This article, from the new October 2013 issue of The Young Quaker, explores issues around the use of zero-hours contracts at Friends House in London. You can read the full issue here.
This article was contributed to TYQ by a worker in the Hospitality Department of Friends House in London, who wishes to remain anonymous.
Historically speaking, Quakers are, though not morally exceptional, often among the first to realise that a common practice is immoral, to challenge it within their own communities, and to actively take that discernment out into the wider world. Moving against the grain of a society, Quakerism often helps drag society in the right direction. However, what we find today in Friends House London is the reverse. Instead of leading the way, Quaker business practice itself is being led by the economic and cultural orthodoxy of the market and corporate “experts”. This is to the detriment of Quaker values and to the detriment of the material well-being of employees of Britain Yearly Meeting.
When compared to those working in equivalent jobs across the capital and elsewhere, staff in the Hospitality Department of Friends House London are better off. In terms of hourly rate, we are paid over the London Living Wage, we receive good holiday pay and can participate in the pension scheme. However, many of us are also employed on what management likes to call “variable hours contracts”. What these should be called is “zero hours contracts”. These staff have no guaranteed hours each week. They may work a full 35 hour week, a single shift of 7.5 hours, or they may not work at all.
Nationally speaking, alarms have been sounded about these contracts. Unite the Union, the recognised union at Friends House, are explicitly opposed to them. Until recently, though not perfect, BYM’s use of such contracts actually provided an example of the organisation largely adhering to Quaker values. There was an understanding that a zero hours contract was a two way street, whereby a manager would offer largely regular work and employees could refuse it or specify their weekly availability without fear of losing out on hours in the future.
This arrangement suited many workers, who were often students, and in practice often led to zero hours staff having, if not as much and as regular work as set hours employees, then at least a measure of parity with them. Consequently, zero hours contracts, along with the existence of pay inequality and a myriad other things perhaps at odds with Quaker values, did not become an issue, and allowed those employed on them to lead satisfactory, if not ideal, existences. Dangerously, this is no longer true.
Before I explain further, some context is necessary. In Friends House, there is a considerable gulf between those who work ‘below stairs’ (the cafe, the restaurant, the conference rooms, and reception) and those in the offices. This holds true in terms of interaction between the two halves of the organisation – i.e. social interaction is minimal – but also in terms of the conditions of employment and the demographics of those employed. Those below stairs are more likely to be young, and/or non-British born, and speakers of a primary language that is not English. These workers are also less likely to be in the union or know of its existence than those upstairs. They are also on the lowest rates of pay in the building and, it would appear, are the only group of staff amongst whom zero hours contracts are used.
Over the last couple of years the hospitality business has undergone significant changes, changes that are acutely apparent in the way zero hours contracts are now used. What has happened very visibly in the last year, but has been an ongoing process for longer, is the erosion of the existing culture of respect and compromise by a very different culture. This culture concerns itself with the needs of business and the impositions of hierarchy in the name of those needs. It does this not only at the expense of Quaker values, but at the cost of the well-being of many of its employees.
Its most visible manifestation came with the employment of people from the corporate world to fill managerial roles, and the restructuring of the organisation’s pay scale. Its presence is now being felt with a restructuring of the hospitality business itself, including the introduction of formal clocking in and out, and supervisory roles, euphemistically titled “Team Leaders”. This is justified with talk of “professionalisation” and “flexibility”, and with frequent reminders that BYM must keep in mind the norms of the market. Quaker values are at most given lip service, if they are mentioned at all, whereas the values of profit for profit’s sake are stated as inarguable fact.
For many workers, particularly though not only for those on zero hours contracts, this cultural shift means a big change in our experience of being employees of BYM. We no longer have much say over when and for how long they work, and cannot count on knowing what is happening week to week. Some staff, particularly in the summer months, can go for weeks or even months without a single shift. Fundamentally, and not uncommonly, this means that zero hour contract jobs cannot be relied upon to pay rent and basic living costs. If staff object to all this, they are doing so to people in positions of power that are largely unaccountable, at least to the employees themselves. When staff have verbally challenged the management, the latter have denied that anything is wrong, countering concerns with evasive non-answers, and reminders of how much better the conditions of work are in Friends House than in most similar workplaces, such as Starbucks or Costa.
Staff have even been encouraged to seek secondary sources of income. This neglects the fact that their precarious position means that zero hours staff do not have schedules that permit that, and attempts to normalise the idea that in order to earn a living people should have to have multiple jobs. Furthermore, it implicitly acknowledges that zero hours contracts, despite BYM’s commitment to a living wage, result in its employees earning less than they need to survive.
Though I am not a Quaker, I have spent considerable time around a range of Quaker organisations. I thought that Friends did more than just make formal, shallow concessions to their values, while allowing a dominant, harmful culture to dictate how their organisation behaves.
I thought that even when this is difficult, when there are economic and cultural pressures to succumb to “How the rest of the world does things”, Quakers were courageous enough to be committed to having the values of equality, honesty, the ends not justifying the means, and respect for autonomy permeate all that they do. What I see in Friends House is far from this, and as a result of this harmful cultural change, it is not only employee’s wallets, standard of living, and ability to live independently that have taken a significant hit, but my trust in the ability of Quakers to practice what they preach.
Britain Yearly Meeting Response
TYQ asked BYM for a comment about the use of zero-hours contracts at Friends House. They told us this:
“Variable hours contracts have been used since 2010 by BYM for staff in several departments. They provide a flexible arrangement offering benefits to both employee and employer. They give the hospitality company the flexibility to increase staff in busy periods and to cover for absences. And an employee who cannot or prefers not to commit to a regular working pattern can work flexibly.
Staff on these contracts are not treated differently in more general respects from all other staff. Our employment practices include: a commitment to providing good training opportunities and working conditions; our 1:4 salary ratio from the highest to lowest; salaries which are in the upper quartile of equivalent employers; and our accreditation as a Living Wage Employer. We have a robust whistle-blowing policy and grievance procedure. All staff, on all types of contract, are invited to join the union.
Trustees are glad to be joining in a discussion of the nature of a Quaker workplace, glad that staff are being encouraged to appreciate the different types of work carried out by their colleagues, and recently minuted that “good employment practice should be Quaker employment practice and vice versa. Quaker values inform all the work done, and how it is done. A good workplace enables good service as part of its culture.”
Jennifer Barraclough, Clerk, BYM Trustees
So What Is a Zero-Hours Contract Anyway?
The topic of zero-hours contracts has hit headlines recently, with workers and unions criticising a form of employment that can leave workers without the ability to support themselves and their families. But just what are they and why are they such a problem?
A zero-hours contract is, quite simply, a contract which doesn’t guarantee you work in any given week.
Generally, when you sign a contract, you’re guaranteed a minimum number of hours; there’s a contractual arrangement that you’ll work at least that many hours, and you’ll get paid for at least that many hours. You know you’ll earn a certain amount of money in a week and you’ll be able to use that money to pay your rent, feed your family, and pay your bills.
In a zero-hours contract, there is no guarantee. The boss might ask you to come in for one shift, or to come in every single day; you don’t know. Not only does that mean you can’t make plans, or find other work, it also means you can’t rely on making enough money to live.
Employers insist these contracts are ‘flexible’, but the power over when and if you get work is generally in the bosses’ hands not the workers’. And 87% of those on them said they’d prefer not to be on a contract which promises less than three hours’ work per week.
These contracts often have poor conditions, with 36% not including holiday pay and 77% not including sick pay. They’re also much more common amongst younger workers, with over half of those under 30 being on contracts guaranteeing less than three hours per week.