Zero Hours contracts – starting

Back in 2002 I had been told my company was closing (well, going “into Administration”, but the highly paid accountancy practice that had been engaged by the Venture Capitalists to get their money back had indicated that they would not spend too much time looking for a buyer for the business – the industry was already suffering).

I was kept on to complete a contract that the company was undertaking, and had already seen most of my colleagues shown the door. The few remaining colleagues had one thing on their minds – to take as much out of the business that they could, whether it be the client database, the expenses that they had run up prior to calling in the Administrators, or some other intangible.

At the age of 55 and having been made redundant before, I had no delusions about my prospects in the world of further employment. I decided to go back into self-employment (I had previously been self-employed prior to joining this company, so it was not a strange choice for me).

Meanwhile, my wife and I were looking at new houses to see if we could find something  local we liked. I got talking to one show-home demonstrator/sales lady who told me she was a “temp” earning good money in manning housing developers’ sales offices when they needed extra help. I obtained the name of the company that employed her in this role and contacted them, to see if it would suit me to supplement my income as I started my new business.

Duly interviewed in an office in north London by an officious woman and a man who apologies for her attitude but said “that’s how she is with everyone”! I was surprised to be contacted a couple of days later to be offered “employment” as a Temp on their team.

I say  “employment” as although you sign a contract with the company which outlines what is expected of you when you are on a developer’s site and what paperwork you are expected to complete after each “assignment”, it is made clear that (a) they do  not guarantee you any work, or if you do get any they do not guarantee any specific number of hours, (b) you get absolutely no pay unless you are working on a site, and (c) you are responsible for getting yourself to a site once you are offered and accept an assignment, and will not get paid any “travel time”.

So, what we now know as a Zero Hours Contract was engaged in.

It suited me for a number of reasons:

I could decided what assignments to accept and what distance I was prepared to travel to a housing development, although it was made clear that if I rejected assignments I would be considered “unreliable” and not offered further assignments. They give you some lee-way, good excuses such as already having an appointment with the undertakers, the surgeon for critical surgery etc would be accepted, but merely saying that a particular development was too far away, was not a pleasant one to work on (I will touch on this later) or I just didn’t want to work that day would not be acceptable.

A bit one-sided, then, as they may not call for days, even weeks, on end but when they did you were expected to be ready and willing to drop everything and get in your car. Many assignments were offered on the actual day with no warning, as developers realised that one of their permanent sales people had rung in sick, got stuck in snow, or some other reason for not turning up for work.

Most housing sales offices are open from 10.00 am to about 5 pm, so getting a call at 9 am to get to a site 45 miles away was not unusual.

I had a “get out quick” kit handy all the time, consisting of a bag with the basics I may need on site: A loo roll (essential, it is unbelievable how many sites are left by the permanent staff with not even the basics!), a few bags of tea and a small jar of coffee, a flask for hot water in case the site has no kettle or means of boiling water, a warm water-resistant jacket, a pair of gum boots, a hi-vis vest for putting over my coat to get from my car to the site office, and a sandwich box for slinging together a sandwich before departing. A dark suit (demanded as the “uniform” by the Temping company) and a clean light shirt, tie and black shiny shoes were always at the ready in the wardrobe.

You never knew what to expect when called by the office to go to a site. Sometimes you would be “double-manning”, assisting a permanent sales person employed by the housing developer, if they were expecting to be busy (weekends and bank holidays were normally worked by us Temps) or if they normally double-manned with their own staff and one was off on holiday or sick. Other times you would be expected to single-man the sales office with nobody from the housing developer on site. These were more tricky: You would be given instructions over the phone by the Temp office (passing on verbally the instructions they had got from the developer -Chinese whispers effect often came into force!) on where to locate the key to the sales office (sometimes it meant trudging across a muddy and busy development with fork-lifts and lorries back and forth around you to pick up a key from the “site office”, i.e. the office where the site manager responsible for all the building work was based) and any other basic instructions they may want fulfilled.

Some sites were luxury – a proper office in a house, often the show-home that you used to demonstrate the high-quality of home the poor dears were buying – sometimes the garage of the show-home which had been converted into an office, and sometimes a porta-cabin on a piece of land near the show-home. Sometimes when in a porta-cabin, the toilet would be a smelly, usually unsanitary and sometimes overflowing porta-loo.

In these porta-cabin sales offices, there was often no running water and if there was it would only be cold water.

Sometimes you would be expected to take potential buyers right across the site to see homes under construction, or to see a show-home that was remote from the sales office, and a set of gum-boots and hi-vis vests, along with builders’ hard hats, would be provided for use.

Buyers came in all sorts, and whilst some were so obviously just out for the day browsing around different developers’ sites, some were serious about buying. You were expected to smile and treat them all alike, even when they turned up 5 minutes before your closing time and demanded to see around the show-home that you had just locked up for the night!

I will explain more of my experiences on site later…..