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Spare a thought for the abused, exploited Christmas temp

Every year, young people working in Christmas retail are overworked, bullied and underpaid. I'm one of them. 

December 17 2022, 12.28pm

The retail sector is one of the largest employers of young people in the UK, offering part-time work to students en-masse and providing many teens with their first seasonal job. (You may have noticed the terrified Christmas temp at the tills recently). I have been one of them for the past 10 years, throughout my various studies; this Christmas, I’m stacking boxes and ringing tills for a high-street chain store. 

A quick temporary retail gig over the holidays might seem like a great opportunity to make some money and get some retail work experience to boot. But unfavourable contracts, harsh absence policies and outright abuse are rife. And it is no coincidence that these are visited precisely on the kind of people who flock to work in retail over the holidays: young, inexperienced, and with little motivation to rock the boat, considering that whatever they are going through will be over in the new year. This helps keep the dissatisfied quiet, and benefits the often dodgy workplace, which can then discard them and recruit an entirely new workforce a year later. 

In my experience, problems kick off right at the beginning of your employment, with contracts containing unexpected workers’ rights waivers. I was told last minute - quite literally last minute, as I was putting my pen to the dotted line - I’ll be forfeiting my right to unsocial hours pay, reasonable time between shifts and maximum weekly hours worked; all for a part-time job that wasn’t meant to entail any of this. I’ve had shifts split across seven days a week for part time hours, fourteen-hour night shifts on my day rate, and have been verbally assaulted for refusing to work outside my availability for retail holidays such as Black Friday.

Focused on staff targets in the pursuit of year-on-year profits, the system creates a visible culture of trickle-down of stress and abuse from one level of management to the next. I’ve walked into the office to see store management teams being screamed at, have been screamed at myself by store management teams, and overheard daily management calls singling out stores and individual staff members for poor performance. It’s deeply toxic, even before you get to the regular spectacle of someone paid below national living wage being asked to put their shoulder to the wheel and drive £7,000 in sales for the day.  Failure is followed by the district manager visiting to “set expectations” the next morning.

This constant pursuit of profits allows for little understanding of sickness and personal health needs of staff. In my own employment, I’ve been denied time off for necessary surgery, with the business deciding to frame the procedure as elective and suggesting I wait until the next financial year to use my holiday entitlement to get time off. I refused, missed some shifts, and was placed into a disciplinary process for triggering a “high level of absence within 6 months”, which means three missed shifts in half a year. In my case, two of these instances were the same period of recovery from surgery because I was persuaded into attending a shift halfway through the week, and being sent home early in agony was counted as an extra occurrence of sickness - and another strike on my disciplinary record. 

In my years here, this policy has cost colleagues promotions into other areas of the company relevant to their degrees, and has cost new workers on probationary periods their jobs entirely. All this, regardless of whether doctors’ notes were provided for severe issues ranging from mental health struggles to traffic accidents. Any attempt to dispute fair treatment of employees when it comes to the absence policy is often minimised, leading to the staff resigning after tensions between them and management/HR became unbearable. I’ve seen managers with personal vendettas for being reported act atrociously towards the people involved, in an effort to strong-arm them out of the workplace. This included the manager bad mouthing the colleague in question to me and other staff on a daily basis throughout the process, something that frequently made us all uncomfortable. 

In an effort to be seen to care, online staff surveys are used to ‘anonymously’ gauge quality of life for team members in stores, but the reality is that any troubling data collected from these is used to single out the employees concerned and everything else ignored. Staff are sent at planned times during work day to fill in the survey so that it is clear which responses belong to whom, and last year an acquaintance of mine was refused a pay rise with a promotion after she reported witnessing LGBTQ discrimination at work when filling in her survey. 

The lack of action for staff benefit was highlighted most by our store having the lowest results in the district for this year’s survey, and yet this was never addressed beyond private management meetings and brushed off as a necessary sacrifice for “results”.

I’m lucky that I’ve found myself in a situation where I have other commitments and avenues of income, because the environment fostered in most fashion stores is not one that is meant to be easy to stick out for a career, and high staff turnovers are evidence of this. In the last year over half of everyone we hired quit within the first few shifts and, out of those who did stay, only a handful made it past their probation period. 

Ultimately, there’s a trade off between young people looking for a start in the working world and large retail companies looking for expendable, low-paid staff eager for work. As much as this arrangement can be mutually beneficial, it’s also a situation where a power dynamic is ripe for exploitation and abuse. Many of us enjoy the experience of shopping in big-name fashion stores for Christmas, but it’s worth noting that some of your favourite high street shops might be rather lacklustre employers. 


Spare a thought for the fresh faces staffing the sales this holiday - some of us may not have been granted time off to see our families. We’re working right up to the end of Christmas Eve and are back at it early on Boxing Day. If we look less than enthusiastic about the holiday season, it’s because it isn’t much of a holiday.