At the sharp end: the view from the warehouse floor

Insecurity and inflexibility have plagued one gig worker's career

September 29, 2021
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Johnnie Johnson/Alamy stock photo

James, a father of three from Bradford, should be the perfect example of what politicians call a “striver.” From dropping his children off at different schools, to caring for his elderly mother-in-law, to making deliveries for a local food bank during the pandemic— when you chat to him you can hear that he never stops. However, for all his own efforts, after spending 18 months keeping the shelves stocked for one of Britain’s best- known high street retailers, his experience of work has been with employers who are willing to put in precious little effort for him.

Retaining a characteristic sense of humour, even as he discusses his frustrations with work at the sharp end of the gig- economy, James highlights the inimical interaction between insecurity and inflexibility that has made life as an agency worker so damaging to his physical and mental health. He says, “I had to leave that due to bad health, bad back and just generally not being able to do the job anymore.” While generous in personal praise for the willingness of certain individual managers to “talk,” his experience in warehousing, driving and retail is of a system that is all take and no give.

Working nights at the warehouse, James found the 10pm-6am shifts gruelling. Simply getting to work on time was a battle. His shifts began after the buses had stopped running and finished before they resumed, which created particular mayhem when—as sometimes happened—they were cut short an hour or two in. A taxi home was sometimes the only option, but that could eat up two hours’ pay, which on a bad night might be all he earned. So, owning and maintaining a car began to seem essential, a huge cost when you’re on £8.50 an hour. Irregular shifts made managing sudden or unexpected costs particularly tricky, as James never knew how much he would earn from one week to the next. This required meticulous budgeting, as James explains that, “if you’re not very up on stuff like that” then you would struggle.

It wasn’t only the insecurity, but the inflexible schedule that eroded James’ wellbeing. As a dedicated father, James juggled responsibilities for his children— the youngest of whom is autistic—who all attended different local schools. His wife is partially sighted, so James is in special demand at drop-off and pick-up times, as well as for visits to support his elderly mother-in-law. While his agency contract provided endless flexibility to his employer to cut shifts short, it afforded him none, despite these pressing needs.

“After 10 years, there was just no loyalty,” James said as he described the way his cousin, who worked for the same major retailer, was treated when he resigned after a decade on the job and one too many arbitrary changes had been made to his shift pattern. As a practicing Christian, James’s cousin was uncomfortable working on Sundays, but when he raised this with his managers, he was told he could accept the new pattern or go elsewhere. That sort of contempt was, James says, characteristic of the working environment. He found it difficult to persuade his bosses to accommodate his needs—he suspects due to the pressure they felt from their higher-ups. This included struggling to get time-off to support his wife when his father-in-law died of cancer: he was grudgingly given one day off, and had to take another as unpaid leave.

After 18 months, the job was taking a serious toll, as the sleep disruption from working irregular nights combined with the pain from heavy lifting started to affect his mood. “When I was coming home from work, I was just tired, I was aching. I was just being grumpy really, to my kids and to my wife. It wasn’t good for the marriage really...I was getting a bit depressed.” James left the agency role but immediately faced another headache, this time over universal credit, as after waiting five weeks for the first payment, it was miscalculated to just £500, barely enough to cover rent and bills. He began working at a food bank, and it was only after sitting down with a benefits expert there that he was able get what he was due.

James enjoyed working at the food bank, but it wasn’t a long-term prospect. His dream role would be one he could fulfil around his family life—but though he is working with a coach from Universal Credit, a flexible job is proving hard to find. While some might fear that working for a ride-hail app like Uber would mean jumping from frying pan to fire, for James, the freedom to pick and choose his hours around the children’s schooling would be the ideal. However, there’s one catch—James fears he won’t be able to afford to work for Uber, as he can’t afford the required licenses or indeed the insurance, which is particularly pricey in Bradford. James is in the perverse position of not being able to afford to work, as the roles he would like to take all require certificates or training he can’t pay for.

As he recites the list of jobs he has had over the years, it’s clear that “effort” is not the missing ingredient in James’s career. In fact, effort is what he displays in abundance, as he tries against the odds to make an atomised labour market work for his family. All James is asking for is a job with a wage that he can live on and an employer that recognises that its employees are human beings, who will sometimes be sick, will sometimes be grieving, will sometimes need to pick their children up from school. With just a bit more support—and a bit more give and take—James would again be working, and contributing even more to the local community than he already does.