A recent demonstration of precarious workers made Liz Forster see her own experience as a zero-hour worker differently.
“None of us are free,” a friend dismally concluded recently. Both of us have spent our 20s flitting between a string of zero-hour contract jobs to plug the holes in our finances left by unpaid internships. Flexibility supposedly meant freedom to dictate our schedules so we could pursue careers in the arts. We felt like free agents – free to succeed.
We’re in our 30s now, still cobbling together bits of money from freelancing and patchy hours at cinemas and theatres to fund the artistic work we’re often required to do without payment. The freedom promised by our contracts has translated into erratic schedules and a rising panic that we’re losing control of lives inside and outside the workplace.
I am currently working three jobs to support my work as a freelance filmmaker. This means I’m flitting between workplaces with a constantly rotating cast of colleagues who are themselves shuttling between arts venues and juggling hours. Today, flexibility means insecurity. Every week is a new jigsaw puzzle of hours, walled in by a network of shifts in different locations, isolated in a tide of other contract workers.
I’ve worked at the same theatre for the past 5 years on and off around studies and freelancing. The front of house staff were artists, directors, actors and hopefuls all with similarly chaotic lifestyles, who built a community at the theatre. It mitigated the isolation of the freelance lifestyle. The flexibility of the role allowed me to make films, but working in the same space with the same people anchored my otherwise erratic lifestyle.
There are many things I love about freelancing. I don’t have to commute with my face in someone’s armpit, I can work in leggings and a stained hoody, I can play the same Fleetwood Mac song for the 10th time without shame. But freelancing is also deeply precarious and isolating, and this theatre drew me away from my desk and forced me to interact with others. We would bemoan the insurmountable hurdles we were facing in pursuing our careers in the arts, celebrate each others’ successes and commiserate when applications were rejected and auditions turned down.
When the venue announced they were closing for a year for renovation, I did not realise how deeply I relied on this little theatre both for my mental health and my finances.
Rumours had been circulating for months, and many jumped ship. At a staff meeting a week before construction was to begin, the artistic director informed us we were losing our jobs. In the same breath, they lamented the fact that the renovation work would prevent them from directing plays for a year.
When the theatre closed its doors and the staff disbanded, it felt like a break-up. This rupture came shortly after a colleague took his own life. The staff were still in shock.
I remember walking into the building as construction started. It was gutted and my colleagues huddled in the cleaning cupboard-sized duty manager’s office. A pile of discarded uniforms and bits of staff tat lay in the middle of the room.
A few of us stayed on to man the deserted cinema attached to the theatre, plugging the gaps in our salaries with other jobs. The atmosphere in the reception was like that of a morgue, broken only by the few eccentric and dedicated customers more interested in chatting to or screaming at the staff (depending on their mood) than seeing the film. My hours shrank to an average of four a week, but the promise of an increase made me stay on.
At Christmas, the heating and projector broke, and a light began blinking in the auditorium. A queue of enraged punters hurled abuse at the only visible staff member, the shivering box office attendant who was working their allotted four to eight hours that week. One colleague was accused of assault when she calmly informed a customer that the screening was cancelled.
We were simultaneously invisible to the creative team and the only visible representatives of the venue to the public. We could not expect commitment from our employers but needed to summon the ability to defend our employers’ poor management to angry customers. The upstairs-downstairs divide between the creative team and the front of house staff was clear to us – we felt at best like unwelcome temps and at worst like ‘the help’. One colleague remembers the artistic director instructing her to clean the toilet, another having to wait for the creative team to stagger home to close the bar down.
The absence of higher-level management throughout this drama became almost farcical. A senior member of management approached me on shift wondering aloud if the cinema could be run by a single usher, while in the background my colleague hurtled between the box office, the popcorn stand and the projection room as if he were in a Buster Keaton sketch.
The promised hours never materialised. Instead, more staff were hired and our hours depleted further. When challenged on this, management sent a defensive email saying we were not giving enough availability – we kept our weeks as clear as possible in order to receive four to eight hours. Impossibly, our other jobs were requiring us to do the same. One colleague was dropped off the rota entirely with no explanation.
We were told to attend a compulsory meeting to discuss the theatre reopening and the promised increase in hours, which kept getting pushed back. For months we heard nothing.
Just before the theatre opened its doors we were finally summoned to this mysterious meeting. There was no mention of hours or pay, but we did receive a stern warning from the artistic director to, “Change our way of thinking” to match the shiny new theatre. We needed to behave like a team, they told us.
That word has always raised my hackles. It’s invariably uttered by someone who is trying to get you to do something you don’t want.
An attempt to join the union, BECTU, quickly disintegrated. The staff were working so many jobs and felt so atomised and powerless, they saw little point in investing their precious time and energy in fighting. I rang around to try to arrange a meeting and failed to get more than three staff members in a room together. “I don’t spend enough time there…I don’t feel entitled to say anything,” was the overwhelming response. As a result, we’re a disposable workforce called in for the occasional shift subject to the whim of a management team who barely register our existence. This is why the artistic director’s patronising reminder to behave “like a team” made me want to flip a table.
A manager advised me: “Don’t expect anything from this place, don’t expect it to change.”
On Monday 27 September 2018 Uber drivers, care workers, UCL cleaners, NHS couriers, cinema workers, Deliveroo couriers and Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants staged an impressively large protest of precarious workers in the UK.
The demonstration was called by the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and coincided with the IWGB facing Uber in the court of appeal on behalf of former drivers who are demanding basic employment rights, including minimum wage and sick pay.
It was eight in the morning and freezing, but there was a vitality to the protest that felt different to the repetitive marching up and down and placard-waving I’ve been doing throughout my adult life. Construction workers shouted their support from scaffolding, flares were set off, a portable stereo blared the Specials across London Bridge, there were Deliveroo riders sporting their uniforms and NHS couriers dripping in fake blood. These precarious workers were angry and serious, but also celebrating a rare moment when they could be angry and serious together.
Marching alongside the striking Picturehouse workers, the drivers demanding a living wage and the cleaners challenging outsourcing gave me the rare feeling that my experience of work was not isolated but shared by many. I’ve never known solidarity as a zero-hour contract worker, I’ve learnt to think of myself as an individual fighting to prosper, but free to prosper on my own terms. That freedom is now lived as insecurity and crippling anxiety.
I absolutely agree with my boss. We do need to think differently about our workplace. We need to behave like we’re part of a team and challenge our employers when they exploit us.