“Give me one good reason not to fire you”.
In a previous story I mentioned that I have had some horrible jobs. Thankfully, I can now look back and laugh about them. I remembered this job in particular I had some years back and find this story so cringeworthy, that it’s funny. Nevertheless, this experience taught me some invaluable lessons about life, work and humans.
Buckle up and fastens your seatbelts my friends, I am going to take you through the memory of my worst job ever.
I had just turned 19 years old and recently returned to Germany after nearly 10 months of backpacking in Latin-America. I was freelancing and had been advised to find a part-time job to cover my tax and insurance payments. ASAP. It was very urgent and I was willing to do almost any job, so when a friend of mine recommended a burger shop he was working at as a delivery driver, I wasted no time before I applied through their website one night. By the time I had woken up, they had messaged me. I went in and we got straight to business.
Now one lesson I will never forget is: If it smells fishy, it is probably rotten. But I was kind of desperate and young.
The owner told me that he didn’t usually employ part-timers and preferred mini-jobbers (A minijob is a subgroup of part-time employment in Germany, with an income below a certain threshold. Main motivation is that the employer pays lower contributions for employees on minijob contracts.)
He told me he would be willing to employ me on a part-time contract, but he would have to extend my trial shift into 2 working days, each with longer working hours. Unpaid of course. He also added something weird, which I will eventually get to. Again, I was desperate so I agreed and signed my contract.
A burger shop is not exactly the nicest place for a vegan to work at, but this place was unpleasant in so many other ways. As the positive person I am, I tried to make the best out of this experience and was grateful I had been employed so quickly. I had a lot of respect for the owner at the beginning, as I perceived him to be very hard working. He got on very well with most of the boys there and they seemed to have a pretty good relationship with each other.
I was employed as a delivery driver and enjoyed the fact that I would get paid to drive around. The team was very nice to me as I was one of the only two girls that worked there. Our journeys were timed and to be honest, I was not particularly fast. The guy that trained me explained that you had to make illegal shortcuts in order to reach the timeframe, but advised me against doing this, as I had just received my driving license and could permanently lose it if I were caught.
The work was fun, yet a bit stressful. As much as I respected everyone, I didn’t really feel like I belonged to their little family. And I didn’t really want to either. They respected me, but amongst each other, they were pretty vulgar. I felt uncomfortable at times but I consolidated myself with the fact that I spent most of my time alone in a car. They had this list of rules where you would have to pay between 1 and 2 euros if you didn’t abide, like if you forgot to wear your cap, were late to work or made mistakes on a delivery. As I was trying to save that Shmoney for ‘Backpacking Part 2’, I made sure to follow all the rules.
One night before closing, the owner asked me to give him my purse to count, so that I could finish cleaning and we could all leave earlier. This hadn’t happened before, as everyone was supposed to count their own purses. As the non-assertive 19-old I was, mistrustfully, I agreed. Remember, I was trying to stash that cash. Every single one of my pennies and I wasn’t keen on playing games. When he laid out my tips, I felt like they looked a little.. humble. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I took the money and went home. “You must have assumed it was a lot more than it actually was. Today wasn’t a good tip day anyway” I told myself.
Though I decided to brush off the incident, my gut feeling told me not to trust him anymore so next shift I counted my tips beforehand. Funnily enough, he asked me once again to hand over my purse. When I finished mopping the entire floor, I found 3 euros on the counter. "Whose tips are these?" I asked. They were surely not mine. I couldn't remember how much it actually was, but this just did not add up. As the non-assertive 19-year old I was, the only thing that came out of my mouth was: “That can’t be right, I made at least 5 euros.” I knew I had made at least 20 euros in tips, but for some reason I felt embarrassed to say that. Unexpectedly, he started laughing nervously, took out 2 euros from the till and said: “Happy now?”. Absolutely shocked, I took the money and left.
At this point I had no doubts. This man was a crook. And I had to be very careful with him. The biggest shock was yet to come when I received my first payslip after working there for 2 and a half weeks. Half of my pay had been deducted as an advance payment. I politely messaged him and pointed out that he had made a mistake, as I had not received and advance payment. He told me: “Remember I charge you for each delivery. I told you this at the beginning”. Yes, he had told me, and because of my desperation and disbelief, I convinced myself that I had misunderstood him. But I hadn’t. From the minimum salary we delivery drivers received, he would deduct a base rate from our payments. We were basically paying him a fee to work for him.
I was heartbroken and discouraged. I didn’t know what to do or how to respond. The only thing I could think about doing was sending him an angry message and leaving the job. I didn’t know how to get justice. My older sister advised me to seek legal advice from the “Chamber of Employees”. I didn’t have a lot of money for legal fees, but this service was free of charge. I had never known about this before. Next morning I ditched my shift without letting anyone know and went to follow my sisters advice. The team bombarded me with messages on WhatsApp and I just brushed them off. "I am coming in later today."
I was clearly not the first thing the Lawyer wanted to see that morning, especially not after I laid down my work contract, colourful letters spelled the burger shop’s name. I’m sure she was thinking “Not one of these kids again”.
I explained my situation to her and the crazier the details got, the more she symathised with me and my case. To this day I remember her saying: “This payslip is a joke, that’s not enough to live or die off!”. Tell me about it! She was an absolute sweetheart and told me exactly what laws I needed to refer to. I also learnt that under German employment law, if the employer added contradictory clauses to the disadvantage of the employee, they would not be valid. That meant I was allowed to quit on the spot, but he couldn’t fire me.
I took her advice to the library where I wrote out a resignation letter including a warning and demand. Then, I went to work. I entered the shop and everyone gave me the dirtiest looks. Even his wife, who I thought was such a nice lady. He asked me to come to his office.
“Give me one good reason not to fire you” he told me. I pulled out my letter from my bag and handed it to him. “Because you don’t need to”. If this man had any sort of self-regard, it instantly melted that minute. He nervously started smiling and I left. 5 minutes later he called me and asked me to come back to collect my money. I did.
I decided not to be petty and left it there. But Bremen is a small town and I knew about 4 people who later worked there. My friend who had recommended me the job got screwed over, too. All of them went and received legal advice. One of them even finished in the courtroom.
As much as I can now laugh about this story, the sad reality is that many employers all around the world take advantage of the desperation of their employees. My story doesn’t even portrait the degree of desperation and need of many people. This experience showed me how important a system is, that enforces labor rights. Nevertheless, people like myself at the time, are not always aware of their rights and must be educated. We too, need to educate each other when we can. If it feels unfair, it probably is and you should speak up. I decided not to take it any further and just exit the situation. In hindsight, I think I should have filed a complaint, because he didn’t learn from this situation with me and continued to exploit other people.
Especially in times like the ones we are currently facing, people try to and do exploit people in difficult situations. My story is just one, but there are many people who are far more vulnerable, far more desperate and with far less access to receiving legal advice, than I was. We cannot support companies that shamelessly profit off of the backs of the most unfortunate. As consumers we must make it a priority that the people who are involved in creating, producing and delivering any service or product are protected. Share your knowledge and don’t stay silent. As difficult as times can get, we should avoid working for people who do not respect us as well.
As business owners and employers, we need to prioritise creating healthy, safe and reasonable working conditions for our employees. Gaining a certain level of knowledge surrounding employment law and workers rights isn’t just a nice extra to add on your CV, it’s paramount and should be taken very seriously by anyone who deals with human resources.
I don’t believe that you need to steal and deceive in order to make a profit and sustain a business. On the contrary. When you make well-being for everyone a priority, you contribute to the collective good and growth of your business. It is up to each of us to make this decision. You do not need to experience something firsthand, in order to acknowledge that it is wrong. We can also transfer this concept into many different areas of life and try to be a bit more just.
Thank you for reading my story. I hope you were able to laugh about this anecdote but also feel empowered. Don't support crooks by giving them your business or your workforce. And, don’t be a crook. If you know somebody that may enjoy reading this, feel free to send it to them. I am very grateful for your support. With Love, Gabriella.