Casual employment has increased significantly since the nineties, particularly amongst eighteen to twenty-five year olds. University students in particular are finding their lives becoming more deeply entwined with customer service jobs, which make for roughly half of all casual jobs. No paid annual leave, no sick leave. Phone calls at the last minute. Mel can you come in today at all? Can you work all day tomorrow? Can you work four-til-nine tonight? As of early 2015, roughly 19 per cent of casuals work in retail, 19 per cent are in hospitality and 10 per cent work in health care and social assistance.
When striking up conversations with other students in tutorials, lectures and bars, it’s natural that we talk about work. It’s almost like asking what footy team you barrack for? We’re either retail or hospo kids. We nod at each other sympathetically.
The hospo kids have 5a.m. wake-ups. Baristas skip the traffic on their way to work and come home during the school pick-up rush smelling like coffee beans. Waiters and waitresses dress in casual tops, tight denim and fashionable Nikes, their aprons slung over their fronts. They are surrounded by hot smells, constant chatter and indecisive customers. They check their bank accounts on their phones and hope they’ve gotten paid on time this week. Tip jars at hipster cafes are usually pretty empty.
The retail kids usually get a sleep-in. The earliest we’d start is 9am. If you’re unlucky you’ll be rostered on for a 6a.m. stocktake shift. They hand you a PDE (portable data entry) scanner and you scan every single birthday card, ribbon, bow, pen, notebook and photo frame in the store. No talking while you’re scanning either. Your eyes glaze over not only during stocktake, but during a lack of foot traffic.
You are left to pace around the floor in your corporate black attire, searching for something to do. Dusting, straightening displays, Windexing the glass shelves. A customer will ask for a product that is barely in stock and you will go on a never-ending hunt to findvthe missing glass, corresponding box or matching photo frame. You find yourself humming to the music playing over the speakers.
For some reason, department stores like to play a lot of RÜFÜS, slotted between the occasional eighties inspirational aerobic track, which is one of the small things you begin to notice and look forward to.
As a casual you are always the department store’s last hope. I recall working the Thursday and Friday night four-til-nine shifts every single week for a period of roughly four months. There would be two of us rostered on, usually myself and either Lucy or Ariana. Sometimes Ariana didn’t show up and didn’t bother calling to let the manager know. For this period of time, our department did not have an employed manager and often did not even have a supervisor working late nights.
Thea was our acting manager: a bubbly, confident Greek woman who did not work by the retail overlord’s rule book and understood that most of her younger staff were not building a career in retail. She spoke to us like adults and pretended not to notice if any of us took an extra five or ten minutes coming back from our breaks. She always made sure we were okay.
Although she was a well-liked supervisor who worked hard to keep our crippled department together, for some reason she was never offered the role of manager, and so her one-year stint as acting manager was a hard slog with no pay rise and little pay off.
She transferred departments once Nathan, a man roughly twenty years her junior, was employed as manager, and left to work with accessories and jewellery in bitter resignation.
“I want to cry, Mel,” she told me on her last day in our beloved department 9800. “I’m so bored, I want to cry.”
There’s a chilled electronic track playing over the speakers, but it’s muffled by an obnoxious Christmas holiday song blaring from a tiny stereo under a bejewelled Christmas tree. Several passers-by take a recess by either the novels or cookbooks—they poise with books like statues. Now and then one of them sidles over to the register with a few books in hand.
I ask the more well-dressed customers if they have a store credit card. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t. I ask them if they would be interested in signing up for one—there is only a small annual fee that is very easily compensated in rewards points. Most of the time they say no thank you.
I walk over to the tiny stereo in a huff and flick the switch off. I look left and right before dodging the foot traffic in the main walkway. Mothers push their children in prams, couples stop to toy with the music boxes, and a queue of customers with wrapping paper rolls wait to be attended.
A toddler does what it is programmed to do and knocks a bauble off a tree leading to a loud smash followed by a few desperate apologies from its mother. “It’s alright,” I say, “Accidents happen.” She thanks me and walks away, scolding her child. I grab the dustpan and sweep up the mess.
Despite the chaos on the selling floor around Christmas time, in 2015 the department store boasted just over 12 per cent sales growth nationwide over the first few weeks of the financial year. What exactly had they done to beat their rival? They had introduced new, fashionable clothing brands to the store and used flashier marketing that often featured models and celebrities. Their catalogues looked better each year—the paper seemed thicker, the pages glossier. They also reportedly increased service levels, though that didn’t seem true to me and several others in the Bourke Street store.
Ree, a supervisor, scuttles over to me. “Mel! Make sure you put the barcode for that one in the tin that says ‘broken on floor’ rather than ‘broken in transit.’” She hands me the relevant tin and I pop the barcode in. The ‘broken in transit’ tin is almost empty.
An edited version of this piece was published at Going Down Swinging.