When I hear/read the current criticisms of zero hour contracts, in the arts and other industries (although almost unfalteringly customer-facing roles), there’s a temptation to go “phew - glad I’m out of that game”. I am currently lucky enough to have a full-time job and a fair annual salary, but I’ve seen zero hours contracts work from a few different perspectives now, and I think that they are unnecessary.
I’ve worked in the office of a commercial receiving house (a non-producing theatre) that had its large front-of-house team on zero hours contracts. I ran the weekly payroll. Most staff were students, but some had been doing the job for over 20 years.
I’ve worked front-of-house in a large, regional, subsidised, multi-purpose venue and been on a zero hours, minimum wage contract. We shouldn’t confuse the zero hours issue with the minimum wage issue, but the two go hand-in-hand so often. I never had enough work (much less, even, than was indicated when I asked that question at interview) and I am still recovering from the knock-on effect it had on my financial situation.
I’ve worked front-of-house in a large, regional, subsidised producing theatre that had all its customer-facing teams on annualised hours contracts. When we were taken on, we could choose if we wanted to go onto 12, 18 or 25 hour contracts, and I chose 18, as I was studying as well. The pay was low, but was above the minimum wage. In December I probably worked a 30 hour week, in the summer it was more like 6, with some weeks off completely. Every single month - without fail - I received my £535. (I hear all their ushers are now on zero hours *cry*)
It’s not all black and white of course. Some of my old colleagues, for example, used their shifts to subsidise earnings from a day job, or as a boost to their pensions, and didn’t want to be tied into a minimum time commitment. Ushers at the Young Vic protested when their long-standing (and convenient for many) zero hours contracts were threatened, although it seems like that venue’s internal communications was the thing to really let them down.
And the subsidised arts are struggling. Government grant in aid continues to drop. All arts organisations, venues or not, need to diversify their revenue streams and cut costs. Anyone looking at the theatre available outside Edinburgh this month will see that there’s very little need for a 50-strong front-of-house team right now.
But front-of-house teams are as much gatekeepers to your art as the critics are. Often, they want to work in your venues because they love - LOVE - what you do. Zero hours contracts may suit some people, but they offer no financial security, and reinforce the idea that customer-facing work is somehow less valuable to an organisation, one of the most hilarious fallacies I’ve ever come across. Front-of-house staff have the single largest impact on an audience member’s visit to your venue. They arguably wield more power over your business than any of your producing team. Just think about the fall-out when one goes rogue after a shitty day.
Zero hours contracts are cheap, but there are many ways to employ people cheaply. Venues have choices. Don’t let any Finance Manager, any board member, anyone in HR, tell you otherwise.
Why aren’t there more annualised hours contracts operating in arts venues? If your recruitment process is robust then you should be retaining your staff, making it worthwhile. Recruit in late August and the autumn season will mean your staff put hours ‘in the bank’ that they can redeem in a quiet January and August, and, importantly, if they want to leave in November you balance the books on their final payday, rather than realising you’ve paid for work they haven’t done.
Why aren’t small venues in a similar locale forming consortiums to give front-of-house staff more regular shifts? This would certainly work in London, when all it would take is the addition of a pop-up outdoor cinema screen and a weekend festival or two to provide summer shifts when the theatres go dark. Yes, it’s a bit like running an agency, but certainly one with big cost savings too. One person doing the rotas for 6 venues? The pound signs are actually spinning backwards under my eyelids.
Why aren’t producing venues offering training to their front-of-house teams? That way, when theatres go dark for the summer their ushers can relieve box office staff who are on holiday, or assist the maintenance team while they PAT-test, or repaint the toilets, or deep-clean the kitchen, or, y’know, anything that gives them a greater insight into the arts landscape and venue operations and - heaven forbid - a greater pride in their venue.
You should already be paying your zero hours staff holiday pay, and contributing to NI. An annualised hours system would help regulate your expenditure over the year. A consortium system would require a little management, but perhaps by a single position over a number of organisations, relieving several of FOH Managers to implement some of those sales initiatives that they’ve been wanting to try since 2010 but haven’t had the time for. Training your staff to do other things in quiet periods will help to save… ohmygod do I have to explain the benefit of that to you as well?
Can’t you see? Can’t you seeeeeeee?????
*bangs head against wall*