Last year in mid-April, in serious need of money and therefore a job, I started working at a local pub. My first shift was on a quiet Thursday evening. I was shown around the place, where everything was and how to work the till, poured a few pints, polished some cutlery, and that was really about it. The whole thing lasted about three and a half hours, and they were sufficiently satisfied with my competence to give me more shifts from that weekend onwards. But when I got my first paycheck the following Sunday, I enquired about the three and a half hours that seemed to be missing. I was told that because it was a trial shift it was unpaid. I was a little confused but shrugged my shoulders and just accepted it and thought no more of it.
Until last week, when SNP MP Stewart McDonald’s private members’ bill that would ban such trials was due to have its second reading on Friday. Sadly, it was talked out of the Commons by Business Minister Andrew Griffiths, because last week highlighted some real horror stories. There was the woman in Bristol who worked two weeks unpaid to try and get a job, the anonymous ALDI trialist who described it as “slave labour”, and the person who worked six hours at Nando’s unpaid, whose only reward for essentially working as an extra staff member was a meal at the end.
These experiences are a million miles away from my own, but we all had one thing in common: we all worked shifts for which we were not paid. For me, it wasn’t a huge deal because I was lucky enough to get the job, but I know people who trialled at the same place who never initially got called back, and friends who have worked similar unpaid trials in other places. For them they gave up a few hours of their time they were not subsequently rewarded for, either financially, or in the form of a job which was actually paying.
Now, this is a tricky issue to talk about and absolutism either way helps no one. Trial shifts are, in many ways, the way the hospitality industry does job interviews, and seeing if you can actually do the job before you actually do the job makes sense. Darren Canning, the General Manager of a Bistro in Bournemouth, made the point very eloquently on 5Live last Thursday about how it is important to see how people can handle customers or work as part of a team while the ‘bullets are flying’ during serving hours. In many ways, where I work has a very good system in how they give you a quieter weekday evening shift to get used to everything, then take the training wheels off on the weekends.
In fact, if trial shifts were used purely in an exploitative way, namely, to cover for staff shortages or simply for cheap labour, then the problem would be a lot easier to fix. Unfortunately, because they are an integral part of the way many businesses, especially smaller ones, work, an outright ban is not an especially practical solution.
To return to my earlier point, it is a shame the government decided to talk down this bill rather than engage with the debate over what has proven to be an important issue. Given how there has been much talk about the possibility of banning unpaid internships, this would seem in a similar vein in terms of ensuring ‘good work’ in all its forms. One idea I had was for someone who didn’t get the job after their trial to be paid at least the minimum wage for their time, whereas the money a successful person makes afterwards makes that trial shift pennies on the dollar in the grand scheme of things.
I of course don’t have all, or even any, of the answers to this. But last week highlighted that, while we were all talking about a horror story involving the customers in a restaurant and a pub in Salisbury, those working in similar places in similar towns across the country have horror stories of their own.