Unpaid Trials & Self-Exploiting Entrepreneurs

September 6, 2014


I’ve barely done any paid work since January. Previously, I’d worked as a shop assistant for two years but the shop in question went out of business. Before that I was long-term unemployed and struggling with severe anxiety and depression. Being able to live rent-free with my parents means that I’m cushioned from the full implications of being unemployed but the imperative to get work is ever-present in the culture, and a reality for the majority of people living under capitalism. This imperative acts as a driving force behind how I anxiously struggle to conceptualise a future in which I can earn enough to live, but from working conditions that won’t lead me into continual breakdowns. This is made somewhat harder by having to explain a lack of qualifications and the mysterious five year gap in my C.V. – a result of having dropped out of university, remained largely housebound and struggled through psychiatric services (non-graduates don’t have futures either!)

On the back of being ignored or rejected by every bookshop in London, I decided to cast my net further. Handing my C.V. out around North London last week, I was gratified when a “bistro” contacted me that same evening and invited me to do a trial shift. I went and worked a 4-hour shift kitchen portering at the trendy restaurant – washing dishes, mopping floors, cleaning toilets.

Afterwards I sat down for a chat with the chef and junior partner in the business who told me that he thought I’d done well, worked hard, kept up with the pace. He asked me how I thought it went and I tried to answer in a way that would get me the job but would allow me to retain even a smidgen of self-respect. He proceeded to tell me that they don’t pay workers for “trial shifts” but acted like he was doing me a favour when he informed me that because I’d worked more than 2 hours they would pay me for any time worked over that. The rate of pay was £6 an hour – 31p below minimum wage. He knew that he was hiring from a position of strength, able to pick from a large pool of unemployed people or precarious London labour who are often working multiple jobs in order to afford rent. They could even, presumably, get a few more people to do unpaid trials for a nice bit of free labour?

Indeed, the job wasn’t yet on offer to me. I was wanted for another trial shift on Thursday, and perhaps the weekend, to see if I could keep up on a busy night and then I’d get paid for any time over the unpaid 2 hours of each shift at the weekend when they pay all staff weekly, cash-in-hand, avoiding tax and, of course: no sick pay, no set hours.

So far, so exploitative. But the part of the conversation that most stood out was the guy’s pathetic attempt to make me beg for this below-minimum wage kitchen porter job. “You have to show us that you really want this,” he challenged me, like he was an X Factor judge and I the contestant desperately seeking his endorsement. “Do you just want the work, to earn your money and go home? Or do you want a career here?” I had to repress laughter at this point. The guy clearly didn’t even believe in this spiel, it’s just the kind of crap that he was supposed to say but he was awful at it. Perversely, I almost felt sorry for him for being such a shit capitalist.

The point here is that you’re not just supposed to be paid nothing and get treated like garbage, you have to act like this is all part of your career plan. The demand here is a performative one. I had to “show him that I wanted it” – a demand that is largely unquantifiable but nevertheless psychically demoralising, designed perhaps to differentiate the boss from their staff affectively, even morally, in an industry of surprising equality of immiseration between the ostensible capitalist and the worker.

The self-exploiting entrepreneur is a familiar role in the restaurant and cafe industry: usually someone in their 30s or 40s who sets up shop somewhere trendy like Shoreditch or Dalston with a handful of staff and dreams of growing their business. The reality is that, besides the social status and the myth of the autonomous entrepreneur, the role is a miserable one. They put in longer hours than anyone, often paying themselves poverty wages at first and taking no money out of the business (in fact, usually the opposite) as it often isn’t profitable anyway. Then they combine the role of chef or “hostess” with responsibilities like staffing, dealing with suppliers, negotiating loans with multiple banks, etc. and you end up with a recipe for exhaustion and a nervous breakdown.

With such a configuration of production, the worker is sometimes left without a traditional boss to hate – leaving either an abstract concept of “the system” or, more likely, themselves, as the culprit. Meanwhile the entrepreneur, no less guided by the coercive laws of competition as any 19th century factory owner or Google CEO, no longer lives the capitalist’s dream of not having to work as instead they play several roles at once, often further hampered by actually “believing” or being emotionally invested in what they’re doing. This working dynamic is often twinned with a mantra of “work hard, play hard” as people of similar ages and cultural interests blur the lines between work and social life, and between their different subjective and class interests. A semblance of “teamwork” and “equality” can emerge. This equality, however, is not the supposedly empowered equality of the motivated “entrepreneur of the self”, all of whom are merely at different stages in their individual journey toward realising their own potential for a life of autonomous entrepreneurship. Rather, it is an equality in which workers’ and managers’ immiseration coincide, where the exploited and the self-exploited service richer or credit-worthy consumers while the rentier class hoovers up most of the dosh through property and financial gatekeeping. The self-exploiting entrepreneur, beguiled by the promise of creative control and autonomy, more often than not ends up merely acting as a node for the flow of capitalist social relations.

This “equality” and the varying but across-the-board precariousness of all involved can make organising in this sector more complicated. If, say, you are one of three people working in a little hipster cafe, you’re unhappy with your pay and conditions but the person who’s ostensibly “the boss” is also your drinking buddy or you know they’re under severe emotional strain, are these promising conditions to take any kind of industrial action? Often, in my experience, they have not been. (Though recent victories won by Brighton Solfed could be showing a way forward for some in the hospitality sector.)

When I asked the chef whether they threw empty wine bottles in the bin or they recycled he was embarrassed but hurriedly assured me that they aspired to having an ethical waste disposal scheme when they could afford it. This self-exploiting entrepreneur betrayed no such signs of embarrassment when describing my prospective terms of employment.

I too long for a life with creative autonomy, with all needs met, but I accept that this is unlikely as things stand and the future is extremely uncertain. The self-exploiting entrepreneur, especially the cafe or bistro owner in newly gentrified areas of London, will not realise that which they crave because they are much further down the food chain than they like to imagine. There is a deep dishonesty at the heart of these businesses. The myth of the entrepreneur has always elided the labours of every worker that makes their accumulation of wealth possible – the difference now is that the precarious labouring and self-exploitation of many entrepreneurs are themselves increasingly hidden as they undergo a kind of proletarianisation that they cannot possibly acknowledge.

By Michael Richmond | @Sisyphusa


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