Short Cuts

Paul Myerscough

‘AS’, a finance student from the Czech Republic, was fired from his job at the branch of the fast-food chain Pret A Manger in York Way, by St Pancras Station, in the middle of September. He had been working there for two years. A statement on Pret’s website explains that he was ‘dismissed for misconduct’, having ‘made homophobic comments to a colleague’ in December 2011. Pret wanted to make this clear because ‘a number of misleading and untrue comments had been circulating on social media’ regarding the case. This is the difficulty for big corporations these days: information about their actions circulates so fast that they have to get their retaliation in first. In this case Pret wanted to damp down speculation that AS’s sacking might have had something to do, not with his insulting a colleague ten months earlier, but with the formal establishment of an independent Pret A Manger Staff Union (Pamsu) two weeks before. AS had taken a lead in setting up the union.

Pret will have been disappointed to discover that any of its staff were unhappy enough in their work to have want of a union. Pret workers aren’t supposed to be unhappy. They are recruited precisely for their ‘personality’, in the sense that a talent show host might use the word. Job candidates must show that they have a natural flair for the ‘Pret Behaviours’ (these are listed on the website too). Among the 17 things they ‘Don’t Want to See’ is that someone is ‘moody or bad-tempered’, ‘annoys people’, ‘overcomplicates ideas’ or ‘is just here for the money’. The sorts of thing they ‘Do Want to See’ are that you can ‘work at pace’, ‘create a sense of fun’ and are ‘genuinely friendly’. The ‘Pret Perfect’ worker, a fully evolved species, ‘never gives up’, ‘goes out of their way to be helpful’ and ‘has presence’. After a day’s trial, your fellow workers vote on how well you fit the profile; if your performance lacks sparkle, you’re sent home with a few quid.

This winnowing process is designed to select for workers who will feed the ‘Pret Buzz’. ‘The first thing I look at is whether the staff are touching each other,’ Clive Schlee, chief executive of Pret since 2003, told the Telegraph in March last year. ‘Are they smiling, reacting to each other, happy, engaged? … I can almost predict sales on body language alone.’ What Pret has understood, and its competitors haven’t (or not yet), is how much money there is to be made from what radical left theorists have been referring to since the 1970s as ‘affective labour’. Work increasingly isn’t, or isn’t only, a matter of producing things, but of supplying your energies, physical and emotional, in the service of others. It isn’t what you make, but how your display of feeling makes others feel. This won’t be news to mothers, nurses and prostitutes, but the massive swelling of the service economy means that emotional availability can no longer be dismissed as women’s work; it must be seen as a dominant commodity form under late capitalism.

And it has to be real. ‘The authenticity of being happy is important,’ a Pret manager tells the Telegraph, ‘customers pick up on that.’ It isn’t clear which is the more demanding, authenticity or performance, being it or faking it, but in either case it’s difficult to believe that there isn’t something demoralising, for Pret workers perhaps more than most in the high street, not only in having their energies siphoned off by customers, but also in having to sustain the tension between the performance of relentless enthusiasm at work and the experience of straitened material circumstances outside it. ‘Henceforth,’ as Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming put it in their recent jeremiad Dead Man Working (Zero, £9.99), ‘our authenticity is no longer a retreat from the mandatory fakeness’ of the workplace, ‘but the very medium through which work squeezes the life out of us’.

To guard against the possibility of Pret workers allowing themselves to behave even for a moment as if they were ‘just here for the money’, the company maintains a panoptical regime of surveillance and assessment. Not only do workers watch each other, chivvying, cajoling, competing, high-fiving; they are also watched. Mystery shoppers visit every branch of Pret A Manger every week. If their reports are positive – more than 80 per cent of them are – the entire staff gets a bonus that week. Workers cited for ‘going the extra mile’ get a further £50 in cash, which they have to distribute among their colleagues. But if the mystery shopper happens to be served by someone momentarily off their game, who may be named and shamed in the report, no one gets rewarded. The bonus is significant, £1 per hour for the week’s work, upping the starting salary of £6.25 (just higher than the UK minimum wage of £6.19) by 16 per cent.

Pamsu have a list of grievances – non-payment, late notification of shift changes, bullying by managers – but their principal demand is that all Pret workers be paid a ‘living wage’, the minimum amount thought necessary to maintain an acceptable standard of living. In London, as set by the Greater London Authority, that would be £8.55 per hour (in the rest of the country, £7.45). The company is no doubt pleased to recognise itself in the image of what David Cameron described a year ago as ‘socially responsible’ capitalism, and its sales have bucked the recession – turnover and profits increased by 15 per cent in 2011. But using eco-friendly packaging and donating unused food to the homeless is one thing: Pret isn’t about to give away its edge in the high street by paying its workers properly. Neither is it clear that it would be able to. As Aaron Peters and James Butler argued on a recent edition of Novara, a weekly politics discussion programme on Resonance FM, the real significance of the kerfuffle over Starbucks and tax avoidance is what it tells us about the crisis of profitability in the high street.[*]

In the week Starbucks finally agreed to pay £20 million in tax over the next two years, whether or not it makes a profit, the Guardian reported that the chain was set to issue new contracts to its workers, abolishing paid lunch breaks and payment for the first day of sick leave. Peters asks us to take seriously the possibility that Starbucks is telling the truth when it says it is struggling to make money in the UK, as it has continued to do in the face of near universal derision. Volatile commodity prices (Starbucks rides these by hedging futures in milk and coffee beans), a saturated market, declining demand after 2008: if companies like Starbucks were forced to pay not only the taxes they may or may not owe, but also a living wage to their workers, they might well see their margins shrink to nothing. The government bends over backwards to prevent that happening, not least by supplementing the wages of low-paid service-sector workers in the form of housing benefit and working tax credits. The success that George Osborne and the Daily Mail have had in scapegoating the long-term unemployed rests on a widespread failure to recognise – which is also to say mainstream commentators’ failure to insist – that the cost of the benefits paid to the ‘shirkers’, the people ‘with the curtains drawn all day’, is peanuts compared to the amount the government is prepared to spend, by way of the very same benefits, propping up business.

In this light, Osborne’s announcement in the autumn statement of a 1per cent cap on any increase in benefits over the next two years exposes a contradiction. Not only does his targeting of the ‘shirkers’ seems less effective, not to say politically misconceived, when 60 per cent of real-terms cuts in benefits will fall on working households, but the more he reduces benefits, the more nearly impossible it becomes for low-paid workers to support themselves, especially in London, at which point they may begin to wonder if they shouldn’t, say, form a union. Or leave and try somewhere cheaper: another city, another country. It’s an outcome that sounds as if it might appeal to a government that likes to talk tough on immigration. It was ideologically satisfying, no doubt, for Chris Grayling, at the time minister for work and pensions, to single out Pret A Manger a year ago when calling for fast-food chains to employ more British workers, just as it is for Theresa May to speculate about restricting immigration even within the EU. But 91 per cent of Pret’s workforce in London are immigrants: they are, on average, better educated and far more willing to endure precarity, at least for a couple of years or so in their twenties, than their British counterparts. It isn’t clear that Pret could afford British workers even if it wanted them. The government faces a choice between the ideological ground it gains cutting benefits and immigration, and the increasingly realistic prospect that some transnational corporations may decide maintaining a presence in the UK just isn’t worth the candle. In October, Starbucks opened its first three stores in India. It plans to double the number of stores it has in China to 1500 – there are about seven hundred in the UK – before 2015.

[*] Novara, which is archived online, is a gratifyingly apocalyptic counterweight to a BBC political news operation whose pivot, around which it maintains its sacred ‘balance’, has drifted, as if on the tide of parliamentary party politics, incrementally to the right.