By Sila Yucel
Working part-time in a cafe to support your creative path is exhausting and stressful. With long shifts, zero-hour contracts and the feeling of being a scapegoat for gentrification in a low-income area (despite your poverty wages), it’s not just the coffee that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.
After graduating university, I began working for an artist I admired in Deptford, in exchange for a shared studio space. I was never going to earn much money or have stability doing this, at least for the first few years, but being creative keeps a playful element in my life that I rely on for happiness and sanity. The free studio space was an alright deal. I specialise in glass-making and the basic equipment needed is priced in the thousands, something I, a twenty-something from South East London would never be able to afford alone, even if I was living at my Mum’s. In need of financial support to pay for the running of machines, materials and general life expenses, I began looking for extra work elsewhere.
A friend of mine was working at a cafe near my studio and said she could get me some part-time work there. The idea of working in a small cafe seemed like a reasonable option, where I wouldn’t leave work too tired to work a couple extra hours on my own stuff. I’d worked in retail and in supermarkets before and disliked both for different reasons, and I didn’t want to do bar work because the temptation to constantly drink would probably distract me.
It felt conflicting that someone like me would start working in a middle-class coffee shop. The minimal shop fronts signify the coming of a class culture war that will, over time, change the whole composition of the neighbourhood – dividing communities by charging insensitive prices that keep long-term residents and members of low-income households out, and encourage a new class in. It felt like turning my back on everything I’m against, especially as, during university, I made a series of zines designed to highlight negative change in the area; but I really needed a fucking job and decided to bite the bullet and learn to make flat whites. And, to be honest, when there are about ten cafes on the high street already, how much choice do you have?
I soon found myself amongst like-minded, passionately-driven artists, musicians and writers, all in the job for the same reason as I was (and still am). The long days and zero-hours contracts seemed unstable, but others reassured me that it worked, as a few long shifts might bring in enough cash to allow me to spend the rest of my week working on something I actually care about. Unfortunately, my co-workers and I are all-too-familiar with working multiple jobs that can lead to seven-day weeks; your boss doesn’t care if you are working every other day this week – often they’ll ask you which days you’re not working, then book you in for those – and you aren’t being paid enough to say you won’t do it. Those treasured days focusing on creative projects slide out of reach, to make way for a much-needed day-off.
The fact that paying less than London living wage isn’t actually illegal tends to mute any voice of objection you have against your wages; it allows businesses to turn a blind eye to their employees’ well-being because, as far as they are concerned, it’s not their problem if you can’t afford your rent. The average barista earns the minimum wage of £7.85 per hour or below, whereas the average rent in London is currently £2,000pcm for a two-bed flat, and rising. Employees are forced to work more hours, leaving them exhausted and uninspired – and, often, battling with mental health problems.
I work about 3-4 jobs on and off and a musician I work with does the same. When this becomes just one of your many jobs, who has time to breathe let alone consider a union? Part-timers go into these jobs with the mindset of “just getting on with it”, not caring about causing any friction, because your creative work is way more worth your energy.
I’ve had customers with 9-to-5s respond to my job with rose-tinted glasses, telling me how great it must be to stand around all day drinking coffee. Back in the real world, duties include cleaning the mess of a child whose parents can’t be bothered to do it themselves (but won’t tip), working two 11 hour shifts in a row with a thirty minute (unpaid) lunch break, and actually paying for any coffee or food you consume. Add these to the job description and you’ll see it exactly isn’t ideal – don’t quit your day job. Especially if you’re entitled to basic fundamental rights like pay-rises and sick-pay, and aren’t forced to work during national holidays at minimum wage. I, too, was fooled by the myth of the humble coffee shop that cares about it’s produce; maybe I was naïve to think it cared as much for its employees too, but it’s just like any other underpaying café, even if the prices aren’t.
This is just what it’s like working day to day in a café – but beyond that, I would also like to talk about the discomfort of working in a café that is seen as symbolic of gentrification. I know people who would rather die than be seen walking into a trendy coffee shop, but the reality is that the people working inside it are just regular young people trying to get by. Despite appearances, Baristas can’t actually afford the community they’re unfairly associated with.
These social spaces are where developers meet to discuss their investment plans for the area while sipping overpriced lattes, simultaneously ignoring the locals scraping to get-by outside. It is these developers that are knocking down estates; destroying community gardens that provide essential fresh air in inner-city areas; pressuring councils to use violent guards against protesters; supplying pseudo ‘cultural assets’ that pretend to support artistic communities; raising rents; putting local pubs under threat; and booting people out of the area to make way for bullshit luxury flats that not even middle class people can afford anymore. Developers like Lendlease and Peabody, who shamelessly use art-washing as cover for social cleansing, remove established communities in exchange for overpriced, sky-high tower blocks with little balconies where rich people can sit and watch the sunset over Canary Wharf.
My co-workers try their best to support the local community, offering free tea for anyone who needs it and trying to make everyone feel welcome. The tension caused by gentrification in the area creates an aggressive atmosphere – we must show our solidarity and not let it divide us. I’ve been to community meetings and I love that new-locals, students and squatters alike are present in them, even if they only live here for a few years of their life. I know people who’ve been in the area for generations that speak kindly of new locals who have organised campaigns to save reservoirs, protest for a minimum of 35% social housing in new builds and stop demolitions of community spaces. We must continue to rise together against the faceless developers to support our communities.
Also: don’t forget to tip your baristas…
Sila Yucel is a glass-maker and barista from south-east London.
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