Kwikfit is a ubiquitous car servicing and repair company. Established in the 1970s, the company has grown significantly, with over 600 depots across the UK. But an examination of working practices and conditions within its vast array of garages reveals it’s not just vehicles that require an urgent fix.
Nick joined the company in January last year. When he first started at the depot, his manager was on holiday, so the operations manager was running the store. ‘He used to call me “tablet bitch” because I was the new guy with the tablet logging the work,’ recalls Nick.
Nick alleges he suffered a litany of bullying and intimidation from the outset. On his second day in the job, he says his operations manager shouted in his face in a bid to increase the speed of his work. ‘It was first thing in the morning. Doors had just opened and we had four cars in. The ops manager starts shouting at me, saying I’m not working on the tablet fast enough.’
Winter is a particularly challenging time. ‘It gets really cold. There’s no heating or anything. It’s been quite chilly these past few weeks.’ He’s speaking to me while wearing four layers and says even this isn’t enough to withstand the bitter cold that sweeps through his depot. ‘I’ll sit in the staff room just to keep myself warm.’
‘I remember one time in November, I couldn’t feel my fingers. All the equipment was frozen. There are times when the compressor actually freezes. Everything in the building runs off that compressor and when it stops working, everything else just jams up. The tyre machine wasn’t working. You couldn’t get tyres off the ramps.’
When Callum started as a tyre fitter at the company five years ago, he was shocked to find similar conditions. ‘The roof was often leaking so badly that, by midday, I would be almost completely soaked,’ he tells Tribune. On one occasion, he was forced to work in a centre while the roof was removed. ‘We had dust, pieces of brickwork and concrete falling on top of us. We had an excavator and a cherry picker in the middle of the workshop that we had to navigate around. It was terrible.’
Squeezing Every Last Drop
Workers across the company have just received a five percent pay rise, taking the pay of a basic tyre fitter to around £20,000. With inflation at ten percent, this amounts to a real terms pay cut to a salary already seen as inadequate by workers like Callum. He recently became an assistant manager and supervisor, earning an additional £100 a week. This year’s pay rise for supervisors equates to an extra fifteen pence an hour. ‘You don’t actually get any help from the so-called pay rise. It’s preposterous,’ he says.
Nick tries not to spend when he can avoid it but even being as frugal as he can, he’s left with around £80 before his next wage comes in. Others in his depot, particularly those with family and caring responsibilities, fare far worse. ‘One of my colleagues is raising three kids. As soon as he gets paid, he just pays all his bills off. By the time he’s paid everything off, he’s completely skint for the rest of the month. In fact, he’s often borrowing money off people, which means his wages go towards paying off his existing debts.’
But it isn’t only pay. Workers also report the company denying them lunch breaks in pursuit of profit. Kwikfit’s system entitles employees to a one-hour unpaid break each day but numerous workers Tribune has spoken to allege they are routinely denied these breaks. Mark, a Kwikfit manager, confirms that workers are only paid for eight and a half of the nine and a half hours they work on typical day—whether they get the hour break for lunch or not.
Nick has repeatedly attempted to take a lunch break, but he’s often called upon to perform tasks. ‘I’ll be having my lunch and a manager will come in and say, “what the fuck are you doing?” Most people at my depot have just accepted this is the way the company operates.’ Tribune has seen multiple messages showing Kwikfit workers being threatened with disciplinary action for blocking diary slots to allow for breaks. ‘Kwikfit employees are not paid for a whole hour. The depots should either be closed or workers should be paid for their labour,’ Mark says.
Mark has been at Kwikfit for over ten years, working his way up the ranks. ‘I started doing things correctly,’ he says, explaining how he makes provision for workers to take an hour of breaktime on every shift. ‘They don’t like how I work but I work how the company should. I’m following their own policies.’ Supervisors and managers like Mark are expected to work fourteen days in a row to cover holidays and sickness. They are often working overtime but not getting paid.
And it’s not just managers. Callum alleges that he was expected to work late into the evenings by his former manager when he was relatively new to the company, sometimes as late as ten at night for no additional pay. ‘I was still on a six-month probation, so I felt like I was unable to speak up. The manager made my life very hard,’ he explains. Callum’s wife was pregnant at the time, and he was worried about losing his job, more so because his manager had a reputation for frequently dismissing workers.
A Problem at the Top
Callum never expected the work to be glamorous, but he says he expected basic health and safety protections and respect from management. For him, the grievance system is not fit for purpose.
‘You’re then forced to work in a difficult environment as the person you raised a grievance about makes your life extremely difficult to the point where you’re forced to work in another centre,’ he explains. He alleges that workers have been dismissed for raising a grievance about a superior—an allegation which, if true, would be unlawful. Tribune put this allegation to Kwikfit, which stated it ‘has clear process available to all employees and investigates all submissions.’
An examination of dozens of employee reviews on Glassdoor and Indeed lends further credence to employee complaints; comments reference a lack of training, a toxic work culture, widespread bullying and poor pay and conditions. Mark is clear that things must change. ‘We are Kwikfit’s most valuable asset. It’s the men and women on the ground that keep the company operating. It’s about time we were treated with some basic decency and respect.’
The workplace practices alleged by Kwikfit employees—dangerous conditions, bullying, denial of rest breaks, wage theft—constitute not only breaches of contract but, in some cases, health and safety legislation and other laws meant to protect workers from unscrupulous bosses. And though these alleged abuses are shocking, they are far from an isolated case. Instead, they are a symptom of a failure of government enforcement of already weak workplace rights.
Kwikfit workers have often felt powerless in the face of these injustices. The company is notoriously difficult to organise in. Workers can be geographically isolated and many fear that speaking up could lead to dismissal. But things are starting to change. A burning anger over an array of workplace issues is fuelling a growing resolve to demand better. Aided by groups like Garage Workers Unite, these workers are making clear—to their colleagues and the wider public—that their experiences epitomise a culture of neglect where wellbeing is routinely disregarded.
Unionisation may be a long way off, but workers are building links with colleagues in other depots, and sharing vital information about the rights and protections they are entitled to. Callum has recently joined Unite the union and hopes other workers follow suit. ‘If a union were to get behind us, if the information that some of us know was widely publicised, I would definitely say that most workers would take part in a strike. We need change.’
A spokesperson for KwikFit gave a statement to Tribune:
‘We are extremely proud of our centre employees and value them highly. Many progress to become managers and then on to more senior roles in the company. As they are the lifeblood of our business, we place great importance on ensuring that centre managers and their teams are fully supported. We gather staff feedback regularly and also have clear whistleblowing processes through which any kind of grievance can be instantly reported by employees, either under their own name or anonymously. All submissions are investigated and we take action where required. We urge any employee who has a concern they have not shared through these routes to do so in order for us to support them with any necessary action.’