Last year, Lizzie Abbott saw an advert for a local seasonal job.
“Fun arts and crafts Christmas role”, the job description said.
The reality was backbreaking work in Victorian conditions on a factory floor making Christmas crackers – standing for eight hours a day with a bullying manager haranguing staff.
“I had cuts on my fingers from making the crackers,” Lizzie, 23, says.
“There were no seats available, so you had to constantly stand.
“Rest breaks were unpaid except for 30 minutes for lunch, and there was constant pressure to meet targets.
"If people didn’t perform to the level the company wanted, they were told not to come back the following day.
“Workers were treated like disposable labour.”
The manager watched the 30 agency staff from a glass window overlooking the factory floor.
“He would come down and have a go at people,” she says.
“Once he came down and shouted at me because he saw I was so tired I’d got my elbows on the table I was working on. I didn’t know if I’d have a job the next day.”
Lizzie’s isn’t the worst story I’ve heard of seasonal exploitation.
The bigger warehouses of mass market retailers are rife with abusive practices, and I’ve interviewed many people involved in delivering gifts who end Christmas shattered, exploited and having spent no time with their families.
In turn, even these stories are rarely as bad as exploitation of garment and jewellery workers abroad.
But seasonal workers are at the hard end of a fragmented, insecure labour market, dubbed “throwaway labour” by the TUC.
One worker, a warehouse packer, for one of the busiest companies this Christmas, told me how he had become used to being “spat out” in January at the end of the sales when his contract ended, shattered and in poor physical and mental health.
But he had little choice but to take up similar seasonal work again the next year.
On Wednesday, workers at the Antic pub chain held a protest in East London demanding “fair Christmas pay”.
Meanwhile, staff at TGI Friday’s restaurants say they were forced into signing contracts two years ago that took away their right to be paid time-and-a-half for working over the Christmas and New Year period.
They say that while others spend time at home with family and friends, they have no choice but to work – but get no compensation for doing so.
Lauren Townsend, a waitress at TGIs, has started a petition for double pay on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
“This would be a small extra cost for TGI Friday’s who make huge profits – but makes a massive difference for the workers who’ll spend Christmas away from their families,” she says.
TGIs says that staff affected by Christmas changes were given five months’ notice, and that they are closed on Christmas Day so team members can spend time with family.
According to the British Retail Consortium, more than one in three retailers will increase staffing over Christmas.
Amazon alone has been seeking 20,000 extra recruits.
Where Government is failing exploited workers, unions are stepping up campaigns.
The TUC is calling on companies to pay staff for trial shifts, provide proper notice of shifts, pay staff if their shift is cancelled at short notice, provide proper rest breaks and to comply with minimum wage rules.
“Seasonal staff are at greater risk of being exploited and treated like throwaway labour,” says TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady.
“No one wants to enjoy their Christmas at the expense of workers being mistreated.”
This year, Lizzie is working for a different company, personalising jewellery as gifts.
The work is busy, but decent. She is paid properly, is able to sit down and gets proper breaks.
In the end, as consumers – many of us spending more at Christmas than any time – we can decide where to spend our money.
Scrooge employers will stop exploitation when we stop using their dehumanised systems and buying their products.
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