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What a difference a year makes...

Time for something a little personal. I was trying to use this as a kind of therapy about the situation I find myself in which I suppose it has been. I don’t want to spend too much time writing about people who don’t matter anymore but I feel like sharing this is important. I am very lucky to know lots of talented people - designers, jewellery makers, photographers, actresses, yoga teachers, artists - all working for themselves as small business owners, freelance or self-employed. I am hoping sharing this story might stop someone else getting in to the same position that I did.

If you work for yourself, sometimes it can get a bit lonely and this is why this time last year I decided to look for a part time job. I was so pleased to get hired working two days a week for a lovely little, independent interiors and gift shop in Bakewell, not far from where I live. It looked to be a perfect set up, I could spend a few days out and about in a nice place, doing something that I was good at and enjoyed (I have done quite a lot of work in retail in the past), supporting a local business and still have time to be doing my own work the rest of the week. In truth it was far from perfect. I over-looked a lot of warning signs – I was never given a contract with employment details or set working days (even though I asked several times). I was paid (irregularly) in cash. The till had no daily float and there was no cashing up system. There was no accurate stock list so I had no way of knowing what was in the shop. I got on really well with both of the owners and even though I felt uncomfortable about these things I decided to be understanding because I related to their situation, they were similar age to me and were trying to establish a fairly new business and the main reason, I really enjoyed working there.

During my time there I worked hard and greeted every person who walked in with a smile. I looked after the customers and the shop, did all tasks that were asked of me, agreed to change my working days and work extra regular hours, covered six-day weeks whilst the owners were away and came in at late notice to cover when needed, we all got on well and I thought we had a good team relationship. After having been working there for eight weeks with no complaints about how I was doing my job, one of the owners started to try to bully me. Over the course of one week I received several daily, unpleasant messages and notes about various things. Not only did they upset me but made me question whether this job was worth this treatment. Without any advanced warning or discussion, I was left a list of extra days (on top of my regular hours) that she told me I had to work. Due to my other personal work commitments I was unable to work one of the days and when I explained this she threatened me and said that if I couldn’t be available whenever she needed, I needed to think about if this was a job I wanted. I felt like I was being held solely responsible for whether the shop could open and me being unavailable I was not an option. Her behaviour had changed towards me so suddenly and in such an unpleasant way and I was shocked and started to feel increasingly concerned about what would happen next. I began to question whether this part time, minimum wage job was worth all this pressure, stress and intimidation. At the end of that horrible week, I said to my husband that I was worried that the next thing would be that she would accuse me of stealing and I would have no way of disproving it as I worked alone in the shop. The following day I received a message accusing me of letting something get stolen as it was missing.

I had been ready to walk out on several occasions during that week and talked myself into sticking it out, but I felt this had gone too far and I began to panic about what a vulnerable position I was in. So, I went in and told her in person, very politely and calmly that things weren’t working out and I would not be working there anymore and asked for my final wages for the previous three weeks. I took my husband with me so that I had a witness as by this point I was concerned about how she would behave towards me. All she said was“Fine” whilst barely looking up from her computer screen. She didn’t ask why or try to stop me. She also refused to pay me. I still don’t know what had changed or why, for some reason I don’t think she wanted me working there anymore but as I was the only staff member they had, if I left they wouldn’t be able to run the shop. She just expected me to put up with her behaviour, I don’t think she expected me to call her bluff. I got a full day of abusive and threatening messages that day following my resignation which only made me realise that I had done the right thing. I left without notice, which was not my intention, something that I felt bad for as I knew I was leaving them in a difficult position and I found that hard to do even after how she had been treating me. I actually still feel bad about it. It was unprofessional and I am not that. I felt I had been given no choice and that was when I needed to get out.

Almost a year later and I still haven’t been paid. They have not responded to any of my attempts to contact them. I took the unpaid wages case to the Employment Tribunal and won. My ex employers never disputed the claim, they weren’t at the hearing. It was honestly such a difficult process when you are trying to do it by yourself, but one I felt like I needed to do. I wanted to go through the proper channels to try to deal with them. I would not have been able to do it if I hadn’t been helped for the last few weeks by a girl called Kathryn from the Free Representation Unit at Nottingham Trent University. She found evidence of many other people who they had wronged, people who had never received goods or refunds and even someone else who said they hadn’t been paid either. I’m not sure if it made me feel better to know I wasn’t the only one or sad that they had gotten away with this so many times before. The shop I used to work in has been closed and so has their new shop. There are a few other things that I can try but the fact is I will probably never get what I am owed.

Money aside, the main thing is that I really am sad that I don't work there anymore, I loved it but I was very wrong about them. So what can I take from this that is positive? The huge amount of support and advice I was given by all my friends and family is a good place to start (thank you all!). It gave me the opportunity and drive to get Pink Couch set up properly, working for me, the thing I really want to be doing. But also, I’ve learnt a lot, most importantly - know your worth. Your time is just as valuable as anyone else's. Yes, I was fortunate to get the job there but it was my skills and experience that made me right for the role and due to that they were lucky to have me. Don’t let anyone make you feel like they are doing you a favour by "letting you" work for them, there is a reason they want you! Same goes for if you supply shops with your work, designs or products - protect your talent. Make sure you have agreements in place and get paid what you are owed. They are the fortunate ones to have your talent as part of their business. Equally if you are thinking of working for an independent store, just because they aren’t a big company does not mean that you have to put up with them not being professional. Make sure you get all the paperwork you need, preferably before starting your employment and if they don't have it arranged alarm bells should ring. Not only does it protect you, but it actually protects them as well (the final amount I was awarded by the Tribunal was quite a lot more because I hadn’t been given the correct paperwork). Don't stop being nice but however nice you are trying to be, it doesn’t always pay to be understanding, because sometimes the courtesy does not work both ways and you will be taken advantage of and it will be you who is out of pocket while they move on to their next scam.

I haven't named names, I don’t want or need to. The unpleasant truth is, there will always be people who are like them, those who make you wonder how they can truly believe it is ok to behave this way towards other people. There will be people who treat you well and reciprocate the respect you show them but either way, it pays to keep things professional, take it from me, you don’t want to have to deal with the Employment Tribunal!

Thanks for reading, normal light-hearted posts will resume next time! I will end on a final positive note - I may not have been paid for 77 of the hours that I spent working hard for those people but the day before I left, Jimmy from the boyband 911 came into the shop and I got to talk to him. At least 13-year-old me thinks it was all worth it!


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