Poverty Hurts: Life on a zero hour contract

You’re in the supermarket looking at the cotton pads. This is the cheapest store. Here you can buy a 200 pack for 99p. You know it’s the cheapest because you’ve been to Savers, Tescos, Boots, Superdrug, Sainsbury’s, Rainbow Bargains comparing prices and here you are in Home Bargains looking at the cheapest cotton pads, which you need to cleanse your face. But you put them down, because you have five pounds on you, five pounds found by trawling through every purse and loose change tin and even under the sofa cushions but you need to buy washing up liquid (you’ve been using the not cost effective hand wash as a substitute until you came up with this money) and food. So you put down the cotton pads and you will continue using toilet paper which shreds and leaves little bits of itself on your face when you wash your face at the end of a hard shift where all you smell like is chip fat, grease and sweat.

This is not a one time event. This is the not the result of going out all of last week and now having no money, this is an everyday occurrence, the Sophie’s choice of choosing which items are essential and which are not. Because you’re on a zero hour contract.

I think you get stuck in the job you first end up with. As a studious person I was taking five A Levels which only left me with evenings and weekends to work. I was on EMA (I went to college when EMA still existed) but since I was taking very costly subjects (photography, fine art, film, english, history) I spent a lot on supplies and books. So I needed a job. The only thing my seaside town had a plenty of was jobs in Hotels and catering. So my first ever job was in a Hotel restaurant where the Manager would swear at me and dock my wages if I incorrectly performed silver service. Where I had to get up early on a saturday and sunday and work till 11 at night, but I did it because I wanted to succeed in my courses, and I left College tired but with a string of A grades behind me.

Since then all my jobs have been casual contracts, which at first suited me. I got my third job in the canteen of my university as a second year student and the hours suited me because I could work on days I didn’t have lectures. The money meant I could finally catch up with my (rich) classmates with parents already in the industry and buy myself a HD camera which is all that remains proving myself to be a filmmaker.

But once I left university and a string of bad decisions meant I was unlikely to be working for BBC4 anytime soon I needed a job. So I left the university where I had my shifts cancelled and during the summer I would have been better on the dole, and got myself a full time job. But my old job which had been forcing me out as a graduate gave me a bad reference and I was let go after 7 days with the words “this is no reflection on your performance, your performance was great” and I was unemployed for a couple of months. But then bizarrely that was when I became a filmmaker, scoring my first professional film and tiding me over, but I needed a job, and this is where I ended up.

The sad thing is I love my job. The people, the managers, the staff, the customers and the benefits are wonderful. I have no criticism of my job, my job is and always will be wonderful. My criticism is with zero hour contracts, not my job.

Zero hour contracts do have benefits, they suit people managing their time with other commitments, whether it be childcare, studies or personal goals. They skew the statistics of who is and isn’t unemployed. pleasing the Government. But in most cases, cases like mine, they do not work.

I have been subsidised by my boyfriend since leaving university. Luckily he has always had a stellar career, and could afford to pay for me on the condition that I live with him and love him. Which is easy. But it makes me feel like a parasite. I grew up with Destiny’s Child and the song “Independent Women”, I am a feminist, how can I justify myself when I am being supported by a man?

Some months I would be better on the dole, but I have a strong work ethic and want to work and contribute towards my wonderful country. I am proud to pay my taxes supporting public facilities and those even more unfortunate than me.

But here are the facts. I have no shoes which aren’t warped, filled with holes or with the sole coming off. I need a new bra but don’t know when I can afford one. In the past I have sold my christmas presents on eBay because I need the money more than a need a loving gift carefully chosen for me to bring me joy. I stupidly took on those dodgy credit cards so i could buy groceries and have been left in more debt and a bad credit rating which will haunt me the rest of my life, leaving me more out of pocket if i ever buy a house.

I am forced to work for free to pursue options which could lead me to a better career. I hope it will pay off one day. But my boyfriend and I are running out of money fast. Some days we weigh up our options. Should I move out so I can claim housing benefit? Should we move to a cheaper area? Do we take on a room mate? But my boyfriend and I are happy with our situation and don’t want to split up. But we may have to. But what if i can’t pay the rent there?

I don’t buy myself things. I don’t smoke or drink, I can’t remember the last time I went out. When I get tips at the end of the shift (which i have to pay taxes on) do I put them towards a cab because I live 45 minutes away from my job and it’s late and i’m tired? Or do I get a high fat snack to temporarily make me feel good? It goes in the pot which I take to the bank when it’s full and cash in to temporarily and minutely swell my account, which hasn’t been out of the overdraft for three years.

Some people may be reading this and thinking “well get a job then” and to that I say “oh gee whizz, I hadn’t thought of that”. In October 2014 I had six jobs and I thought for once I’d have money, but then a nasty bug saw me lose most of the money I would have earned. I currently have two paying jobs and a voluntary position which is essential because it could lead to a better job in the long run.

I’m signed up to three temp agencies, but haven’t had any work yet. I spend at least an hour most days applying for jobs, feeling my confidence and hopes die with each application, debasing myself for any position that would help me.

When I do work, and it can be up to three weeks between shifts I sometimes get asked by staff and customers “I haven’t seen you around for a while, did you leave?” and I vary my answers. Some think I’ve been on holiday. The irony stings. Sometimes I get offered shifts on days when I am volunteering and I have to decide what is more important, the money or the potential benefit? To some it might be an easy choice but to me it’s not. Do I help myself in the short term or the long term?

Sometimes I get offered bar shifts which finish late and on occasion I’ve had to turn them down because I don’t have the money for a cab. Once I had four late night finishes in a row and I spent each night at a local friends house to save £30 on cab fares. £30 which I didn’t have.

This is what it’s like on a zero hour contract. The juggling, the choices, the decisions, the pain and the despair.

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