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The reality of low-hour contracts – zero is just the surface

Empty supermarket checkoutsThis week, it seems that everyone is talking about zero-hour contracts. Yet the problem is far wider – with many workers facing similar insecurities through agreements of slightly different shapes. At the supermarket where I work, many of us are on contracts of ten hours or less a week – in my case, four hours. Others are on “flexible” contracts, which basically translates as “you get hours if we need you, and good luck if we don’t”.

This may sound quite familiar to many. While the affects of the economic downturn trundle on like an army of weary orcs, so many of us must  jobs that previously only existed in the wet dreams of Victorian free marketeers. And the best thing about it is, we are meant to be grateful to our wealth creating betters for providing us with them.

It’s been the policy in my store for the last couple of years not to increase the contractual hours of any employees. Internal vacancies, which appear often, are useless to anyone on low hour contracts – because your contract must already match the hours being offered, or you must be prepared to reduce your current hours, in order to take another role.

As the store “struggles” (they say that, but a retiring company boss is taking home £1. 3 million this year) opportunities for overtime have been sanded down like a celebrity’s pre-veneered teeth. This has left me, and my similarly under employed brethren, in the rather interesting position of constant financial uncertainty. And there’s this thing about constant financial uncertainty – it’s not as fun as it sounds!

This is how our overtime works. A sheet is pinned up to the notice board with a selection of three and a half hour shifts available in that next one or two weeks. A lot of money-desperate employees compete for very few hours, so within 30 minutes the entire sheet will be full.

You have to walking past the notice board within that half an hour window to stand a chance. Fairly difficult if you are (a) not working that day or (b) not finishing a shift or on a break exactly as it goes up. Even those who develop a strange sixth sense for knowing when they can get the overtime, or those who badger the managers mercilessly for info, have weeks where they completely miss out. Sometimes, it can be up to three weeks, and then you face the prospect of living of £150 that month – if you’re lucky.

This can lead to some pretty predictable situations. If one worker gets a load of overtime and others don’t, resentment and complaints ensue. Everyone’s pitted against each other, and although their is no real vehemence, there isn’t much in the spirit of sharing.

When you have a bunch of people who aren’t sure if they are going to make enough money to pay their rent, with no guarantee of hours week on week, they will take as much overtime as possible, if they get the chance. If you can, you’ll end up working every day – forget your statutory holiday entitlement.

This first come first serve system is sometimes seems the fairest way the managers could handle a situation that is also incredibly difficult for them. The lack of overtime has nothing to do with a lack of work that needs doing. It’s all about saving money, and managers are made to run departments on bare-bones staff. But my god is it stressful.

Luckily, I’m not in danger of being chucked out onto the street, living between my boyfriend’s house and my parents’. At the former, I need to contribute to bills and food – my boyfriend’s monthly wage as a teacher often runs out in two weeks, what with the cost of living being higher than Dolly Parton’s hair. I am under large financial financial pressure from work – and I haven’t had money for clothes or to save for months. But there is always the back up of my parent’s house, even if, at nearly 24, I’d rather not rely on them. Many aren’t in this position. I’ve seen faces drop when they realise their opportunity for overtime has passed for a whole month. These are people with responsibilities who live in a perpetual state of acute worry.

It’s bloody horrible, even in my comparably easy position. The complete guess work of what you may earn that month, trying to plan out what you can spend while having absolutely no idea whether next week you’ll even be working.

Or, even worse, signing up to overtime and feeling like you can breathe easy for at least a few days, only to find it’s been cancelled. I’ve been nearly in tears realising the £400 I thought I would see at the end of the month has suddenly halved. You can’t relax until the month is over – and then it all starts again.

The justifications I’ve heard about employing people like this include that as most of the people in this position are young, the supermarket knows that they will move on. Not at the moment. Our generation isn’t going anywhere for a while, especially if your employment chances are dramatically decreased by living outside the capital.

And regardless, no one can be expected to live off a £100 a month. I’m only after part-time work while trying to make it in writing and illustration. But I’ve been working at the supermarket for five years, and the hours I’m allotted are nearly useless.

The situation is incredibly convenient for employers. It’s cheaper, and you have people desperate to do anything, even unpopular weekends and nights. With branches of my supermarket chain popping up like homogenized mushrooms at the moment, it’s important that people know what sort of employment these big beasts offer.

Holly Ashby blogs at and tweets as @ginandthings

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