Darren Mcgarvey: It's good to see young workers protesting against poor treatment

You know something's afoot when staff at McDonald's decide to go on strike. The fast-food chain, which has come to be regarded as the epitome of unfettered capitalism, was forced to issue a press release, downplaying the industrial action. The strike, which took place on Monday, was the first the American corporation has faced since opening its first UK restaurant in 1974.
Demonstrators protest over working conditions and the use of zero-hour contracts at burger chain McDonalds. Picture: GettyDemonstrators protest over working conditions and the use of zero-hour contracts at burger chain McDonalds. Picture: Getty
Demonstrators protest over working conditions and the use of zero-hour contracts at burger chain McDonalds. Picture: Getty

About 40 staff downed tools at two restaurants in Cambridge and Crayford, south-east London, after a ballot in favour of a strike over low wages and zero-hours contracts.

Let’s have a quick recap of what a zero-hours contract entails, for anyone out there fortunate enough not to know. A zero-hour contract is an agreement between an employer and a worker, where the employer is not obliged to provide any minimum working hours. In return, the worker is not obliged to accept any work offered.

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In Glasgow, this weekend, similar action took place when Better Than Zero, a trade union campaign set up to support young workers, staged a picket line on Ashton Lane – one of the city’s swankiest areas – in support of ten people who were dismissed amid allegations they abused staff discounts.

“I’ve put my heart and soul into working for this company for over a year,” said one such staff member, turfed out last week. “We get paid minimum wage, which is difficult to manage on, but we’ve always had a good atmosphere at work, with everyone getting along. We’ve covered shifts at short notice, regularly worked 12 hours, often forsaken breaks, and made the company a lot of money by upselling. Then they do this to us. It’s a complete kick in the teeth for the sake of £1.89.”

Direct action against employers is occurring with increasing frequency. But given the lack of meaningful reform from either the Scottish or UK Government, it’s been left to campaigns like Better Than Zero to bring exploitative companies to heel. In recent years, terms like “gig economy” have been coined to obscure the corrosive effect neo-liberal economics has had on pay, conditions and job security. The scales have been tipped so far in favour of big business that it was only a matter of time before workers reorganised and fired a warning shot across the bow of their paymasters. To what extent their concerns will be heard remains to be seen, but closer to home, campaigners are quietly – and confidently – picking off their targets.

Sadly, zero-hours contracts aren’t the only problem. They are just one aspect of a widespread culture of poor employment practices, particularly in the hospitality sector, which is the biggest employer of young people. It’s not unheard of for reputable companies to be caught paying staff less than the minimum wage or getting young people in for “trial shifts” where they can work for up to eight hours at a time, sometimes over a couple of days, before being informed the job has gone to someone else. This on top of staff tips not being fairly distributed as well as a constant stream of complaints regarding bullying and sexual harassment. Unsurprisingly, such practices, which are not only deeply unethical, but also against the law, tend to be more widespread in sectors where there is no recognised trade union to defend workers. It’s nothing short of a national disgrace.

Young people, just dipping their toe in the world of work for the first time, often present themselves for work only to be sent home again. If they complain, they are easily replaced. It’s the new, hip and futuristic model for the labour market everyone’s raving about, where it’s most indispensable asset – workers – are rendered powerless by their apparent disposability.

Organisations like Better Than Zero, who last week alone claimed a few big scalps with their robust name and shame policy, are turning up the heat on employers; reminding them, in no uncertain terms, that trying to cut corners to save a few quid will come at an even heavier price. It’s trade unionism for the social media age and is set to whip the worst local offenders into shape while subtly steering the issue at government level. All this serves to raise consciousness around the issue of trade unionism, generally; giving it a much needed 21st-century makeover. The fact Better Than Zero is aimed specifically at young people is also telling. This is a campaign engaged in the long game of reinstating a long lost cornerstone of left-wing politics: collective bargaining.

Insecure work is certainly not confined to the younger generation, but there are risks associated with normalising it as the everyday experience of countless young people, who come to expect maltreatment from multi-national companies and local business alike as just a part of life. Better Than Zero, and campaigns like them, are here to remind us it’s not and they are not asking for anybody’s permission to make their views known. Nor should they.

Treating young workers so poorly should be regarded widely as not only despicable and shameful, but as an idiotic act of economic self-harm that comes with harsh legal and cultural consequences.

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Why should employees, navigating a precarious labour market in some of the harshest economic conditions for generations, have to constantly look over their shoulder, in fear of being reprimanded or replaced for asserting their basic rights – if they even know them at all?

It’s time the swanky cocktail bars, over-priced restaurants and shyster nightclub and bar owners were the ones feeling anxious about the future for a change.

Darren McGarvey is also known as Loki, a Scottish rapper and social ­commentator @lokiscottishrap