Slave labour or an honest quid? What it’s really like at Poundland

The discount chain has taken the heat for a government jobs scheme that didn’t work, but is it really that bad? Tom Peck tried it for a day

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The Independent Online

The front-facing bays that greet Poundland customers as they step in off Deptford High Street are known to staff as the “seasonal rotation section”.

But the seasons change at a glacial place compared with the date-driven merchandise that is forever shifting on these dusty south-east London shelves.

On St Valentine’s Day morning, a thousand love-themed cards, hundreds of pairs of furry handcuffs and pile after pile of heart-shaped napkins had to be condensed from three of these eight-foot-high bays to one. Yesterday was the first step in the Long March to Mothers’ Day. Time limit for the task: one hour.

It was assignments such as these that the geology graduate Cait Reilly branded “slave labour”, after her local Job Centre told her she had no choice but to give up her unpaid work at a local museum and instead work unpaid at Poundland, or lose her £52 a week Jobseekers Allowance. She did as she was told, but also took the Government to court – and won, with the Court of Appeal deciding that the scheme was unlawful.

The Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith was duly furious. “To compare work experience to slave labour, as this case did, is hugely insulting to people living in oppression and sneers at hard-working taxpayers who pay for benefits.”

Is it slave labour? It’s undoubtedly hard work. Picking stuff up. Putting it down. Picking stuff up. Putting it down. Just as I struggle not to drop a shelf of about 300 Valentine’s cards, the buzzer goes off to indicate more help is required on the tills. There no eating, drinking or chewing on the shop floor, and no mobile phones. So no chatting away to your mates over email, no tweeting and no facebook. In fact there is a Social Networking Policy. The first rule of Poundland? You don’t tweet about Poundland.

It is, without doubt, far harder than an equivalent entry-level office job, And it pays less, at the minimum wage of £6.25 an hour (or £5.50 for under 21s).

Breaks are taken in a windowless room with a kettle and a fridge and not much else. A five-hour shift earns you 15 minutes. Six hours – half an hour. Seven hours – 45 minutes. And they’re all unpaid.

With the Valentine’s display condensed, the camping equipment has to be expanded to fill the gap. Pick stuff up. Put it down. But this will only fill the bays for a couple of hours, until the new gear is brought out this afternoon. “We cannot have empty bays; they do not look nice for customers” says Anita Szatmari, the store’s Hungarian supervisor.

It takes Anita only around a nanosecond to re-do everything I have spent the last hour and a half getting wildly wrong. “I started at Christmas, as temporary staff,” she explains. “They kept me on. For me it’s not tiring. It’s good to be working hard. Otherwise it is boring.”

It’s not like I can’t cope. Replace the cat food and Robbie Williams CDs with football shirts and it’s identical to my Saturday job at a sports shop in Lakeside Shopping Centre in Essex, back in Sixth Form. But I was pretty confident, then, of a brighter future.

As a supervisor, Anita’s pay has already risen to £6.76 an hour, around £14,000 a year. She has been earmarked for an assistant store manager role, which starts at £17,000. The store manager, Justina Marciulionyte, is from Lithuania. Her pay scale runs from £22,000 to £30,000. So why should her staff be asked to work free – even if their labour is classified as work experience?

“Cait Reilly has a case,” says John Houghton, the regional manager despatched to the store from Northampton (because I am here for The Independent, he openly admits). A highly amenable Brummie who didn’t go to university and spent 20 years at Sainsburys, he joined Poundland two years ago. “A graduate has different qualifications. We gave these people a work trial, an opportunity to see if it worked for them. We’re an expanding company; not many are. We entered it to try and find suitable colleagues.”

The furore around Ms Reilly is a little unfair. Poundland entered a government scheme in good faith, then pulled out of it more than a year ago, at the same time as Tesco and a number of others, and has since taken a reputational hit on the government’s behalf.

Mr Houghton is proud of the Deptford store. “There’s an opportunity for flare,” he says. “There’s your four-foot bay. There’s your toothpaste. Have a bit of creativity.”

But in the current prolonged downturn, does the “on your bike” work ethic channelled by Iain Duncan Smith really offer young Britons the chance to climb the ladder and build a fulfilling career?

Poundland was sold in 2010 for £200m to the American private equity firm Warburg Pincus, for whom it constitutes a relatively tiny part of a £20bn portfolio. One imagines that Anita could shift the entire Amazon rainforest in the form of Valentine’s Cards and she still wouldn’t get through the firm’s revolving doors on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.

£1 for everything: how it evolved

Since Poundland opened its doors in December 1990 in Burton-on-Trent it has sold the same category of products. Its range now includes more than 3,000 items, among them fresh foods, household essentials and clothing as well as seasonal items, CDs, DVDs and even camping equipment, all for £1.

Some of the products, however, have had to shrink in size to meet the demands of inflation. Warburton loaves of bread in Poundland are 600g rather than the 800g standard issue, while a multi-pack of Quavers sold in 2007 contained 10 bags, but now contains just five. Poundland works with most of the big food companies, including Cadbury, Walkers and Nestlé, who supply discount packs. It has also introduced “phantom brands”, such as Tool Box and Fenback Farm, to save customers from the perceived stigma of the Poundland label.

Charlie Cooper