for a boycott of Eat, after the acceptable face of fast food was revealed to have scrapped lunch-break pay to make up for the modest increase in costs.

B&Q is set to axe perks, staff bonuses and unsocial hours payments, and it’s reported that Morrisons, Tesco and Wilko have similar plans in the pipeline. And while workplace issues rarely get the attention they deserve in our media, this one has clearly caught the public imagination. It’s a classic tale of companies dropping their duty of care as soon as it will hit them in the pocket.

Yet for most of us who have ever worked in so-called unskilled service sector jobs, it’s hard to muster the Keith Vaz-esque levels of astonishment coughed up by the press and outraged punters. Seeing the boycott demands stack up, I was more surprised that this many companies had benefits on top of basic pay to scrap.

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It’s not surprising that companies have focused their axe on lunch, as, for many, it’s already a distant memory. A study last year, conducted of course by a cheese manufacturer, found that nearly half of office workers eat their lunch in fewer than 20 minutes while sitting at their desk. The most commonly cited reason for skipping lunch altogether was a desire to impress the boss. In February, the TUC urged workers to “take a full lunch break” after a separate study found workers gave £31.5bn of unpaid overtime last year.

When I signed up for a temp job at HMV five years ago, my unpaid half-hour at lunch was just about the only thing in my contract that went beyond legal requirements. I’d done enough unskilled jobs before to know I shouldn’t expect much, but I was still taken aback to find more rights prohibited than proffered. We were reassured at a training session that this just wasn’t the point. We were there, the person running the session said, for our love of music  and anyone who felt otherwise should walk out there and then.

On Christmas Eve, we found out that this love was tragically unrequited. One by one we were called into the manager’s office and told our time was up. Temps were no longer a priority for a company newly in the red. For me, still a student, the punch was countered by a relief at no longer having to smile constantly and “up-sell” a rip-off loyalty card. For others, it was a lost livelihood. “You can have an extended Christmas holiday,” the manager sneered at a young French woman with little to fall back on.

There is sadly nothing unusual about the constant demands for charm and pop genius at HMV. Staff at Pret a Manger are required to high-five each other and “create a sense of fun”, with mystery shoppers reporting back to management. Naturally, the “Pret Behaviours” code requires staff to never appear to be “just here for the money”.

This emotional labour serves much the same function as free lunches and the perception of benevolent bosses. All these tools distract us from demanding the real value of our work, and are deployed to seize this value for shareholders. There really is no such thing as a free lunch.

For all the faux familiarity of these workplace environments, this is alienation in action. Sugar-coated smiles don’t build solidarity. Instead, we suffer in silence and do our best to look after our own backs. It’s no coincidence that I first worked, aged 16, as a badly-paid mystery shopper – and thankfully a bad one to boot.

Organising young, precarious workers is notoriously difficult – as both disaffected staff and long-established trade unions know. Playing up a sense of public outrage is far easier. But seeing the recent incursions into workers’ rights as good shops gone bad misses the point. If bosses had ever truly cared, they’d damn well pay their workers a proper living wage.