Apply for a temp position, and you’ll see just how harsh the jobs market is at the moment.
When I was invited to interview for a three-week Christmas job at a Royal Mail sorting office, I was expecting that if I got it, I’d be one of many students sifting the letters. Especially with anxiety about £9,000 fees (introduced from this year), you’d think there’d be quite a few after work specific to a time period they’d likely have off.
But on arrival at interview, I found I was the only one in the queue that had been formed in a tatty back-room at the mail centre.
Standing behind me was a young man, Ben – but he was not studying; he’d in fact been looking for work for several months. He was evidently nervous at the prospect of what seemed to be his first interview in some time. “It’s quite lucky, really,” he said. “It’s just a shame it doesn’t start til December.”
In front of me was a smartly-dressed middle-aged man, Cleveland, who had travelled some distance. Despite training and extensive employment in IT, he told me that he had some “time off” from work over Christmas and that he needed the money.
Take that as you will. Either he would be working on his holiday from another job, or he can’t find work in his specialist field. Either situation is highly plausible in today’s climate.
Luckily for all present, the sifting of candidates had been done already from the online applications we submitted. Unless there was something wrong with your paperwork, it seemed like most present were offered a few weeks work.
But that’s not to say it’s easy. I applied for the same job last year, and didn’t so much as get a reply turning me down. There were six workers chasing every opening. I ended up working in a high-street shop over Christmas, and being unceremoniously laid off on Christmas Eve.
Of course, I was in the lucky situation of having a supportive home to go back to, and indeed a university degree a few weeks after. But for many, temporary work is increasingly the mainstream. A friend of mine in his mid-twenties has always seemed to have a stable livelihood, but in fact it’s only now that he’s on a contract that isn’t fixed term.
It’s been a seismic shift in recent years, especially since the crash of 2008. The number of hours worked on temporary contracts was up 21 per cent in July 2011 on the previous year. It makes sense, with the decline in stable jobs we’ve seen since both the crash and the onslaught of neo-liberalism that preceded it. And you can bet your bottom dollar that emergencies have been exploited as companies lay staff off.
Indeed, the move to an economy where more and more people are in temporary work has huge implications for workers’ rights. Many contracts include clauses specifying notice periods of a day or less. That is, if you have a contract. Organising trade unions in such work is notoriously difficult. Workers move on quickly, and with so very little security in their contracts, are all the more afraid of being laid off for causing trouble.
There’s also a real lack of dignity in casual labour. I’ve been in interviews for temporary work in the past where everyone is treated with real suspicion. This is particularly the case with those from ethnic minorities, who are more likely to be in temporary and insecure work – the starting point often seems to be that they are ineligible for work in the UK.
At the sorting office the other day, a recruitment official told Cleveland that he needed an additional photocopy of one of his documents. The official told him he could do one there and then, and proceeded to the photocopier. He paused for a moment. “We do ask for a donation for photocopies.” It wasn’t so much offensive, more baffling in the context of a job application to one of Britain’s biggest and most professional operations, which manages to deliver 84 million letters every day.
Unlike in other sectors where I’ve applied, staff did at least seem sympathetic to those facing the economic climate. “It is hard out there,” Ben was told by Job Centre employee Jane, who was drafted in to help those applying make sure they had the correct documents to hand. “You’ve got to sign up for an apprenticeship.”
The modern apprenticeships scheme was a great achievement of the last Labour government. There is no doubt it must be expanded, as it offers hope to so many. But without the jobs at the end of it, many will end up in the same position as Cleveland. And as long as the minimum wage for apprentices stays at £2.65 an hour, it will be hard to persuade many that this offers a better deal than on-and-off temporary work.