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Bar-ely legal: a cautionary tale

14th August 2012

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Summer jobs - the perfect way for students to keep themselves occupied and to earn money during the uni "off season". However, whilst income is important, sometimes it is worth looking at the bigger picture and seeing just what you're letting yourself in for...

As we all know, being an unemployed student is basically a straight path into near-poverty, freezing cold nights (alone, or not - giggidy) and copious amounts of junk food and ready meals. So off goes the light-bulb in your head as you near the end of your first year. Two words: summer and job. 

Why not get a summer job? Working minimum wage is all good as long as you have the hours, and it’s money coming in to spend on necessities such as food, electricity, alcohol, cabs out and cabs back. Sometimes you can even go above minimum wage – more money! Utter genius! Disposable income – the loan just becomes a cherry on top of this financial cake that you’re baking in your mind, all light and fluffy, undulating in the oven as you lick your lips in anticipation and appreciation of your own genius. 

For anyone considering part time employment this summer, I thought I should share my experience with you, and let you decide for yourselves if it really is worth it.

One night out towards the end of the last term, a few friends and I were having drinks in a local bar, which had adverts up for those wishing to join their “family”, and to “grab an application form from front of house”, which I sheepishly got one of my friends for to do for me (I hadn’t finished my drink, sheesh, as if I’d interrupt that crucial process).

None of us had jobs at this point, I was the only one to show any desire to grab something as soon as possible – others were aiming for employment from mid-June onwards, but being fed up of being poor as hell and constantly having to pester my dear old mother for money bless her, I decided to grab this opportunity with both hands. I filled out the application form a couple of days later and returned it to the bar, satisfied that, along with my CV, it would do me enough justice.

Sure enough, the day after I got a voicemail from the owner asking me to give them a call. This was where the first issue sprung up – they had given me an incorrect number to ring. After having phoned this number, gee, about, seventeen times (told you I’m keen), I was politely informed by a rather brash fellow on the other end that “I don’t know who you’re trying to phone, but I’m not the right guy”, in a scene ever so slightly reminiscent of Taken.

Not to be deterred, I showed up to the place a couple of days later, asking politely for the manager, who told me not to listen to the man on the previous call, as he was just the owner.

He then continued to say a few choice words to me about just what he thought of him. I maintained some composure, being somewhat taken aback, but I left it, because hell, I needed a job, and if he has issues with his boss, that’s his trip, not mine. I just need the money.

I was invited for a trial shift, which went excellently, and was soon hired on full time hours. In my first week, I completed nearly 35 hours, the second week nearly 40. The night shifts were long, tiring juggernauts, and I would not be asleep until 3am, having to be at work at 12pm the next day. But I didn’t resent it as it was money, the staff I worked with were fun, and it was a good laugh.

I worked on the bar as a bar-backer initially, having been hired as a barman, but was informed that I would be trained up as soon as possible to learn the plethora of cocktails that they served. My duties basically involved collecting and washing glasses, then re-stocking them, filling up fruit juices, getting ice, cutting fruit, as well as pulling pints, making some drinks, and wines. I also helped to re-stock the bar, and clean it completely at the end of each night shift.

However, it was during my second week when, after having been told by the manager that he’d had four hours sleep and slept in the staffroom the night before, I found out that some staff were drinking after hours. I stayed out of this, as I had no interest in pissing off my managers, and just wanted to keep my job. This manager, despite this, was a really good guy deep down – he made me feel immediately welcome and I settled in well, having a good laugh with him.

Yet a week or so later, when I asked about being paid, they asked me who was filling in my hours, to which I replied this manager, why? I was then curtly informed that “he’s not coming back”, inferring that he had been dismissed from his post. I was initially somewhat shocked, then realised this made sense. The amount of alcohol consumed by staff members was well into thousands of pounds, which shocked me, but hey, it’s not my problem. I’m still slightly suspicious to this day as to whether I am owed some money or not from these seemingly unfiled hours.

Despite this, work was going well. I was settling into a good rhythm, and was feeling comfortable – the staff I felt a real affinity with. Another manager left, yet was seamlessly replaced by another, which seemed fine at the time.

However, it was by the end of the first month that things began to turn sour. We were informed that we were not allowed to drink water on the bar, and had to leave the bar area to do so, which was a huge pain and meant loads of us climbing over one another just for a drink of water on a hot June night. As for me, my hours increased, which was good, but I was starting to feel slightly resentful at the fact that I was seeing less and less of my friends because I was constantly at work. I let this go as I realised that this is what I’d signed myself up for.

Yet what really finally began to upset and unsettle me was the constant rotation of managers, as well as the way that I was starting to be spoken to. I was beginning to get constantly scolded for breaking glasses (many of which were beyond my control, as even someone with half a brain can tell, glasses going from hot to cold to hot to cold become very fragile and can explode literally straight away, it’s actually very dangerous, as the cuts that constantly littered my hands can testify to), and “leaning”, which apparently is illegal when there is literally nothing to do during the day in a bar. I stayed around, as I started to think, more fool them for hiring me and paying me £6.08 per hour for doing pretty much nothing.

But my patience finally began to run out at the beginning of July, when I was told that I was not going to be trained as a barman, and was to remain a bar-backer, thus meaning there was no way I could gain a pay increase, and I was forced to wear a t-shirt at least two sizes too big for me. I was told not to speak to customers pretty much, forbidden from doing anything that was linked to the concocting of drinks, and was pretty much reduced to standing in the corner as a glorified pot-washer.

This apparently stemmed from a conversation where I was practising “pour” tests on a day shift, and the owner and bar manager were watching me. The owner apparently was incredulous and bemused as to why I had the audacity to do this, after which I was informed to not even bother doing them, as there was literally no point in me doing this, as I wasn’t getting trained. Ever. Period. End of story.

The way that I was spoken to deteriorated hugely. Often I would see the managers (by this point I had had nigh on six in two months), and owner having a laugh with members of staff, however I was just spoken to in monosyllabic orders which were snarled in my direction.

I was in halls at the end of last month, at around 5:30pm, when my shift didn’t start until 7pm. I received a phone call asking where the hell I was and why wasn’t I in work. I replied that my shift didn’t start for another hour and a half, and I was informed that I should have rung the restaurant beforehand to check when I was in, as the rota had changed, and why didn’t I know this? I reassured them that I’d come in now then, and the conversation abruptly ended. Fuming, but as work is work, and I relented and went in. I knew I’d get in trouble that day as I didn’t have enough money to pay for my washing, so I wore the incorrect t-shirt, that was the same colour as the rest of the bar staff. I went into the staff room, got changed and came out and began my duty. No shorter than 30 seconds had passed when one of the managers came to me, and said “WHY are you wearing that colour t-shirt?!”  No “Hi, how are you?” I explained what had happened, which they eventually saw as fair enough, and I did my shift.

My patience was wearing very thin.

By my last two weeks there, my relationship with the management was non-existent. One night culminated in £400 going missing from the till which I was kept behind for after, along with everyone else who was closing up, even though, as I didn’t deal with the customers, I had literally no possible way of accessing the till or any of its contents. This was eventually accepted, and I left at nigh on 3am, absolutely knackered. I was forced to do inherently pointless errands like going to PC World, tidying the staff room, going to the cellars and back to move stuff around, and I began to question what on earth my role had become – wasn’t I a barman?

I finally had enough by early July, when having heard that a guy in a position similar to mine had quit, I went in to have a chat with the general manager on duty and the owner about where I was headed. The manager insisted that I was a bar-backer and nothing more (even though I’d been assured I was to be trained at the beginning, and even had some training), and as for the owner, well…..he just blanked me. Just sat on his laptop ignoring me. Later that evening, I told them I wanted out.

I did my shift and went into work one Friday to find managers looking like they’d seen a ghost and my name completely erased from the rota, despite being told that a week’s notice was necessary. When I asked someone why I wasn’t working notice, I was informed that they “were under the impression I wanted to leave as soon as possible”. And there ended possibly the worst employment of my working career to date.

However, the drama didn't end there, as a couple of weeks later, for a friend's birthday a few of us went down there, at which point one of the managers rushed out to tell me that I was in fact barred for 3 months as a result of my leaving my job, (which apparently is company policy) which I found both absurd and humiliating. I felt like I'd been fired and just like scum on their shoe whom they considered completely disposable. Upon collecting my P45 this week, I was warned not to come in and socialise, and when going through the pieces of paper, a manager walked in and gave a mock-panicky look in my direction to one of the other bar staff. I couldn't believe just how childish and petty this had become. I have decided to completely boycott this bar as a result of my treatment there, as I am shocked and disgusted with them.

To be fair, I guess it could be worse – I wasn’t working in a sweatshop, yet it was still pretty awful. I know plenty of friends now who are in decent employment with decent managers, and really enjoy their jobs. I’d say to anyone looking for a job for it to be something you enjoy, and that you know what you’re signing up for right at the very beginning.

Also, bear in mind that whilst money is important, it isn’t the be all and end all – your personal happiness and health are crucial also. Meet your managers, and make sure you get along with them, and that you read what you sign. Having a job is an important part of growing up and becoming an adult, and taking some responsibility. Yet of course, it is possible to have a job you enjoy and work for people you get along with – I suppose you have to look a bit further and harder than I did!

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