The Zero Hour Contract lament

I remember, while studying sociology at A level more than a decade ago, learning about the concept of a meritocracy. At the time, naive as I was, I thought that must be the way my country worked. That people attained their positions in life based on their skills and achievements, whether innate, learnt or hard won. I believed that lower starting points may be a disadvantage, but not an insurmountable obstacle, because surely with determination and hard work social mobility would be open to anyone.

Ten years and much more experience later, I have never seen my country work in that way. And I worry about the fine line between being angry – the type of useful fury that drives people to do incredible things – and becoming bitter. I feel choked and trapped, and I try to fight against that because feeling trapped is such a trigger for my depressive tendencies. I can sense despair circling, trying to find a chink in my hastily built, unstable barricade. I can’t allow that to happen.

This is the problem: I want to be more than a struggle of hardship and determination against the odds. I have worked so hard to rebuild my life from scratch – to first regain some semblance of physical health, then to shore up my coping strategies and resilience, and finally to reintegrate myself within the community. It’s that last part that seems like a road to nowhere. My family have always been in debt, my parents have never been able to support me financially, although I was lucky enough to be able to live back at home when I was first in recovery. That meant I could use the small income I did have to pay for a private therapist. But since leaving home I’ve either been stuck on benefits, or in low paid part time jobs that see their staff as fair game for exploitation and abuse. I’ve applied for hundreds of other jobs, and become quite the expert at selling myself, but in our current economy experience is what matters. Whenever I’ve made it to interview, the job has gone to someone with twenty years of experience, who frankly shouldn’t be forced to apply for the still fairly low paid jobs I’m after if they are that highly skilled. I can’t begrudge someone with twenty years of relevant experience in their field who has to accept less than £20,000 a year.

For the last ten months I’ve been employed by a very large international company, at one of their small regional call centres. I’ve worked hard under some difficult conditions, for example when they changed the technology we used to call people with, and we got nothing but abuse from those answering for nearly a month, because our fabulous technology was phoning them ten times a week and no one seemed to know how to stop it. That, of course, was because us lowly advisors were doing it wrong, although we were never actually told what ‘right’ would look like. The only training I got on this technology was three hours of sitting next to a colleague who had been using it for a week, who was trying not to cry because she was being shouted at by every other person who answered the phone. But I stuck it out, and I did my best in this job while also studying for my counselling qualification and seeing five or six clients a week at two different placements. I did my best while burning the candle at both ends, since Audrey gets up at 6am for her job and I always seemed to end up on the late shifts, getting home around 8.30 in the evening. A couple of years ago that would have been an intolerable amount of stress for me, but I did it and I was proud of myself. I’ve never had a bad report from my manager, or been summoned to one of the disciplinaries they give out for all sorts of tiny infractions.

Three weeks ago it was announced that our campaign was hiring new full time members of staff, and that the current part time members would have to pick up the few remaining shifts. We were projected to be down to around 12-16 hours a week each from the start of October. We were upset, but that’s the sort of thing you expect on a zero hour contract, so we just started looking for other jobs, other ways of paying the rent. Last week, on Wednesday, they put the rest of our September hours online. Without fanfare, without even a manager present to explain, we each had around four hours a week, starting from this week. I sat there close to tears for my whole shift – I was so angry and upset I wanted to walk out, but how could I when all of a sudden I was on my last proper week’s work for the foreseeable future?

I am a fully qualified counsellor now, but I’m going to become deskilled quickly when I can’t see clients because I can’t afford supervision, and I have no time for voluntary positions when my rent and ability to eat depend on me finding a new job as soon as possible. Setting up a private practice has been an idea in the back of my head for a while, but that involves money too – advertising, living off of very little while building a client base, supervision again, office rent, insurance. I would take any job I was given, providing I could continue attending university on Wednesdays, but with a three year gap in my CV there are very few employers who even give me the chance to interview.

When those who try to govern my country – from any party – insist that they want to reward hard working people, that flexible working conditions mean better businesses, that greater wealth at the top has a trickle down effect, I want to scream. These people know nothing of my life. They have been cosseted from birth at a private hospital to the Cabinet Office, from Eton to Oxbridge with four holidays a year and a house in the Cotswolds and another in Spain. I have worked incredibly fucking hard and I have never been rewarded. I am intelligent and creative and determined and none of it matters because at one point in my past I was too unwell to work, and while that was happening our economy died and my future seemed to die with it. I know the world doesn’t owe me anything, but I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall here.

Increasingly, when someone tells me to just hang on, that my chance will come, that good things happen to people who work hard, and that life is full of opportunities and you only have to look, I want to ask them how I am supposed to keep a ‘can do’ attitude when the world keeps shouting NO in my face and slamming the door. I want to work. I want to be stretched and challenged and encouraged to be the best I can be. Why won’t anyone let me?

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3 responses to “The Zero Hour Contract lament

  1. So sorry to hear this, Katie 😦 I know you work tremendously hard – and I also know how intelligent and creative you are. The next to last paragraph in this blog post summarises the situation well.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I wish it was different…wish it was a more level playing field like we are led to believe it would be. It’s important to bust that myth that if you just work hard you can attain the dream life we are told everyone can have. The system isn’t set up for that.

    BTW….I started reading your blog a little over a year ago. I have really benefited from your D.I.Y. section. That was helpful for me in creating my own eating disorder treatment program. After 21 years of entrenched bulimia I am finding a way out. Thank you so much.

  3. It’s such a difficult situation and I really feel for you. My instinct is to believe that people who are determined and creative (as you are) will make it in the end, but maybe that’s just what I need to believe to stay sane. It’s horrible when you’re in the thick of it, and our government seems determined to bugger things up for anyone who wasn’t born with a silver spoon in their mouth. I know I’ve been very lucky… the economy was OK when I became well enough to start working again, and my family have been able to support me financially to some extent.

    One good thing about self-employment is that no one really cares about any gaps in your work history, and although experience still matters, it’s not the be-all and end-all (you have much more freedom in what to focus on when you’re selling yourself). The difficult thing, as you said, is that you have to invest before you can start making any money – both your own unpaid time, and also start-up costs such as advertising and office space.

    This might be a long shot, but have you talked to @Ana_Crafts? I know she got a lot of practical and financial help when setting up her business, which I believe came from the Princes Trust and was targeted at people with disabilities, although I could be wrong. I know grants are becoming less and less common (the organisation that provided mine, via the careers service, now just gives people advice on getting a loan) but it might be worth a try.

    You’re both in my thoughts, so if there’s anything I can do to help, please just let me know. x

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