The indignity of service work | My experiences as a fast-food worker | Part 3

Previous part available here. In it I examine how the constitution of work as games is used to get consent from workers to exploit them further, drawing on critical and sociological theory.

This article continues by using the author’s own lived experience, to confirm the applicability of theories, mentioned in earlier parts of this series, to a significantly different type of workplace.

Games at the fast-food chain I worked at (hereafter “foodchain”), like in the factory floor situation described by Michael Burawoy (see part 2 of this series), secure participation in a hegemonic production regime by obscuring the underlying power structure that dominates those same participants. This domination reflects the generalised coercion of work in capitalist society, an issue beyond the scope of this series, but goes further in that it is about making the worker produce extra surplus value for their boss to exploit. Games shroud the alienation workers feel towards each other and their products, structural certainties under capitalism, with a veil of “friendly or healthy competition”.

At foodchain, the objective of the game was to maximise certain types of additional sales and compete with fellow workers on daily scoreboards, displayed for all workers to see. Falling below a certain threshold cumulative score for the week could result in penalisation and winning meant possible rewards. Domination is more apparent when considering penalisation might include being made redundant, or more perniciously, scheduling less hours of work for the “losing” worker.

This effectively meant that workers, most of them being made part-time for this reason, were made to compete for work. The fact that most workers were on contracts for many less hours than they actually, regularly worked revealed this deceptive and divisive tactic for what it was, and made manager favouritism all the more insulting. To explain how this tactic was useful I will use the example of my own contract.

My part-time contract was only for 12 hours but I probably worked 25-45 hours per week depending on how business was forecasted or sometimes which manager was writing the schedule. My employer was only obligated to schedule me for 12 hours a week but was fully aware that working only 12 hours a week would mean I could not eat. Furthermore, working under 16 hours per week makes you eligible for state benefits- job seeker’s allowance. If you apply for this to survive one week but then are scheduled over 16 hours the next week, you must cancel your application or are breaking the law by trying to claim benefits you aren’t entitled to (don’t bother wasting your time with the DWP trying to claim for a single week, you just have to make things stretch). Overall, my contract might as well have been a zero hours contract.

In order to obscure the terroristic nature of the stick aspect of the sales game at foodchain, managers and workers alike tended to focus on the carrot aspect, but even this was unfair and inconsistent. For example, whether you received a reward, even if you won the game, was arbitrarily decided by the shift manager for that shift and usually the reward was a scratchcard for which you had a 25% chance to win nothing, money off at foodchain, a free ice cream or hot drink, or a free upgrade to your free staff meal.

Fortunately, this wasn’t the only method managers employed to positively reinforce good worker behaviour. Outside of the game, you might get these cards, or just a nice printed card from your manager saying what a good worker you have been, or if you’re really lucky and have worked extra hard to produce surplus value for your boss, you might get both of these AND a badge to show off how good you’ve been! Again, these awards were mostly arbitrary and unfair, but I am limiting the scope of this series to an expansion of an earlier unpublished essay which draws on my own experiences as empirical data.

In the next part of this series, I will continue to show how Burawoy’s theories about how games obfuscate the real and coercive relations of the workplace apply to the fast-food workplace by going into more detail of how games worked at foodchain.


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