Fifteen months ago, I was one of hundreds of young workers taken on by the once-thriving HMV at Christmas time. On Christmas eve, just after it first emerged that their business model was in deep water, most of us were told our contracts would be amended to an earlier finishing date.
I was given a week’s notice, which is more than can be said for some of my colleagues. A young French woman was told by our sneering line manager that she could have an “extended holiday”, as he informed her that she needn’t bother coming to work on Boxing Day or any day after.
Many of those who faced the brunt of the swift hand of management were foreign nationals or from ethnic minorities. But there were two universal traits among temporary workers and many of the permanent staff too: all young, and we had all been presented with an employment contract that was the stuff of nightmares for any trade union member.
A number of HMV’s temporary staff had never heard of trade unions before I asked them if they’d considered joining one. Much like the staff at Pret a Manger, whose plight was picked up by Paul Myerscough in the London Review of Books.
“Pret workers aren’t supposed to be unhappy,” he wrote. “Job candidates must show they have a natural flair for the ‘Pret Behaviours’.” He went on to discuss the company’s preference for colleagues to back-slap each other in inter-congratulation at regular intervals, to create the “Pret buzz”. The ideal worker ‘never gives up’ and ‘goes out of their way to be helpful’.
This was eerily reminiscent of the HMV experience. “We want you to be proud to be part of our family,” said the trendy 40-something leading our training session. “You may have done jobs before where it doesn’t matter if you’re in a sulk – well if that’s your attitude, you can leave now.
“You’re here because you love the music, you love the games, and you love selling.” There then followed a whole load of instructions about “up-selling”: attempting to gain the confidence of each and every customer through over-piling of pleasantries, in an attempt to pile more into their shopping basket at last minute.
The worst scam we were made to shove under each punter’s nose was the notorious “pure card”. This was the only loyalty card I have ever encountered where one pays for the privilege of being loyal. Needless to say, I didn’t manage to sell a single one. That is, before I decided on being given my notice that just because I’d been screwed over by HMV management, I needn’t make the British public join me in that experience.
HMV have always felt they have a niche on the high street – and they do, because many of their workers are actually passionate about what they’re selling. More so than Pret, no doubt. But what use is loving RnB when you’re given only one half-hour break in a long working day of being paid under the living wage? What use is the love of jazz when you’ve worked for the company of 10 years and (a true story) you’re told to come into work after a morning of treatment for a very serious illness?
Attempting to instil a sense of forced happiness in young workers cannot make up for the bad feeling subconsciously created by poor workplace rights. Especially if you’re supposed to be doing a job for the love of coffee – no wonder the Pret workers have set up a union.
But back at HMV, now in administration, scores of young workers will now be facing redundancy with little to help them in their contracts. You’d hope that Young Labour would be the sort of organisation that could help, but what chance of that when its ranks are almost exclusively dominated by those in higher education, or at some point before or after?
That’s why newly-elected members of the Young Labour national committee have been working with the trade unions to set up the Young Labour Trade Union Network. For the first time, there will be a structure in place to ensure that the party’s young wing is representative of the millions of young people in the workplace – and not just university students. As well as the consensual (but pressing) issue of youth unemployment, trade union activists hope to take up the fight against youth under-employment and poor employment rights.
Young trade unionists have already set up a campaign to save jobs at HMV, but so far there has been a deafening silence within the Labour party.
Young workers, especially is thus far un-unionised workplaces, need somewhere to turn to in the face of exploitation and the prospect of the dole queue. If Young Labour can manage a lengthy discussion on workplace rights for parliamentary researchers – as took place at the last Young Labour conference – but we’re oblivious to those on the high street, then one wonders who it’s here for.
This article, updated since the Young Labour conference, first appeared in last month’s Labour Briefing.