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Sixteen years hard labour

Johanna Carter recounts the delights of being a part-time teenage worker

If you go out for a meal, to see a film or even do a spot of late shopping, chances are most staff you will encounter are under 21, and a high percentage are under 18. This is the evening staff: young people whom companies employ part time to keep down the number of hours full-time staff have to work - not out of any sort of kindness but to ensure that full- timers don't go into the overtime pay bracket.

The twilight shift starts as everybody else goes home, and finishes as everybody is going to bed. There are two types of young twilight worker; the student who has to work part time to eat, and the schoolkid who needs a part-time job to give them a little financial independence from their parents. Both are desperate to earn some cash and will work for whatever wages they can get.

After hours

This vast source of cheap labour is widely used by any establishment which remains open after 'office hours'. At five o'clock the full-time staff will end their day and an army of part-time workers will take over. The same thing happens at weekends. Full- time workers tend to get Saturday nights and Sundays off, while the part-timers, who have only been at school or college all week, get the fun of working at the busiest time.

Here in Glasgow, wages for young part-timers can range from £1.57 an hour at Gateway to £2.51 an hour at The Pizza Place. The recommended minimum wage is £2.56. But wage tribunals refuse to touch your case if you're under 21. Part of a contract I had to sign stated in very small print (which I was encouraged not to read), that I was not and would not become a member of any trade union. It is compulsory for them to pay you more for working on a Sunday, 11 but as the law does not state how much more it ranges from 'time and a half' down to 'time and a fifth'.

12-hour shifts

The law is equally useful when it comes to the hours you can work. It states that no child under 18 can work more than 48 hours per week, which is very reassuring. It says nothing about the compulsory 10 or 12-hour shifts on Saturdays and Sundays. The law is, however, more protective of those still at school, as long as you have not reached the school leaving age of 16. As most employers won't employ anyone under 16 anyway, this piece of legislation simply gives them a free hand to treat over-16s however they want. Thankfully the law is there to prevent 'child' exploitation!

Last summer, short of funds, I got a job in a pizza restaurant in central Glasgow. Initially the money was a welcome addition to my two pounds a week pocket money. But pretty quickly it became obvious that it was not going to be an easy way of earning extra cash. My initial 16 hours a week grew until I was expected to work 32 hours.

Of course it wasn't compulsory, but it was made clear that they needed someone who would work the required hours, and if I couldn't then there was a queue of people willing to. Of course I was hired as a part-time worker, and this status didn't change when my hours increased. They needed me to work so many hours so that all the full-time workers stayed at 39 hours a week and never ventured into that elusive overtime bracket.

Not content with maximising their profits from overworking underpaid schoolchildren, the restaurant's next task was to turn me into a conscientious, cost-effective worker. The first step in this process was a few compulsory, unpaid training courses to help me to do my job better.

Happy families?

The courses themselves are to teach you to get the most money out of people. I thought I was employed as a waitress to convey food from the chef to the diner. I was wrong. At these sessions I was told of how I was selling their goods to the customer and it was my job to convince them to buy more. Therefore I was required to learn the skills of a salesperson.

The sessions usually begin with an introduction given by one of the training managers in which you are told how you are all one big family and how you're happy when they (the owners) are happy, and that they're happy when the shop is bringing in big profits and you can all rest easy knowing that your jobs are safe.

The course then proceeds with 'the family' getting to know one another by taking turns saying, 'Hi, my name's X, I work in Y branch and I've been with the company Z months'. You are now ready to discuss why you are taught to do things the way you arc. People have to stand up in turn and say what they like and don't like about the compulsory rules for selling.

Once everybody has opened their heart and exposed their true feelings, the managers inform you that any difficulties you may have are your problems, and not faults of the system. It was your fault that you didn't like telling customers that the tap water wasn't drinkable and therefore they would have to pay for the mineral water. It wasn't management's problem that you continually failed to coerce people into spending that little bit more money on their meals, by insisting that they buy desserts.

Grow up

With the exception of only a few, there is a nauseating sense of team spirit in the workplace. Everyone is given targets and quotas, and expected to meet them; if they don't they are letting the team down. Lateness or illness for any reason is not tolerated among the staff. (Management don't mind so much, as it means that they can pay one person for doing two people's jobs.)

By the time I left I was the longest-serving part-time waitress they had and I'd only lasted four months. Part-time staff are viewed as inferior and disposable. Complaining of course is out of the question, and will only be met by cliches such as 'it's a dirty job but somebody's got to do it'! There seems to be a sort of general acceptance that you haven't really grown up until you've been through hell at the hands of an employer. As if working gets any better when you grow up!
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 43, May 1992

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