Saturday, April 23, 2016

Life at the Little Chef (1986) - (short story)


A Short Story from the September 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Get a job during the summer, my careers officer told me. Said it would improve my future employability if I showed I was always willing to work. Well, I wasn't sure about that but I did know I needed the money. So as my local motorway service station took on extra staff during the summer months, I telephoned the personnel department there. The service station is owned by the mega hotel and catering company Trust House Forte.

In my two hour induction (or indoctrination) session 1 learned more. The training officer talked much about the need for discipline among the staff and the "philosophy of the company". Equality of opportunity regardless of race or sex was bottom of the list of priorities. Trust House Forte has done so well in the service station type of catering that it now opens one Little Chef nationally every fortnight. The term they use for this is “popular catering", which really means the working-class feeding needs. As it turned out I was to work in the stores in the 7am to 3pm shift, unloading deliveries and shifting them to other workers in the station.

I have been a socialist for a few years now and I have been fortunate in that up to now I have not had to sell my working ability in the long-term. Although I heard and read about the catering trade I did not understand the chaos of such work until I experienced it first hand. Tales of lack of hygiene did not really strike me until 1 actually saw bread rolls and cakes being picked up off the floor and put back onto trays. Not that the staff were to blame. For a start, any food that is not used is a loss of potential profit and management did not take kindly to food that was wasted. Under that pressure the staff were always willing to cut a corner.

However, the main reason for poor standards was understaffing. In an attempt to achieve a higher rate of profit Trust House Forte employed as few workers as possible to lower their wage bill and reduce overall costs. Despite the unsociable shift work of early mornings and late evenings, and work at the weekends, there are plenty of unemployed people in my area who could help to run the station more efficiently if they had the chance. But those workers who did have the chance of work in the service station had to work doubly hard to make up for the lack of labour that Trust House Forte claim they cannot afford to employ. One of the two Little Chef restaurants had to close one day simply because there was not enough staff to run the place. In my department there were only two storemen when there should have been three. This made my work more demanding than it need be.

In such conditions workers cannot be expected to be at their best. A lot of my workmates there were not long out of school and disillusioned with the work that they had found. To be sure, they did not use words like exploitation and alienation, but they knew that they were being used for someone else's gain, and they knew that they had no control over their work and little pleasure in it. Once this was realised they were certainly not eager to be efficient in their work or polite to the customers. Although nagged by managers, breaks were extended as long as possible. I was surprised that the staff did not rebel even more. Perhaps that was because of the strict rules that the workers had to obey and because, despite the lack of fulfilment in their work, it was still better than the dole. I heard one manager say this to a delivery driver: "We make halfpenny profit on every £1 of goods we sell yet Trust House Forte catering still made a profit last year of £ 130 million, and our manual staff are paid £1.90 an hour for unsociable hours. It's robbery".

The workers under the hardest pressure at the station were the managers. Instructed by outside bosses to make a certain level of profit, they knew that their jobs would be on the line if they failed. Under this pressure managers would harass the staff below them, search for lower costs by cutting corners in how the station was run. The Ministry of Transport lays down standards for service stations to maintain but in reality these standards are always threatened by the need of the company to make a profit. On one staff noticeboard this message was posted: "Last week's profit was very poor. We must all try to improve We need a big gross profit this week."

Next to this was an incentive competition to try to increase production and efficiency among the workforce by offering awards for the most productive.

Everyone working at the station had to wear a uniform. THF was initialled onto our clothes and all the males had to wear ties, even though it was unpractical for my work in the store. All the permanent staff also had name badges pinned on their clothes. One worker sardonically remarked. “This is a prison sentence, we shouldn't have names on our clothes but numbers. I used to be conscientious but now I'm just unconscious".

It should not be assumed that this atmosphere was confined to the catering business. Working in the stores I had to help unload deliveries and in doing so witnessed the hectic schedule that delivery drivers had to face. The whole chain of production and distribution is dominated by the need to make and transport goods as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

A couple of weeks of the place was all I could stand. I am lucky since I have a place in college but most of the permanent workers there knew that they had little future in what they were doing and this was reflected in their attitude to their work. On my last day one of my workmates exclaimed this to me after watching me unload another straining delivery,

"Like slavery isn't it?"

"Yeah." I replied. "Wage slavery.”

"Too right", he answered.

Gareth Morgan

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