Sophie Morris: You surely can't expect people to work for free

Wednesday 17 June 2009 00:00

My first reaction to the news that the British Airways chief executive, Willie Walsh, was asking his 40,000 staff to work for free? He has no chance. Dragging one's sleepy self out of bed to work for adequate pay is penance enough for most of us. Counting down the minutes to clocking off and the days to our next holiday are national pastimes. Whence did Walsh pluck this madcap idea that he had 40,000 loyal subjects on his books who would be happy to forego payment for the good of the company?

Walsh's announcement is remarkable because of the number of people it affects, but employers all over the country are making similar requests of their staff. Accepting a pay freeze or giving up perks are the first steps. Then employees might be asked to work a four-day week (often "requesting" one day of unpaid leave a week to keep the lawyers happy). Later comes a call for volunteers to take extra holidays – unpaid – or even a mini sabbatical.

This works in some people's favour. After the obsessive nose-to-the-grindstone ethic of the eighties and nineties, in the noughties, "work-life balance" has become the ideal to strive towards. Achieving it can be tricky, so many have welcomed the opportunity to take a breather for a few months.

But actually working for free? Turning up, groomed and coiffed, and providing service with a smile with nothing but the future interests of BA in mind? Sounds like charity to me.

The truth is, BA is in serious trouble. Willie Walsh is playing a dangerous, but very cunning, game with his staff and he has them cornered. He has written to all 40,000, asking them to volunteer to work for nothing for up to four weeks, hoping they will measure the horror of getting a reduced pay packet, worth 11 months of their toil, against the horror of no pay packet at all, and acquiesce. About 2,500 jobs have already gone at British Airways. The company has forecast an operating loss of £220m for the year and cannot give a straight answer on future trading prospects, so the threat of further redundancies is certainly not an empty one.

Walsh, to give him his due, is leading by example, and has announced that he was to pass on his July pay packet of £61,000, which leaves him a meagre £671,000 to play with for the rest of the year. His chief financial officer is doing the same.

I pondered the idea that Walsh was playing a fascinating social experiment with his staff. When presented with such an ultimatum, would we rather work for free, or not work at all? Will BA staffers feel a greater sense of purpose if they help out with the cash-saving drive? Could they start to think of their employer as a "cause" rather than a corporate juggernaut? Plenty of people who volunteer admit they draw as much from the experience as the benefactors of their charity.

What Walsh fails to realise is that many of his staff are already putting in the hours for free, with 89 per cent of managers consistently doing unpaid overtime which tots up to 40 days per year. That's 50 per cent more than BA's proposed four weeks already. Five million British workers claim to do regular overtime to the tune of £4,955 per year. Women earn, on average, 17 per cent less than their male colleagues, so already work for free for two months of the year. Add to that the 40 days of overtime, and if you are a female manager working for BA you're looking at the possibility of working without remuneration for four-and-a-half months of the year.

Can Walsh and his board members see their way to giving up that much of their salary?

He looks the part, but will he act it?

They say you should dress for the job/man/tennis trophy you want, not the one you have, so Andy Murray's decision to wear the same style of kit at Wimbledon next week that Fred Perry wore to win the 1936 title could be a winning move. It's certainly a star performer: well cut, slim-fitting shorts and knits beat baggy, floppy cotton kit – game, set and match.

Will dressing in classic British tennis whites bring Murray the manners of a classic Lawn Tennis Association gent? I give him until the third round.

Don't put your kids through all this, Bruce

Growing up with the Die Hard hero for a dad must have ranked pretty high on the cool-ometer for Bruce Willis's children. Oh, how times have changed. Willis graces the latest issue of W magazine with his new wife Emma Heming, posing for a set of S&M-inspired shots taken by Steven Klein.

Not only do Willis's three daughters with Demi Moore have to put up with their mother's sickly tweets to her new husband, Ashton Kutcher, they now have their dad telling the world about his sex life. This might not seem so bad: he's a movie star, he does sex scenes, the shoot is surely to promote his wife's career... but have you seen the yellowing undies Bruce, 54, is sporting?

Leather and whips come with the showbiz territory, but he should never have put his kids through the shame of grotty old dad pants.

* Does Gordon Brown have an allotment? If not, he should get one. They are the ultimate leveller and tick so many boxes. Pulling up carrots shows you are not afraid of mucking in. Growing your own can save hundreds in food bills and helps keep you healthy. There's the family man angle too. Gordon had better act quickly though. With 100,000 people on the waiting list for plots, it can take up to 20 years. The authorities warn that some of these people will get a burial plot before an allotment.

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