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Life on a zero hours contract

An anonymous account of life working on a zero hours contract by one of our guests

A zero hour contract is, as the name states, a contract that has no fixed hours. There is no actual contract. The way it works is very simple, you find an employment agency, most agencies offer zero hour contract work, sign up with them, and then the agency will call you to find out if you are available for a given job. The job can start at any time of day or night – 11am or 11pm or 3am - anytime. You have to be ready for the call of duty. The agency will ring, say they have work, then you have to be ready at the location whatever time is specified, that might be in the next half hour – or next few hours, the time usually depends on how far away the job might be. The work can be anywhere in or around London, any zone. Usually, I will use night busses to get there. Night busses are actually quite quick because at night there is no traffic.

An example of a recent job I did was in Barking. The agency called in the day to say there was a shift working in a warehouse, lifting etc., from 9.30pm to 2.30am. It took 3.5 to 4 hours to get there and the same to get back again. The pay is £6.19/hour. You pay for your own travel. I usually get a weekly bus pass which costs £19.60. A problem can be that you buy a bus pass for the week and then you don’t get any work from the agency – so your money is wasted.

The most regular shift I did was 3am to 7am at a warehouse. Generally shifts are 4-5hrs and they are always during ‘unfavourable’ hours, these are when nobody else wants to work. The only people who do it are doing it because they have no other choice.

However, despite it being really exhausting and regardless of how they treat you, I refuse to jump on the bandwagon of saying it’s criminal or exploitative. I’ve never signed on and would never do that. To me, that’s giving up, smooth sinking. Zero hour contracts are for the jobs that most people refuse to do, due to the unpredictability and the anti-social hours, but it at least helps you to keep up, to say working. You can use your ‘zero hour’ experience to help in applying for full-time work. It’s at least an option to keep working, while you look for more suitable things.

And it is a two-way thing. You can after all say you don’t want to take a job, though having said that, you then risk not being called again. The bottom line, however, is that you can withdraw your labour.

It’s a fact of commercial life in London. It’s not a new concept. These contracts have existed for ages – even when the economy was doing well. People want cheap goods, 24-hours day, this is how companies keep low prices and make big profits.

At the end of the day, you are an adult, you know you are doing these crap jobs so that you can exist whilst you looking for a better alternative.

I’m relieved that in the Autumn I start a normal warehouse job. I won’t say doing zero hours is a negative thing but I will say it was really hard, I was taking medication at night which would knock me out, nevertheless I knew that I just had to keep going and struggle to accept the jobs and keep working. I’d get woken up at all hours, I’d be so weak doing physical labour, but I’d just have to do it. You just have to battle on.


Meet a volunteer: Rachel


As Rachel prepares to say goodbye to SFTS before returning to university, one guest’s story remains stuck in her mind:  “There was this Ugandan lady, let’s call her B;  she was in her sixties and had a heart condition. She finally chose to be repatriated - I guess she wanted to die in her home country - I helped raise funds to pay for her journey, and I went to the airport to see her off. I don’t know what happened in the end, but I’ve never forgotten her.

Londoner Rachel is full of energy, and her enthusiasm is infectious.  No wonder that after joining as a volunteer in early 2011, she soon took on more responsibility, becoming a shift leader and a key worker, which meant closer attention to individual cases.  

Having completed a B.A. in theology, Rachel found that her first jobs – mainly in administration – involved hardly any direct personal contact. After arriving at the shelter in early 2011, however, she developed a passion for working with people.  “I learnt how to communicate, how to be patient, and I began to understand how people become homeless.

While she finds every case worrying, it’s the younger homeless that cause her particular concern:  “I know that I myself am just three steps away from where they are.” Her experience at the shelter helped Rachel find employment as a social worker, which in turn has led to her decision to leave London and study full-time for an M.A. in Social Work.

Rachel likes to think that, even though work at the shelter can feel like fire-fighting, it offers an honest approach with no false promises, and – above all – a safe environment:  “It’s a home.”   What will she miss?  “All the guests,” she says, “I got to know people well, and on their terms.


Guest stories: Nidal

My name is Nidal, I’m half Lebanese, half French. I was born and raised in the Congo. I graduated in journalism and for seven years I worked for two big French and Arabic newspapers. Three years ago I came to London to work for my Masters degree - the first two years were perfect, but then tragedy struck and my beloved Dad died of a sudden and unexpected heart attack.

My life went into tailspin. I started using drugs to ease the pain of my sorrow and before I knew it I was a slave, a prisoner trapped in my own body. With every smoke of my pipe, I was losing a friend, my family’s trust and support and finally my accommodation. I was homeless, chasing dealers in the street, thinking only about my next hit. I was surrounded by junkies and crack heads and I was petrified and ashamed to realize that I was becoming like them. After losing everything my freedom didn’t mean much; desperate for drugs I shoplifted and all I remember is the cold handcuffs on my wrists and the stinky smell of the previous criminals in the police cell.

I was in custody for five days but it felt like five years - I begged God to stop the agony of cold turkey.  When I was taken to court for sentencing I was staggered to find that the judge refused conditional bail unless I had an address where I could be electronically tagged. All my friends turned their backs on me, how could this be happening to me, I’m a journalist, a student, a nice middle class Lebanese girl and I was going to spend the next month in Holloway.

I thought my life was over, but then they told me a charity called Shelter from the Storm had agreed to give me a bed. After three weeks in the shelter I am overwhelmed by the love and support of the amazing volunteers. I don’t feel lonely or scared, I am surrounded by people who live their life to give to those less fortunate and for that I can’t thank them enough; thank them for giving me my life back.



Meet a volunteer: Megan

I was introduced to SFTS by my friend Jane about two years ago and have been a regular member of mighty Monday night shift ever since.


Considering the shelter is essentially a big shed in the middle of an industrial estate in central London it is pretty miraculous how homely and relaxed it always feels. By about 6.30pm most of the guests have arrived and not long after we are all doing what many families around the country do every evening at home; sitting down to dinner, chatting, laughing and arguing about what to watch on the TV.

It is the ability of the shelter to create such an atmosphere that makes it so special and successful. The recognition that our guests need practical help, but also, a place to relax, feel safe where they can receive a little extra care and support seems to make all the difference.


Guest stories: Sandra


Sandra is 25 and has been living on her own since she moved out of her mum’s when she was 18. Sandra used to work in a butcher shop during the week, which she really enjoyed, especially being the only woman working amongst all men. She liked seeing the animals hung up (which she hopes doesn’t sound too weird!). She also used to work in a chip shop, which she enjoyed too, ‘especially on the weekend when you could see all the drunk people’. She is currently signed off for the next 6 months but she's looking forward to being able to work again and would like to put in for her security license for security work.

She also is interested in tattoo art, she has 18 tattoos, and is hoping her partner will get her a tattoo starter kit. She has been with her partner for over a year, they are happily engaged and looking forward to moving in together and having children. They hope to get married in 2015. Sandra is currently working with Spires to get her own accommodation and ideally would like a one bedroom flat.

Sandra has been on the streets twice and says it is really, really scary, ‘you don’t want to go to sleep at all, in case you get robbed’. She likes the shelter because she feels safe and the other guests and staff are friendly, ‘there are people here to support you, almost like a family, and there is always someone there to talk. It’s important for everyone to have someone to talk to.’

Sometimes, she can however, find the shelter a bit too much to handle, it can be busy and noisy, but if she listens to music, she can find a bit of personal space and feels better.

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