THE BLOG

Unearthing a Culture of Oppression in UK Retail

21/05/2013 12:35 BST | Updated 17/07/2013 10:12 BST

The UK's retail sector is one of the primary employers of students, as we seek to fund our education whilst balancing high workloads. As an employee within the retail sector myself, I have come to witness a great injustice towards students and other employees alike within the retail sector, which must be addressed. There currently exists a perfect storm for capital as both zero-hour contracts (contracts whereby people are not contracted to any hours, meaning that their work week fluctuates constantly) and an increase in target-driven sales - or 'add-on culture' as it will be labelled in this article - has seen students and employees left without a voice.

Firstly, the arguments put forward by employers assure me that zero-hour contracts are a necessity in ensuring that the can guarantee the flexibility that many employees desire. Similarly, I have spoken to students who are employed through zero-hour contracts, and they agree that they do allow for a degree of flexibility in between assignments and lectures. Members of the government echo this, as I spoke to Matthew Hancock MP, the parliamentary under-secretary for skills. Mr Hancock has had a great deal of experience in student employment, and feels that despite the arguments against these contracts it is "better to have a job than not" in the current economic climate. But have we found ourselves in a situation whereby we must choose between employment and oppression?

The flagship argument of flexibility by employers appears undermined, as evidenced by the UK's main retail union; USDAW. USDAW state that "with the individual's consent, and the employer's agreement, the idea that [flexibility] can't be arranged is not one that we would agree with." They continue to say that "companies should plan ahead for weeks and months on their schedule" thus accommodating that flexibility. They conclude by saying that it is "unfair on the individual employee to be in a zero-hours contract" simply due to uncertainty around hours, and a lack of planning in terms of their working week.

The Labour Party has not been silent on this issue either. The BBC reported on the Shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, and his calls for zero-hour contracts to be abolished. The Labour Party seeks to reward companies for paying low-paid jobs above the minimum wage, and as the BBC reports, Mr Burnham wishes to twin this with an abolition of these contracts.

Zero-hour contracts could be seen to be negative on their own, however when twinned with this 'add-on culture,' it means that employees are put under considerable pressure to hit sales targets (extra products 'added on' to what a customer is already purchasing) in order to ensure they can still get hours the following week - fluctuation that a zero-hour contract allows for. Employers defend this by saying that it promotes competition within the workplace. However, for a student who already has work deadlines to meet, is this competition necessary?

One student had such a bad experience with add-on culture that she agreed to speak with me. Her employment with one of the country's leading shoe retailers was so high-pressure, she said that "there's only one word I can use to sum the system up... ridiculous." The aforementioned oppression is evidenced as in add-on culture, "you are responsible for your 'failure;' a word that was thrown around a lot. Turning on the employee and insulting their work is completely and utterly senseless." There is also inconsistency with targets, as "managers had only a target of around £50-£120 each shift, compared with mine on a normal Saturday of 10-6 with a target of £700+," a culture that was "completely demoralising." She sums up her experience by saying "being watched and having your sales listened to by a manager is disheartening. Being rushed along and having your superior wave products in your face to force upon the customer is even worse. I've never felt embarrassment to the extent I did working [there]."

This is not an isolated incident. I spoke to a former full-time member of staff at one of the UKs top sports retailers. He said that "a little friendly competition with add on sales is a good thing. However I don't feel anyone should be threatened with minimal or 0 hours if they don't sell them, as everyone [has] different skills." When asked about his contact with employees on zero-hour contracts, he said that "there is a lot of pressure as they are constantly told to sell add-ons or get no hours...They are told in the 'interview' process that this is the most important part of their job, which I disagree with completely."

My ability to scrutinise this culture is somewhat restrained, as I am employed within it myself. Similarly, I have chosen not name sources or the companies they work for, simply for their protection. I possess the names of these companies, and I hope that there is a journalist reading this, that wishes to explore this further and is not constrained by the sector itself. I have a clear bias on this topic, and so it must be read with scepticism. But there is clear evidence above that suggests a culture of unnecessary pressure and oppression that cannot be ignored any longer.

Have you been affected by zero-hour contracts or add-on culture? Email in, or tweet us via @HPUKStudents or @SJRMercer.