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When does efficiency become exploitation?

These have not been the best couple of weeks for the reputation of fashion retailing in the UK.

The publicity around the use of zero-hour contracts in the sector has done nothing to suggest that fashion retailing is a great career choice.

The widespread media exposure that these stories have provoked ought to prompt the industry as a whole to take a breath and ask itself if employment practices haven’t got somewhat out of hand. The retail business is very tough, of course, and employers’ costs in this country are very high, but I’m beginning to suspect that some techniques being widely used have drifted from efficiency in staffing towards exploitation of workers.

I fully expect the national press will continue to dig around this subject. They will find, as Drapers has done, that even the most media-friendly retailers become strangely quiet and unhelpful when one asks questions about workers’ contracts, job security and the moral obligation companies have to their employees.

Some of the rumours I’ve heard raise questions about our society as a whole and how we regard our fellow citizens.

I’ve been told that one of our largest retailers expects people to present themselves for work each day, but with the proviso that they might be turned away if there is no work for them. If this is true - and my source did not wish to reveal to Drapers too many precise details of when and where this was happening - we are treating retail staff like casual navvies on a building site. What a horrible thought that is.

The fact that many of the affected people - and we are talking about people here, not figures on a spreadsheet - are young adults trying to begin their working lives makes some of the stories even more depressing than they would be anyway. As the father of children who worked part-time in fashion retailing while they were studying, I’ve seen at first hand that the employer holds all the power. There is a huge demand for jobs among youngsters and they have to take what they are given.

One kid I know has a four-hour-a-week contract. He never knows one week to the next if that will be increased beyond the four hours, making it impossible to find another job to fill in the gaps. And the relatively small amount of money he earns on a four-hour shift is eaten into by the costs of getting to work, which are considerable where he lives.

Even more disturbingly, earlier this year he found a second job with a concessionaire at the store where he works, but he was offered it only as a self-employed person. Are things so bad that fashion retailers want 19-year-olds to register with HM Revenue & Customs as self-employed to do 20 or so hours a week? I find it deeply depressing.

Such was the lad’s desire to earn some money for travelling in the summer, he took the job as self-employed.

Interestingly, within a few weeks his contract was changed to a more conventional employee’s one - I hope because the host retailer found out about the arrangement and put a stop to it.

As all this happened some months before I returned to Drapers, it was not reported on, but as a title with a responsibility to the industry, Drapers would very much welcome your views on this emotive subject. When does
staffing efficiency slip over into exploitation of workers?

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