Free labour

People doing free trial shifts feel exploited

3rd October 2018

A while ago I applied for a job at Aldi. I was a little perturbed when, after a successful interview, Aldi offered me a two-hour “work trial” to see if I would be a good fit for the company. Perturbed, but desperate, I attended. I was even more perturbed, however, when the first thing the manager of the store said to me was: “Don’t worry, this isn’t just us getting free labour.” Because that’s what it seemed like. A lot like. Stacking shelves 7am-9am, before store opening times, a time when any fuck-ups of completely untrained trial-doers could easily be cleaned up, averted or rectified.

My trial went without incident. Full disclosure, at one point I put the wrong peas on the shelf, but I quickly noticed my error, and replaced the tinned garden peas with the tinned mushy peas and, thankfully, nobody saw.

A couple of days after my trial, I received an email saying that I wasn’t to be hired, and no feedback was available due to a high number of applicants. I was left wondering what I did wrong or what skill they were looking for that I might not have possessed.

Feedback

Now, I am forging a career in journalism — an industry that is constantly under criticism because so many people are working for free — and I’m intrigued to know why Aldi chooses not to pay those who carry out trial shifts. The huge international company known for well-priced goods, that weird middle aisle with snoods and garden furniture, and treating its staff well, wouldn’t dish out £30 to pay two people for two hours of work each at the minimum wage?

When I contacted the company about this article, Aldi responded to me with more feedback than it had ever given me post-interview or post-trial. An Aldi spokesperson told us: “As part of the interview process and to help prospective employees decide if a career with Aldi is right for them, they are invited to spend time in one of our stores. These sessions last for two hours and include a full health and safety briefing.”

A noticeable absence, however, was that there was no mention of why Aldi doesn’t compensate its trialists for their time and effort. In fact, reports from union Unite show as many as 150 people might be brought in to complete trial shifts at one Aldi store.

But it’s not only Aldi that carries out this practice. People are being offered unpaid trials on a mass scale that feels unethical, but completely legal.

They said they were going to get in touch with me and never did

Aidan, who described his four-hour trial shift at Nando’s as “very hard, very hot”, wasn’t paid. Often labelled as a part of the interview process, Aidan worked as hard as a paid member of staff, for nothing.

“They said they were going to get in touch with me and never did.”

This is unfortunately the case for many trialists, and the companies that do it are never held accountable.

Emily* had similar experiences with the popular chicken joint. She says: “A few Christmases ago I had a work trial at Nando’s in Leeds. On arriving, there were two girls leaving, being told they would hear something in the coming week.

“Me and another girl were shown round briefly and then started a two-hour trial working shift. When finished, we were also told we would hear something in the coming week. On leaving two more girls were also waiting to start a work trial. I made a point of waiting around and coming back in two hours, and sure enough, same thing. Scandalous.”

It’s pretty shit from such a big company

Many businesses require extra staff over the festive period, so having a lot of interviewees doing trials is not unusual or suspicious. However, Emily felt cheated when she wasn’t hired.

“I can’t remember how they got in touch to say I wasn’t successful, but I asked the reason why and they said I hadn’t asked a couple if everything was okay with their meal.

“I wonder if this was how most folk got rejected after free work, it’s pretty shit from such a big company.”

shift
Trial shift staff work as hard — and often harder — than paid staff

People working trial shifts usually have little to no training or experience, and very little direction, so it is hardly surprising that they are not aware of company policies and make mistakes. These are all things that can be taught or trained, rather than assessed on a trial.

Emily assumed the trial was to assess her work ethic and common sense, and she says it wasn’t clear that it was also a test of company policy.

Emily’s rejection could well have been a one-off, and yes, she could have been the only trainee to have been denied a job that day, but equally, Nando’s could have worked at least eight people as hard as their regular staff in order to meet the Christmas demands of the restaurant business, without compensating them for their time. This wouldn’t be allowed for regular staff members, so why is it okay for trialists and interviewees?

Nando’s says though it doesn’t pay trial staff, they do get offered a meal at the end of their shift. “As part of the job selection process, and to help candidates decide if working at Nando’s is for them, we invite potential team members to shadow a member of the team during a four-hour trial shift in a restaurant. Whilst these trials are unpaid we will always offer a meal at the end of the shift whilst also giving the candidate feedback so they understand the reasoning behind a manager’s decisions. We are sorry if the candidate in questions did not feel that they received the full Nando’s experience while undertaking their trial shift.”

It is not only high street chains which do not pay trial shift staff. Paula contacts me about her trial shift at a hotel for dogs.

I think I was exploited

“So it started at 7.30 in the morning, so straight away I was given a list of dogs that I had to walk. Once they were walked they had to be cleaned, and so on, it was quite an intensive day trying to remember everything.”

By the time she finished at 6pm, Paula was understandably tired out but wasn’t paid for her day’s work. She was offered a job at the pet hotel after her trial and joined the company, being paid for every other shift after that first day.

“I wasn’t really bothered at the time, I just needed a job. I would have done anything. But I think [I] was exploited.”

Desperate

Paula told me that 20% of trialists were offered jobs in her year working for the company, which meant it gained 100 hours of free labour from the trialists. This is a major saving for a business, who would have needed to employ a regular, paid, member of staff to do these jobs if they had not had interviewees to do them for free.

Despite getting the job, Paula is still appalled by the ethics of unpaid trials. “I think that most people would do a trial day because they really need a job, to be honest.

“I did around 10 hours on mine, but I’m sure you can tell if someone’s going to be OK after the first few hours.”

If they weren’t happy with my work why would they keep me going for as long as they did? The answer was that they had a free pair of hands doing their bit for them

Another example is Rhiannon. Her trial was at an independent cafe, and was two hours long, during which she was set tasks of cleaning, restocking, and prepping food.

“I’d worked in catering for years and know that I did a good job for them. If they weren’t happy with my work why would they keep me going for as long as they did? The answer was that they had a free pair of hands doing their bit for them.”

Rhiannon is understandably angry that her trial, which she believed she excelled in, did not result in a job offer or any payment. The latter is what concerns her more.

I’m pissed off with employment law for allowing them to get away with it

“If they were doing that to loads of people they’d be getting days of labour for free!” she says.

But, in a period just after the recession, she was desperate for any work and had therefore agreed to the unpaid trial. Her frustrations don’t stop with the companies offering the unpaid trials, however, she feels that the laws need to change.

“I’m also pissed off with employment law for allowing them to get away with it.”

trial shifts
It is common for companies to have staff carry out a day-long trial shift

In fact, the government is looking deeper into the laws regarding unpaid trial shifts. Trade union Unite, along with some MPs, is calling for a blanket ban on the unpaid shifts, which Unite says may be a “ruse to secure unpaid labour”.

Legal

Current legislation only bans “excessively long” trials – a phrase that is entirely subjective, and can be easily abused by employers.

Josh seems to have drawn the short straw on the unpaid trial front.

“I’ve been looking for a job for the last month and a half and in that time, I have done eight hours of work for TGI Fridays at different restaurants around Leeds. The worst though was at Zizzi. I was on a trial shift for four and a half hours and they didn’t even make the time to contact me to say that I hadn’t got it.”

Josh can evidently interview well and has some skills that interviewers think could be used in the kitchen, as five successful interviews led to these trials. If not, why did he progress to the trial stage on five separate occasions?

Josh believes the most plausible answer is that he was good enough to deserve the job in each case, but TGI Fridays was only employing unpaid trialists for the duration of their trials, with no intentions of ever keeping them on. Yes, there is a chance that he was beaten by a better candidate four times but he thinks the chances of that are slim.

I feel like I’m being taken advantage of

“They’ve just turned round and said the typical ‘there has been a high volume of candidates’.”

The classic one-liner that Aldi once told me has been recycled and recited to Josh four times by TGI Fridays.

“I feel like I’m being taken advantage of. I’m doing all these hours for them and it is being under appreciated. They don’t care that I’m giving up my day, working really hard and in some cases, there wasn’t even any contact afterwards and, in most, not even a valid reason. I really don’t see how it can be a true representation of your abilities.”

TGI Fridays says it meets all employment regulations.

“We work tirelessly to ensure that we always give our Family our best support from the very start of their journey with us. Our current recruitment process meets current industry guidelines and includes on the job experience, an interview, and the opportunity to enjoy some Fridays food with the restaurant manager,” the company tells us.

Meanwhile, Zizzi says: “We are concerned to hear that some people have been left frustrated having been through our interview process and fully agree that a lack of feedback afterwards is unacceptable. We would welcome the opportunity to follow up with these people individually.”

Ghosting

Just like Josh’s experience with Zizzi, other people say they’ve worked long shifts and never heard anything back.

Marie had an incredibly long trial day at a children’s activity centre, even though she only applied for casual work.

“[The company] advertised for a person to work the tills, take food out, help in kitchen etc. I contacted them and they said come in for a little while and do a trial. There was no mention of money, length of time, nothing. I ended up there all day, had to help clean at end of day and they just said ‘we’ll be in touch’. I never heard from them again.”

It made me feel pretty angry that people think its fine to treat others that way

Companies simply ghosting employees who do trial shifts with them is becoming a bit of a theme among the people I speak to.

Marie says: “It made me feel pretty angry that people think its fine to treat others that way. It was hard slog as it was a Saturday. I just wanted weekend work, as my youngest child was only a year old.”

Perhaps Marie should have checked how much she was going to be paid before doing the work but she had just expected the minimum wage, she says.

“You work, you get paid is my philosophy. Even if both parties agreed a set figure for the day, it’s something.”

It is part of a wider issue surrounding an ethos of utter disregard for the unemployed and those seeking employment.

Terry Holmes works for a Housing Association-run community trust that helps people find work, whatever their circumstances. He says he has seen unpaid trial shifts countless times before.

“People are often asked to work an unpaid trial, but mostly only one shift. And more people don’t get offered a job afterwards than do.

“The whole issue is debatable as there are pros and cons, but I am against any form of unpaid labour as it is morally and ethically unsupportable. I also think it is part of a wider issue surrounding an ethos of utter disregard for the unemployed and those seeking employment.

“People are often asked to pay for their own Disclosure and Barring Certificate, protective work clothing and other additional expenses. What’s more, employers rarely pay for travel costs to interview and often require applicants who are offered a job to work induction periods (of up to a week) for no pay.”

Holmes has seen a trend in trial shifts and unpaid travel. Travel costs might seem trivial for those of us with a secure income, but for many who have been out of work for a long period of time, the £5 to get a bus to and from an interview could mean skipping a meal. And if that interview doesn’t result in a job, then it was £5 wasted.

Similarly, those carrying out trial shifts have to pay travel expenses, uniform expenses, and other costs, with no pay for their work, and no promise of a paying job afterwards. This is simply unsustainable for anyone without work or income.

supermarkets
Unpaid trial shifts are a common practice at supermarkets and restaurants

Those who attend the trials often work as hard as paid staff — if not harder, in order to make a good impression — complete the same tasks as paid staff, and yet remain uncompensated for their time and work. Many people see this as not fair or ethical.

A major issue that hasn’t been mentioned is how trial shifts impact mental health. I know that my rejection after a trial shift that I thought had gone well left me feeling worthless. If Aldi didn’t feel like my work was good enough to justify paying me anything, then how bad must I have performed? I can only imagine what people who have been rejected time and time again must feel like, those who have been abused and exploited by a broken system with ambiguous rules. It certainly puts you off from applying for any other jobs, thanks to a lack of self-belief.

While businesses argue a line needs to be drawn to stop exploitation, I believe the line has already been drawn, in thick and all-too-permanent marker, and it has been drawn in a place that is favourable to big businesses that want to save money covering shifts in busy periods, at the expense of those who do trial shifts.

*name changed

This article was originally published on 1 May 2018.

3rd October 2018