Life below the Living Wage

In Scotland, there are approximately 414,000 people who are in work but earn less than the Living Wage. Emily works as a call handler on behalf of a large well-known UK retailer, who last year made over £1bn in profit. We asked her to tell us about her job, and how earning less than the Living Wage affects her.

Emily’s Blog

My name is Emily, I’m in my thirties and I work as a Customer Service Advisor in a call centre.  I was to tell you a bit about myself as someone who earns less than the Living Wage. I hope my blog will be of interest, whether you can relate to this as someone who is on a lower income, or to help you to understand what life can be like for people who are in work but earn less than the Living Wage.

My work

All the jobs that I have done prior to the one I’m doing now have been in customer service- all not with a great wage to be honest. I’m currently on the National Minimum Wage which is £6.50 per hour.

Financially, I’m really not in a great position, even though I’m working full time like a lot of other people out there. My job can be pretty stressful- with irate customers and people who shout at you. Then when I go home at the end of the day, I don’t have any money!

After I’ve paid all my bills, there’s not really anything left over. I have to say that this has affected me a lot, over a period of time. You do think, “Why am I working all these hours, for what?”

I’ve been unemployed in the past, and so I can compare that with my current situation. When you’re not in work, you’re skint all the time. When you’re working on a low wage, it’s like a different level of being skint. But when you’re working hard, full time, and you feel tired and stressed, you look at that difference and wonder, is this really worth it?

Day-to-day

There are wee things that other people might take for granted, like walking into the supermarket and thinking “I’ll buy this make of tomato sauce”. But then I think “No, I might need to buy that cheaper one because if I spend too much on this then…” You’re always constantly having to think about things.

When I have a day off work, me and my boyfriend might go out for the day, and for example, we might say “do you fancy going somewhere for lunch?” Then we realise- we can’t afford to go to that place, and no, we can’t afford that place either- it puts a damper on things and then you go home in a mood because you haven’t done anything. It takes away from the enjoyment of life, really- everything always seems to come back to money.

 Relationships with other people

When it comes to socialising, you have to pick and choose and think carefully about what you’re doing. It affects your social life because you have to say to people that you can’t afford to do the things they are maybe inviting you to do. You can’t always see your friends as much.

The other thing is that when you say no to things a lot, people often think that it’s because you’re not interested.

People will say they’re skint as a kind of excuse, as a way to get out of things, rather than say it’s because they’d prefer not to do something. So it means that when I say I can’t afford to do something, then over time people look at it as though I’m not interested, or not making an effort. That’s hard. It affects the way that other people look at you. For other people who have a wee bit more money, it’s hard for them to understand.

Other people’s perceptions

Being on low wages, sometimes you feel judged by other people. People who work in better jobs- jobs that maybe they’ve studied for- they often work the same amount of hours as I do, but they get paid a lot more. I think sometimes people in other better paid jobs will look at me, and maybe think that I’m useless or not that clever. But at the end of the day, I’m putting in equal amounts of time and effort as them. It gets at your self-confidence, because you feel that people look down on you. 

Playing catch-up

Being on a low wage is never really being on top of things. You are always chasing. If I’m short one month for some reason or another I can sometimes borrow money from friends or family- but of course, you only need to pay it back the next time you get paid, leaving you short again for that month.

My current job

My current employer doesn’t provide any sick pay for the first two years that you work there. When you already don’t earn much money, this puts you in a really tough position. No matter what else is happening in your life, or how unwell you are, you literally can’t afford to take any time off.

There is a very high turnover of staff where I work. You feel like a number more than a person. So far as I can see, my employer doesn’t make any effort to find out why people are leaving, or what could be done to retain them. Their attitude is just “we can get more people in”.

Regardless of how well a person performs at work, the attitude of my employer is consistently: this is what you’re not doing, this is what you’ve done wrong.

Part of my job involves meeting targets in relation to efficiency and retention. Efficiency means after you’ve finished a call, you have to get back on the phone to answer the next call as quickly as you can. Retention relates to when a customer calls up who wants to cancel, and then it’s part of my role to try to persuade them to stay with the company.

If you don’t meet one or more of your targets, then you can be put on to a disciplinary. For example, if you can’t persuade enough people not to cancel, then you can be put on a disciplinary for not meeting the retention target set by the company. Thankfully this hasn’t happened to me as yet. Nonetheless, even after working there for 3 years, it is still a risk you face.

The problem with targets is that you might be really good in one area, but less good in another- this can hold you back from meeting your targets overall. For example, it’s possible to be really efficient and provide good customer service to the people who call, but if you are unlucky and get too many people who have decided to cancel and can’t be persuaded otherwise, then you might not meet your retention target.

I don’t particularly agree with the targets system, because no matter how good you are or how hard you work, the outcome is not always something you can control. For example, if a customer has passed away and a relative calls up to cancel, then how can you retain that customer?! But if that happens, then is still considered negatively against your retention target.

On the other hand, if you are meeting all of your targets, there are no bonuses or guaranteed increases in pay. There is no real reward for meeting your targets, other than keeping yourself safe from being put on a disciplinary.

 It’s not just a bump in the road

In summary, working but not having enough money to live on affects you all the time. I am always conscious that I can’t afford things. It makes it harder to be resilient, because it’s not like “Oh, that was a tough spell there, but I’ll get over that wee bump in the road”.

I never feel able to get my head above water financially, no matter how hard I work.

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