I Got Screwed, Too!

An immediate personal struggle in the world of work.

I Got Screwed, Too!

What, you thought this website was just going to be some kind of voice for you people only? I’m writing from personal experience here, pal!

That’s right: I got screwed, too.

It all began on November 11th, 2002, when I took a job with Young People’s Services. I’d had an informal interview, and then went to a meeting with a man who was to be my line manager; I’ll just call him Mr Shitehead. We agreed on a scale of pay, shook hands, and then it was time to get on with the job, working with youth groups using multimedia. The job was only to last until the spring, though, so therefore I saw no point in joining the union, as they can’t really do anything for you until you’ve been a member for several months anyway.

As I had no contract, I had to submit payclaims, to be signed by those working with me, and then my wages were to come through a month later. This happened every month.

That is, my payclaims were submitted every month; I didn’t actually receive my wages every month.

I learned this was because Shitehead had failed to send the payclaims through. My rent cheque bounced, my bills had reminders, and my kitchen shelves went empty.

This happened several times. It was almost a relief to learn the project was ending in the spring. But when spring came, I was told the project was going to be funded further; both my co-ordinator and myself were left to work together; 15 hours per week, each. My co-ordinator, although lacking the qualifications I had, had experience, as well as seniority over me, and was exceptionally good at his job. He also became a friend of mine, which is why he told me that Shitehead had a meeting with him and had suggested my friend have all 30 hours to himself, on the same scale; “We’ll just get rid of Jay.” Of course, again, I had no contract, so he was able to make this suggestion in a serious way. Nonetheless, my co-ordinator, being the kind of guy he is, told Shitehead he’d rather share the hours with me, so I’d still have a job. We continued with work, and arranged several meetings with line manager Shitehead, none of which he bothered to turn up to.

I later learned Shitehead had actually walked away from that very first meeting after shaking my hand and giving a verbal contract on my scale of pay – and then attempted to change the AP8 papers to bust me down to a lower scale behind my back! I guess he thought my qualifications and experience were all worthless. Heck, he’d have probably hired Ian Huntley to work the youth groups providing he’d have done it for peanuts! Hey, who cares about a bit of gossip of molestations and the safety of people’s kids, eh? There’s a budget here, and line managers need their two cars and their frequent trips to Amsterdam!

Well, this went on for several months; I worked with my co-ordinator, did my job, got paid late, and struggled to get by – especially after my ex girlfriend moved out and I had to pay my rent by myself. Eventually, autumn came, the funding had expired, and it looked like I was finally headed to the job centre again. Then, though, it turned out there were a few other jobs to do – albeit again on a payclaim basis, but heck, it was work, right? My co-ordinator had left, and so had all the other media workers, mostly because they were tired of being treated like crap. I told Shitehead’s people I’d pick up the slack providing I was getting paid the same as my co-ordinator had been, so that even on these few bits and bobs and scraps of work I’d still be able to exist on something other than raw potatoes.

So, on I went with the work. And by this time, my longtime friend Ryan Bracha and myself had set up our non-profit film company, SilenceBreaker Films, putting all the funding we’d raised for it into the first film, “Tales from Nowhere,” instead of paying ourselves. We employed my old co-ordinator as our web designer, and, as usual, he did a great job. We were also running the company from the premises of my old project, meaning we had to write up a service agreement with Shitehead himself, which he finally signed after weeks of chasing him up.

Well, after my first payment, I realised I wasn’t getting paid on the higher scale after all, as initially suggested. I enquired about it, and Shitehead had said “Jay’s getting paid less than [former co-ordinator] because, whilst he’s pretty much taken over his job, he’s not managing anyone.” Hmm. But what about that suggestion earlier on to my co-ordinator about having all 30 hours to himself (in other words, not managing me) at the same scale, with Jay in a cardboard box somewhere chomping on them raw potatoes? It didn’t make sense!

So, I decided it was time for me to practice what I preach. There I was writing a bloody website all about workers’ rights and such, and here I was, without a contract, not in a union, having my AP8 altered, and, most of all, being ignored and unappreciated. I had to do something! But what? What about the agreement Shitehead had with us? What if he cancelled it?! Even though it states either party can cancel it “with good reason,” what do you call “good reason”? He’d be able to think of something that suited him, I’m sure. Yep, it was not in our interests to piss him off.

But what the heck, I did it anyway.

I sent him this e-mail:

I am writing to you as my line manager with regards my pay. I’d call you but as you know I do not have access to a telephone here at the International Centre where I can speak about this private matter.

About one year ago, after a meeting you and I both attended, I started working here at the Multimedia Project on November 11th, 2002; I was employed for both my experience and qualifications in both multimedia and youth work. Then in spring of 2003, that project ended, and my colleague and myself worked 15 hours per week each running the ill-fated Resonance Project until autumn (though it was at one point proposed that he work 30 hours himself – on the same scale, without me). As one of the only remaining multimedia workers, I have since then taken [other work], on the understanding that I would be paid on roughly the same as [my predecessor] was – keeping in mind that unlike him I do not live with my parents, but live in a flat in Sheffield that costs £300 per month rent, plus bills, and unlike him have qualifications in both youth work and media. Based on that understanding (and my conversations with your colleague where I stressed that any of her proposed work for me was fine, as long as I could pay my bills), I have been actively working with youth groups, planning the sessions, keeping notes, teaching them multimedia skills in issue-based curriculum work as not only a youth worker but also an arts and media worker as well, all whilst travelling around on public transport with the requisite equipment, and all with no support from any other multimedia worker. Nonetheless, last week, for that month, I was paid: £272.00.

When I queried this with [your colleague], she seemed genuinely unsure as to whether or not this was a mistake, but then went away, spoke with you, and returned saying you had suggested this amount was correct because I am “not managing anyone, like [my predecessor] was.” Is this true? I find it difficult to comprehend because of the idea several months ago (see above) for him to work all 30 hours himself, still on a higher scale than what I am on now. With all due respect to him as my good friend, how exactly is his work worth more than mine, when mine is (beyond the glaring practical difficulties) unsupported, and I have a Dip HE in Media, Youth Work Skills Level 2, and also experience in these fields as well? Surely all this means I am worth more than £272.00 for 29 hours of work? I know many other workers who receive better pay for what they do, and if I took this to other departments in our council (ie, Community Arts Unit, who I am certain will be happy to provide a comparison) I am on a very poor wage.

I hope you can understand my concerns about this. What is most disconcerting to me is that recently there has been a lot of bad press about council corruption, but I did not believe it extended to keeping people from the wage they deserve; the general public are easily taken in by this publicity when they see people talking about budgets and tight purse strings whilst cutting workers’ wages yet themselves receiving high sums of money. Of course, any educated person realises that if you pay your workers fairly, they worry less about their own lives, are focused on their work more, and the organisation itself wins in the end. There has been a pattern forming recently in Young People’s Services, with multimedia workers leaving because they have felt unappreciated and underpaid and, thus, work has been left unfinished. This pattern will continue until changes are made. A case such as mine may also look like victimisation in the press, but I sincerely hope it is not.

At this point, obviously I can not afford to exist on these wages, and therefore, I am unable to work and so will not be working until this situation is resolved. As a worker paid on an “as-and-when” payclaims basis with no contract and basically no rights, no notice is legally necessary. This takes effect immediately. I am in talks with legal advisors in the meantime. I am writing to you in the hopes that this situation can be resolved as quickly as possible, so that I can come back to work, for the good people I work with and, most importantly of all to me, the young people themselves – whether I were to stay under the current conditions, or leave, either way it is they who lose, and that is the saddest part about this.

As almost everyone is aware of in Young People’s Sevices, my project “Tales from Nowhere” is enjoying considerable success at the moment, with 30+ local young people involved, all extremely excited about this project, and screenings set for the spring. This project is supported by the council, funded by SRB3, and based at [your offices], where I shall continue to work on this project on a voluntary basis as per our service level agreement which is always greatly appreciated with equipment left at our disposal. I believe this project will help raise the profile of the department, a department long underestimated by others in the council.

I look forward to continuing working with you in this capacity, and hope to continue working with you in multimedia / youth work as well.

Thank you, and Merry Christmas.

That night I wondered what the response might be when e-mails were checked the next day. I talked about it with friends, family; my girlfriend of the time thought I’d perhaps gone too far. I came clean and told Ry about it, and thankfully he understood.

Then came the next day. I went into the office as usual to work on the film, and loads of equipment had been taken!

So much for our agreement; Shitehead felt it necessary to remove much of the equipment (being used by my company for “Tales from Nowhere,” essentially a youth group in itself) to the centres he personally frequented more. When he saw our post-it notes all over the equipment, apparently he was outraged, saying we had no business asking for these computers to be left for our production. I guess, being busy and all, the poor guy had forgotten about the agreement. In fact, it seemed it wasn’t just the agreement he’d forgotten about, as when someone on reception asked him if he’d left some stuff for us to use to continue production on their film, he sniffed, “What film?” Hmm. “Well, Shitehead, you know, that film that was funded by your organisation, the film that’s been given thousands, the film that’s brought together more young people from different areas and backgrounds than most other youth groups, the film that’s the talk of the town – damn it, the film that you’ve tried to stop being made!” Well, we broke the silence, and we were ready to face the heat.

The funny thing is, we also received a letter the same day. It was a certificate for the award of another several thousand pounds of funding. This meant that we were finally able to buy all our own equipment. And it also meant that no matter what Shitehead did, he couldn’t hurt us, only help us: Cancel the agreement, and it looks like victimisation, and we continue making the film using our own equipment anyway; don’t cancel the agreement, and see so much more of me (particularly with all this free time to work on the film now!), and never ask “What film?” again!

That weekend I slept better than I had in years.

The following week, Shitehead called a meeting, “to discuss some of the remarks and assumptions made in the e-mail.” The day before the meeting, I called the school where some of my work for Shitehead had taken me, saying I didn’t want to disappoint the schoolkids so was going to be there anyway, even though those above me had already called them to say I was “ill.” As this was clearly a lie, and there was a pay dispute going on here, the school invited me to a brief meeting of their own, at which they expressed their appreciation for me not letting down the kids that day, and told me of their offer to pay my company directly for the kind of work I’d been doing. I agreed, adding that in accordance with the funding, I could throw in some freebies, too – some media workshops with the schoolchildren! They loved it. And they were going to pay me freelance artist rate; three times more than what Shitehead had been paying me.

The next day I went to Shitehead’s meeting, this time with somebody else with me, so it wouldn’t turn into another kangaroo court like the one I’d gone through at university. He didn’t like this. Clearly he was hoping to pick apart my e-mail, that e-mail printed off and resting on his lap. A change of plan was required for him, and whatever it was changed to…well, it absolutely sucked.

He explained that people above him, not he himself, approve the pay scale, and therefore there was nothing he was able to do (I guess when it comes to trying to get people a fair deal, his heart’s not in it, so he just accepts things as they are). I basically said “fair enough,” shook his hand, and went to leave, which clearly shocked him, as he expected me to accept this and return to work. Instead, their disgusting casual labour, their slave labour, had backfired on them – they didn’t have me on a contract, so I walked, and all their projects for those above them in the council were left unfinished. The council blasted them for this, buoyed by my e-mails to certain high-up officials explaining why this was happening and how sorry I was. In addition, the “lowest of the low,” the various youth workers – those who actually do more than just sit at a desk but have to organise the youth groups, occupy the young people, be confidantes and counsellors to them, break up fights, and clean up the place – approached me for weeks afterwards congratulating me for what I’d done and how I’d won.

So, in this case I had the last laugh. Shitehead’s job is in jeopardy, “Tales from Nowhere” is completed (screened at the Sheffield Showroom on April 8th), and I’m getting paid what I deserve, doing something I enjoy. But it won’t always be like this. Especially if I don’t have a contract and ain’t in a union. This story might have a happy ending, but trust me; life would have been a lot easier if I hadn’t had this story to tell in the first place. Get that contract and get in a union – those are things we used to take for granted in the workplace. But now they’re almost all we’ve got left. Don’t let go of them.