SOME are calling 2016 the gloomiest year since the gloom index began, but hey, it’s Christmas, and people shop. And who am I to be a lefty killjoy? So despite Scrooge-like wage raises, despite Trump, despite the post-Brexit blues, UK consumers are spending five per cent more than last year, because British tradition dictates that there’s only one way to escape your economic troubles: buy it on the never never.

Shops, cafes, restaurants, online retailers and cowboy delivery are booming as if the apocalypse was happening somewhere else. But these are still cut-throat times. And, coincidentally, retail workers, waiting staff, bartenders, warehouse workers at online firms and post-privatisation mail delivery drivers all have something in common. All are likely victims of precarious work. Low-paid, unsecured temporary employment is endemic in these professions. Christmas is boom time for the gig economy and for radical exploitation.

In Scotland, a spirited campaign led by teenage and twenty-something workers is fighting to raise awareness of this injustice. Better Than Zero activists are using high-profile stunts this Christmas to target “bad employers” on Scotland’s high streets and industrial estates.

Some bad employers are small businesses that need to grasp every last penny of profit at Christmas time. But many of the rottenest offenders are multibillion-pound conglomerates that you’ll find in Tokyo, Rome and Baghdad as well as Glasgow. Cafe chains like Caffé Nero and Costa, franchises like McDonald’s and superstores like ASDA and Tesco could easily afford to pay well.

They choose not to, because shareholders and profit-making comes first. Yet high street companies – and online retailers like Amazon – are super brand-conscious. They depend on their reputation to sell us products or experiences, and their websites are plastered in their “ethical business” credentials. Ho ho ho!

Theoretically, they should be extra vulnerable to challenges by their employees, who are among the lowest-paid and most exploited in Britain. After all, these firms don’t really manufacture things: they manufacture the brand, which is really positive emotional associations with products. But they’re creating this warm human glow while dehumanising their workers.

How do they get away with it? In a word, silence. Politicians and mainstream media haven’t either the time or the inclination to do investigative work at the bottom end of British capitalism. High street firms employ huge PR, media and legal teams to preserve their tender and fuzzy “ethical-hipster” reputation. Workplace bullying and insecure contracts help to terrorise those who want to speak out. The worst part is that many young workers are simply becoming acclimatised to taking shit from little Hitlers in a nametag.

The message we hear about the British high street is tightly controlled. We see the John Lewis Christmas ad, the white-toothed smiling staff and the twinkling lights. We’re trained not to see the reality. That’s why Better Than Zero’s campaign is a valuable reminder of the dark side of the Christmas boom.

Better Than Zero, for me, also highlights the future of defending ourselves in work. Trade unions grew up with Britain as the workshop of the world, and their mode of organisation grew up around the production of things, because Britain produced things. Later, the unions adapted to white-collar employment in the mass public-sector bureaucracy.

However, increasingly, Britain doesn’t produce things. Britain has lost another 385,500 manufacturing jobs since the crash of 2008. The traditional service occupations aren’t looking healthy either. Public-sector employment is also at its lowest since 1999, and local authorities in particular have shed 700,000 jobs since 2010. We’ll fight that, but even recovering these lost jobs will be a major battle and we’re swimming against the current with a Tory government in charge.

Manufacturing and the public sector have something in common: they are not brand conscious. Trade union strategy here thus depends on sheer industrial and financial muscle. The new, burgeoning forms of retail and services are, by contrast, brand-obsessed. They are mobile, media-savvy and self-consciously “aware” of what customers think about them.

To recover its old strength, trade unionism is beginning to adapt accordingly. We need to use their image-consciousness against the bad employers to raise conditions across the board.

Groups like Better Than Zero are doing precisely this. Its activists are young, internet-native and focused on changing attitudes.

But they also need us. It’s our own shopping, eating and drinking merriment experience that’s the real stake in this. The contemporary high street corporation, every bar and restaurant, creates a fantasy world of fairy lights, nostalgia and designer ethics so we can feel comfortable spending money we don’t have. Behind the scenes there’s low pay, insecurity, bullying management and astronomical profits. We’re half aware of it. But often we choose to embrace the fantasy instead. It just seems nicer.

By choosing to notice the workers who make the Christmas experience happen, we’ll play our part in holding these companies to account. The next time you’re complaining about some harassed serf’s lack of deference in a cafe or a store, think: am I part of the problem here?

Ultimately, we need a better economic model. Every year, Christmas comes along to bail out the British economy, and it’s not sustainable: there’s a crunch to come. However, the retail and hospitality economy is here to stay. And we ignore it at our peril, because it’s likely to be a decisive battleground in the future fight for decent jobs and social justice.