It was back in early March of this year that on my quest to find work - aside from writing novels - I spotted a full-time gig as an assistant in a local wholefoods store in central Hackney. I thought; this could be right up my gentrified street. I know my chia seeds from goji berries to Himalayan pink salt and the benefits of suchlike produce, and the price tag that sometimes goes with it.
I researched, via their website, and discovered it’s a family-run, independent business established two years ago. I called the contact number several times, to inquire about the position, yet got no answer. Therefore, I popped along with my CV that evening.
Inside the store was a young woman stacking supplies and a man serving, who I assumed was her superior. I asked if he was the manager. He affirmed yet narrowed his eyes warily. I said, “I’m just inquiring about the vacancy and have my CV.” He asked me to wait aside whilst he served his customers. I thought, fair enough, but was left standing like an organic lemon for ten - fifteen minutes, and wondered why he didn’t ask his assistant to take over at some point. Whilst waiting, I familiarised myself with some of the products, many of which I have used.
Finally, he took my CV, which clearly states my experience in retail, customer service, and that I have worked with food and beverages before. He gave me the envelope back (which I’d have preferred him to keep for discretionary purposes) and perused the vitals – whilst sporadically glancing at me charily as if weighing me pound-for-pound. Now, before I continue on what ensued, the previous week I had inquired about another job in an establishment that was part of a franchise. Without having to ask too much, the assistant manager, in an affable manner, filled me in on all the details such as hourly pay, hours, shift patterns, holiday entitlement etcetera, and gave me an application form to complete and hand back with my CV.
Although it was further afield, fewer hours and only minimum wage, (then soon to increase to £7.20 per hour, I was told) I was willing to apply, considering the approachable stance of the assistant manager, and the fact he introduced me to his peers. I sensed a good morale and work ethic so applied and was later interviewed, which I was a tad nervous about, having been self-employed for almost three years. Although pipped to the post by someone with more experience, I was made to feel most comfortable during the interview and later told I’d be considered for future positions.
Now back to the wholefoods store. I knew the correct protocol and expected the manager to be abiding and more forthcoming with the fundamentals. However, he inconspicuously mumbled the pay was £6 per hour – cash, 30 hours per week, and proceeded to question me – in the shop in front of customers.
I didn’t mind that he asked if I was acquainted with organic and holistic products. I pointed out the turmeric capsules and their benefit to acne sufferers, and the salt block deodorant stick, which brand resides in my bathroom cabinet – to give but a few examples. He asked if I was capable of ‘making a salad’ to which I almost laughed. I told him that I’m an avid and proficient cook at home. He asked why I hadn’t had any books published. I pointed out that my CV states that I have – through self-publishing. He asked why I needed the job. I said, “To supplement my income,” which I felt I shouldn’t have to go into – especially in front of customers.
After a few more questions from him, I asked, “Is this an interview?” It felt very impromptu and was hardly the place by the counter. To paraphrase, he said, “No, but I need to know things about you.” I thought, hmm, that’s what an interview’s for, and there are boundaries about what an employer ‘needs to know’ or is allowed to ask a potential employee.
Then things started to get really personal. Do I have children? How old are they? Do they still live at home? I could tell he was calculating. “You’re trying to work out how old I am, aren’t you?” To this he grinned wryly. I told him my age. Why did I feel obliged to do that? Probably because he seemed to have me pegged than much younger than 43, and I felt railroaded into proving I have a fair wealth of work experience – which my CV demonstrates, and the life experience and maturity to commit. Saying that, what did it matter if I was younger? I had the same work ethic in my teens, 20s and 30s.
The buck didn’t stop there, and I had this buck pegged as a misogynist when he asked if I had a boyfriend! This further threw me into a stupor. “Not that it’s any of your business, but…” I proceeded to explain that I was single. “But what does this have to do with the job?” In front of customers, he said he needed to know I was reliable and if I was pregnant! Now I know puffer jackets aren’t the most flattering of outerwear, but I certainly didn’t look with child, or that I was smuggling a watermelon, and he absolutely had no right to ask me that. He suggested an all-day trial for the coming Saturday, not confirming whether that would be paid. I had plans, but was willing to compromise half a day.
I then turned the tables and made my inquiries, particularly concerning the pay - below minimum wage. I asked if that might increase to which he gave a mumbled, ambiguous reply. As no PAYE payslips were mentioned, I explained, as I’m self-employed I would need to invoice him for cash payments for my tax returns. He said that would be okay, but asked why I would want to declare my earnings. Erm, because it’s the law – as is paying minimum wage, and conducting a properly organised, non-discriminatory interview that wasn’t off-the cuff of my puffer jacket.
I huffed as soon as I left the store, feeling demoralised. I knew he would not have subjected me to such personal, rigorous questions had I been a man. I thought it despicable that this individual running a gentrified business that sells expensive produce pays out a poultry £6 per hour and he wanted to know if I’m still ripe in the womb, which seemed to make me a liability. I’m not an avocado, nor verdant in the naïve sense, but somehow (and my jacket was orange) I had been freshly squeezed for juicy bits, pith and pips.
After a brusque walk to the supermarket, my anger bit like the wind, so I marched back to the wholefood store on night’s Mare Street. I was polite in saying I’d changed my mind and so wanted my CV back. He produced it from the top of a vast pile – about four-inches thick, kept on the counter in front of the shop window, which I thought misappropriate to retain people’s information. To his dismay, I then told him his ethos was all wrong; that he should have interviewed me somewhere private – away from his customers, and that he should not have asked me those personal questions. To this, he simply shrugged.
I wondered, how many other women had he grilled in such a way? Was he possibly trialling many other people for free labour? That was my hunch because his whole (foods) modus operandi seemed very underhanded.
Freshly hacked-off, I vented my humiliating, unprofessional experience on Facebook. Many of my friends were outraged and encouraged me to take action. Some even wanted to boycott the store. I felt compelled to take a stand against such outmoded, proscribed discrimination, and to hopefully prevent others enduring the same negative experience.
My first port of call was to contact the Tax Hotline at HMRC – HM Revenues and Customs. The person I spoke to said they could do nothing unless I had solid proof he wasn’t offering PAYE payslips, even though I argued that he wasn’t offering minimum wage – so how was he getting away with that? However, I was advised to contact Acas – the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service which governs and advises on good practices at work. In turn, an Acas advisor said I could report that minimum wage wasn’t being met by calling HMRC’s National Minimum Wage Hotline.
I did so, surprised to discover that action could be taken, albeit me not being employed by the company in question. My whistleblowing, so to speak, had to be treated as ‘third party information’ and therefore they could not inform me of any outcome of their inquiries. I was placated enough to know a ‘Compliance Officer’ would be looking into it by either phoning the store, but most likely they would pay an impromptu ‘spot check’ visit.
Concerning the discrimination part, I was directed to EASS - Equality Advisory Support Service. Their helpline number is: 0808 800 0082. My complaint call was logged and I was given a reference number. Under The Equality Act 2010, I was within my rights to take further action within three months and one day from the incident to make a claim for a tribunal. I was told I had a sound case as I was specifically asked ‘female orientated’ questions which falls under ‘less favourable’ and ‘direct discrimination’ treatment. Under the current Equality Act, there are 9 protective characteristics’ which are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation.
I discovered, if after enforcing a formal complaint procedure there is no acceptable response from a potential employer or employer per se, one should notify Acas of this as they also help with early conciliation and dispute resolutions in the workplace. I decided not to take further proceedings, but was glad to know my full rights and options should any similar situation arise in the future, and to impart that knowledge with others; particularly my mature children.
More recently, I was interviewed for a part-time coffee shop job locally, another gentrified establishment near Victoria Park. The manager staunchly defended her right not to start me on minimum wage – disputing the amount set by law. This puzzled me as when first inquiring about the role, she affirmed the starting wage was minimum wage, but was in fact offering the previous rate of £6.70.
After my (paid) trial, when I told her I had spoken with HMRC many times to confirm I was correct about the recent rise in National Living Wage, finally she said she was not aware her employer was obliged to pay staff (over the age of 25) the going rate of £7.20 per hour, implemented in the new fiscal year, unless in the first year of an apprenticeship.
If you go to www.livingwage.gov.uk, it states the aforementioned.
I asked if I would be employed as an apprentice. She said, “No”, but because of this ‘issue’ it was unlikely they would employ me. I noted that their staff were all quite young so sensed some ageism too when I was later told I ‘didn’t fit in’ even though my trial went well and I had a good rapport with the customers and the young lady I was shadowing. During our post-trial discussion she also said that she didn’t expect a person of my age to be to going for such work as a part-time barista and that I should be established in long-term career by now. Well, excuse me for not fitting a stereotype and trying my hand at different careers. Again, I felt discriminated against.
If anyone is being underpaid, they have the right to speak to their employer. There is lots of useful information on the GOV.UK if you go to https://www.gov.uk/national-minimum-wage/worker-disputes-over-minimum-wage which explains the best way of resolving the problem. If an employer owes arears of a shortfall in wages, these have to be paid back at the current rate. If no conciliation is made then HMRC will appoint a formal notice and impose a fine with penalties up to £20,000. If the employer still doesn’t comply, HMRC can then take them to court, and they will rigorously investigate.
Employers that fail to pay their workers NMW – are now also being named and shamed as offenders under a government scheme that was implemented in October 2015. If anyone feels they are being cuckolded by their employer, or an employer is unsure of their responsibilities, then they can seek free, confidential advice through Acas’ helpline number: 0300 123 1100.
I'm nonplussed that businesses, small and large, are getting away with this, yet I can understand people are scared to speak up in fear of causing unsettlement in the workplace, losing their job or not being offered the job. Don’t be afraid, the law is there to protect you and more people need to come forward.
I have since set my sights higher in finding employment with a reputable, law-abiding company.