This article (discovered via this excellent post at Marginal Utility) describes in a chillingly casual way the Smile Or Die-style employment practices currently being implemented by Pret A Manger in London and elsewhere. By way of recruitment on the basis of a "cheerfulness" assessment and a "teamwork" ethos built on peer pressured positivity and micro-monitoring, "Pret has managed to build productive, friendly crews out of relatively low-paid, transient employees. And its workers seem pretty happy about it", according to a New York Times journalist, after his jaunt around the company's aspirational granary outlets with its CEO. Well obviously they "seem" happy if their jobs depend on it (and even during your lunch hour you might be unmasked by a senior functionary), but that isn’t a cause for celebration. And if people really are happy to be used as low-paid, disposable service fodder, then that’s even worse. It’s a recipe for exploitation.

In the shaping of workers into tasteful human commodities, as in the treatment of the edible products, latent contradictions are made palatable by a calorific dollop of marketing mayonnaise. Just as Pret wraps its standardised food preparation process in a cosy narrative where every sandwich is apparently unique and "handmade", so also its employees are urged in their transactions with aspirational lunchers not to "hide” their "true character", while at the same time they are fitted as generic components on a performative production line. The result is an impression of synthetic authenticity which has migrated from the wholesome packaging of the food to the corporate seasoning of bodies and minds, whether they like it or not.

I’m not a regular Pret visitor myself (how did you guess?), but still, this set-up is surely a target for some sort of counter-alienation intervention. For instance, how about a campaign of one-off purchases made while showing staff specially prepared cue cards? "Don't worry, I won't demand a side-order of smalltalk with my tea." "Workers have a right to be miserable". "Nod if you are being held hostage by the Happy Police". Admittedly this wouldn’t of itself bring the great capitalist smoothie machine grinding to a halt, but at least it might draw momentary attention to the artificiality of such apparently natural interactions and communicate a hint of genuine - not painted on - solidarity between customer and labourer, which would be a start.