Lauren’s story: “Young people don’t get discounted rent or food so why should they be paid so much less for doing the exact same job?”

Lauren Townsend, 26, who has led hundreds of her fellow TGI Friday's workers in a campaign against cuts to their employment rights, spoke to the IER about her experiences.

14 Sep 2018

Read below about what working life has been like for Lauren and her colleagues and how implementing the IER’s recommendations in Rolling out the Manifesto for Labour Law could make our society fairer.

Lauren’s story

I’ve worked as a waitress for TGI Friday’s since my 18th birthday in 2010. Until this year, I was considered a model employee – I’ve got the pins on my braces to prove it! They even used pictures of me on the front of the menu and in their Christmas advertising! But this year I’ve found myself having to speak out against the employer I’ve been loyal to for so long.

For a company that calls us a ‘Fridays family’, it’s sad that they’re now so obviously putting profits before their people. They took away our time-and-a-half for working over Christmas and New Year’s. They cut staffing levels; got us to do our training unpaid and in our free time; and some branches got jobseekers to do “unpaid trial shifts” that didn’t lead to a job because there was never one available in the first place. They started taking our staff meals, forcing team members on 10-11 hour shifts to spend the equivalent of over an hour’s wage for lunch from the kitchen.

Kitchen staff are supposed to be on a higher wage, but as their pay has stagnated while the minimum wage has gone up, many of them are now on or close to the minimum wage. Plus, cooks often don’t receive the time-and-a-half rate for working over 48 hours. TGI’s use youth rates too, so someone doing the same job as me who is 19 gets just £5.90 per hour. Young people don’t get discounted rent or food so why should they be paid so much less for doing the exact same job?

In January, we were given just two days’ notice that 40% of waiting staff’s card tips – worth about £60 a week if you’re full-time – would be reallocated to kitchen employees instead. One girl at my store lost over £1,000 in 18 weeks because of this change – she has a mortgage to pay and kids to feed! We tried to complain and express our concerns but were ignored and belittled. TGI’s got a bit of bad press, but they just make out like it’s us that are greedy for not wanting to give up the little we earn to subsidise our colleagues’ poor pay.

That’s when we joined the BFAWU, and later UNITE when the unions decided to take joint action. We led a huge recruitment campaign at TGI’s that unionised over 250 workers in six months. Most of my colleagues are young and a lot of them had no idea what their employment rights were, nevermind what a union does or why they should join one. It’s no wonder we get exploited like this when the government leaves it down to us to enforce the law.

It’s now eight months into our campaign and we’ve had some big wins – we got our shift meals back and we now get paid for the time we spend training and attending meetings. But the law can’t protect us if it stays as it is. We need stronger voices at work if we’re going to be treated with any dignity, and that means better trade union rights and better protections for those who speak out against unscrupulous employers.”

Changing Laws; Changing Lives

Lauren, Chris and Lee work in very different industries, but when we spoke to them about their experiences, a common theme emerged – all three felt de-humanised by work. They told us they felt ignored, devalued, treated like “a number”. And they’re not alone. There are 32 million workers in the UK and one in ten of them is in some form of insecure work; one in five earns just £15,000 a year or less, forcing many to rely on state benefits (most claimants are in work), and trapping 4.1 million children from working families in poverty.

Labour is not a commodity – one of the fundamental principles that should underpin new laws governing the employment relationship. By requiring employers to include workers on boards, giving workers a vote at company general meetings, boosting the rights of workers to be represented by their trade union and extending the right for their union to be recognised, Lauren, Chris and Lee would be given a voice at work.

By setting up National Joint Councils in every sector – at which employers’ and workers’ representatives agree minimum wages and conditions for everyone employed in that sector – Lauren, Chris and Lee would have a voice in their industry.

By reinstating a Ministry of Labour, and establishing a National Economic Forum on which stakeholders from across society scrutinise the impact of policy on workers and the economy, Lauren, Chris and Lee would have a voice in Westminster.

The workers we spoke to have also experienced first-hand the dangers of poor enforcement. The introduction of an independent Labour Inspectorate empowered to proactively enter workplaces to identify and resolve breaches, as well as better rights for unions to do the same, will mean it will no longer be up to Lauren and her co-workers to understand and enforce the law.

By making blacklisting a criminal offence, and directors personally liable for their actions, Lee would get his day in court and see the people who destroyed his life and the lives of thousands of others, held to account. Chris and his colleagues would no longer be afraid to rock the boat and would be better able to speak out not just about their rights, but also the safety of the people they represent.

Through widespread collective bargaining, and stronger statutory rights, we can make sure Chris is paid at least the Living Wage for every hour he works, and that his colleagues are properly trained to safely take responsibility for service users’ lives.

By giving health and safety reps the power to stop the job when workers are at immediate risk, or issue provisional improvement notices when they see a problem, we can protect Lee while he dedicates his time to protecting his colleagues.

By introducing sectoral collective agreements and equal rights for all workers from day one, everyone will be paid the same rate and have the same rights when doing the same job, so Lauren’s younger co-workers won’t have to struggle on just £5.90 an hour.

Lauren, Chris and Lee are people, not numbers, and so are their 32 million working colleagues across the UK. All that is needed is the political will and determination to change the legal, industrial and economic policies that govern their lives. Together we can ensure that everybody is treated with dignity and respect.

Read more about Rolling out the Manifesto for Labour Law and buy your copy