Or the Great Plumbing Scam as I was going to name this post! Who was it who first coined the phrase “Modern Life is Rubbish”? I’ve tried googling it to find the derivation of the phrase, but I couldn’t find the answer and instead found all manner of uses of the phrase, such as its use by Blur as an album title.
Life was much simpler when I was growing up – or so it seemed. I grew up in a small village in Wales. When my parents needed a tradesman, like a plumber or a carpenter, they could find one through the village grapevine – either someone living in the village or nearby. If they couldn’t find someone through word of mouth, they would just look up in the Yellow Pages and book a local tradesman. This was one of the great advantages of living in a small community. Of course, there wasn’t as much choice and therefore the tradesmen operating in that community had a bit of a monopoly, but the system worked.
It’s said that London is a collection of villages, and with the rise of social media a whole virtual community is opened up to us. There are facebook groups and other social media sites for local recommendations that take the place of the village grapevine, such as this one. In fact, the internet itself has opened up numerous other ways in which tradesmen can advertise, including comparison sites and ratings sites like Trusted Trader or Rated People. However, more is not necessarily better. When I needed a builder for a small job last year I went onto a number of these sites and entered my details, but many of the sites needed me to tell them how much I was prepared to pay for the job to be done, and I simply had no idea what the going rate was. Other sites didn’t need this, just the details of the job, but having entered my details no-one contacted me. People told me that many builders and tradesmen didn’t want to take on small jobs, and there was so much work to go round that they waited for the big jobs like building a conservatory that obviously paid more.
So when my bathroom loo was leaking recently resulting in a soaked bathroom carpet, I needed a plumber and fast. I turned to social media for recommendations but came up blank. So I resorted to the trusted method of my parents and opened up the Yellow Pages. I had the naïve idea that in there I might be able to find a small, reliable, family-run local firm, called something like Pete the Plumber, that had been operating in Walthamstow for years! Yet although there were numerous adverts in the plumbing section, there was nothing that fitted the bill. Having no idea which firm to choose amongst the plethora of adverts, I decided to opt for one that had a local Walthamstow number, rather than a huge firm that might be based miles away.
Many of the adverts stated that they were “local” plumbers, or East London plumbers. Looking back I realise my mistake – I thought the titles “East London Plumbers” or “East London Local Plumbers” were the names of the firms. I chose one that advertised different numbers for the different areas, Walthamstow being one of them, and thought that I was ringing through to a Walthamstow firm if I rang the Walthamstow number.
I rang to ask for a quote. I should have been wary when they quoted me a price of nearly £150 +VAT to come out the same day, and nearly £130 +VAT to come out the next day, but when I said I was going to ring round to get other quotes they then quoted £94 +VAT. So I booked them, and the plumber duly turned up the next day. After 20 minutes he stated that it needed a part which he would have to buy and come back on another day. The invoice he wrote out was from a firm called “RIGHTIO LIMITED” which were based in Birmingham. Hardly the local Walthamstow firm I thought I was booking. Looking back at the advert I see that at the bottom of the advert it states “Powered by Rightio”. I had not noticed this initially and had no idea what it meant.
The Rightio plumber came back two days later to fit the new part. As I was unable to get a day off work I had to arrange for a kind friend to hang around and let the plumber in. When I came back from work I found that rather than the problem being fixed, it was actually worse than before. So I rang up to get them back out. I had to arrange to take a day off work (which was no mean feat at short notice) and use up a valuable Annual Leave day for their 9-12 slot. Mid-morning I got a call saying that the plumber had been “delayed” and now would not turn up until the afternoon. Mid-afternoon I got another call stating that the plumber was further delayed, in fact so delayed that he now would not make it at all and couldn’t attend until next week. Being unable to take another day off work easily this was not acceptable to me, but the person in the call centre – because that’s what it was rather than a family-run local firm – didn’t seem to appreciate that this was a problem. She told me that there was only one “engineer” in “my area” working today, and that person had been held up all day on an emergency call. So I asked if she could get someone out from a nearby area – as the advert listed Hackney, Chingford, and East Ham, all of which are nearby to Walthamstow. She stated again that there was only one person working in my area. So I asked her what she thought my area was – and she said “Enfield”! She also told me that when I booked a date and time, they were only “advising” me of the available time slot and they had no contractual agreement that meant that they had to turn up on that date and time. And if I didn’t like it, I could write to their Customer Relations department. Great.
I do feel like I’ve been conned; where I thought I was booking a local firm I was in fact calling a national call centre that just employs people to work for them on a contract basis. I suspected that they pay them on a zero-hour contract basis and probably give them nothing in the way of employee benefits, and the plumbers they use may be on the books of many of these call-centre plumbing firms and can pick and choose what work they accept. If this is the arrangement, the call-centres have no control over what hours the plumbers work, and it’s cheaper to fob the customer off and tell them that there is no-one available rather than pay the plumber overtime. Looking into it, I found a term for this system: a “gig economy” and found this article about a landmark ruling against Pimlico Plumbers from a couple of months ago.
In the meantime, I still have a leaking loo, a soaked carpet and am waiting a call-back to see if they can find someone to come out on Sunday, but I’m not holding out much hope. Speaking to friends about this, many have similar tales of woe. Is the problem just that we are in London? Is it much simpler and easier to arrange tradesmen if you live in a village in Devon or a city like Leeds? Or is this a symptom of modern life? If the latter, then modern life certainly is rubbish!