An interview with a Polish agency worker who attempted to organise a reduction of workloads in a Tesco distribution centre in Ireland.
This interview, done by Jasoslaw Urbanski, was published in July 2005 in the Polish monthly Nowy Robotnik and in Wildcat no.74, summer 2005.
“We are picking 800 - No more!”
How did you get to Ireland?
For ten month I had worked for a company in Poznan/Poland as a salesman. After they hadn’t renewed my work contract I decided to go abroad in order to earn some money. A friend had told me that wages in Ireland are not that bad and that there aren’t any bigger problems to find a job. I decided quite quickly. I arrived in Dublin with 100 Euros in my pockets. I was lucky to be able to sleep in friends” houses and not having had to pay for hotels. My expenditures I reduced to buying cheap food.
How did you start working at Tesco?
I looked for a job in all kind of ways: I applied at shops which announced ‘Employee wanted’, I used the service of the job centre FAS (which is similar to Polish job offices although much more effective and friendly to the job seekers) and I asked acquaintances. At the FAS I met two Polish women who told me about the job agency Grafton. Recently this company started its activities in Poland, as well, in order to recruit workers for the bigger companies, amongst others for Tesco. It was a Friday when I arrived with my CV in the Grafton office; on Monday I already had a concrete meeting with the manager and on Tuesday I started working at Tesco Distribution in the storage depot. You have to admit that the work agencies work quickly.
How did the irregularities and exploitation at Tesco look like?
In the huge depot where I work now since seven month there are workers who have a permanent contract with Tesco and workers employed by an agency. I belong to the latter group, together with a lot of other Polish and some people from Slovakia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Hungary and a few Irish. The permanents are mainly from Ireland plus some black people (due to political correctness1), Russians, Turks, French. And also a Polish guy who had started working before Poland joined the EU. After a short time I realised that these two groups (temps/permanents) not only differ in terms of nationalities. The permanents earn at least 12.50 Euros per hour, depending on how long you work on a certain job in the company. Every few month they got a wage increase. We still only get 9.52 Euros, although some of us work for the agency for over a year now. No wage rises! Due to that we only get about 360 Euros per week, although we do the same work. The permanents get extra money on Christmas and on Easter, we don’t. The permanents work every second, we have to work every Saturday. There are a lot of these little differences. Every temp worker dreams about getting a permanent contract at Tesco and to be freed from the agency. But that would nearly require a miracle. Tesco has an elaborated policy and knows for sure that people from Eastern Europe would work happily for 7.60 per hour (minimum wage in Ireland). In addition to that Tesco gets rid of the responsibility by employing people through temp agencies. The temp agencies hire us, they pay us, hand out the weekly pay slips, shift us from one depot to the other, according to the clients requirements, they pay our social security and compensation in cases of work accidents. In legal terms we are only temporary staff. What that means for our rights is difficult to say, even for lawyers. In these times of migration they were clever to install this system which enables them to exploit the workers from the East to the max, them not knowing their rights and desperately looking for a job. We worked within this system up to the moment where the managers started to enforce higher daily work norms, a higher work load. Roughly spoken our work consists in sorting products. We pick stuff from Euro-palettes and sort it into specific containers which are then delivered to nearly all Tesco supermarkets in Ireland. Our main task is ‘picking’. We know that the Irish permanents picked about 500 boxes a day. That was before the extension of the EU. If they picked more than this unofficial norm they got some extra money. When the Polish arrived it was said that 750 boxes per shift are supposed to be picked. I can remember that number from my first working days of my career at Tesco. About two month ago the managers announced in informal meetings that it would be fine to pick 800 or 850. Those who dreamt most vividly about a permanent contract at Tesco picked already 1400 boxes and a guy from Slovakia broke the record by picking 1900 box during a seven and a half hour night-shift. One month ago, when they announced that the norm is now 900, we - six guys, all from Poland - went to the shift manager and asked him about what was going on. During the training period we had seen videos for hours saying that we are supposed to take care of our backs and now we are supposed to pick 900. He said that we could go home, if we don’t like the work, and that a lot of people are only waiting to do our jobs.
How did you react to the attempt to squeeze so much out of you?
On the next day I went to work with my t-shirt, where I had written in big letters: We are picking 800. No more. Although it was Saturday, the top manager appeared straight away and called me into his office. He called the boss of Grafton there too. Then they both put me through the ringer for about two hours. Why had I written that? Whether my back hurt? What my colleagues thought about it? They were very nice, careful and polite. They even ordered me a vegetarian pizza because I had missed my lunch break.
During our meeting I got an SMS for my work mates in the hall “We are with you”, which was really important. The guys even came up to the office door and let it be clearly heard that they were there! I insisted that the norm should not be any higher than 800 boxes. They asked me not to wear this controversial t-shirt any more. I asked the Grafton representative what he would do if I didn’t take it off. He said then they may have to sack me. Then I threatened him with the union, at which point he very quickly changed the subject.
That was a good day. We were all sure of our - so it seemed - successful resistance. The Irish showed us solidarity, when they saw my t-shirt they gave the thumbs up and mentioned Lech Walesa. They gave some good advice. The next thing were the people from the SIPTU Union (Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union) introducing themselves to us and telling us, what most of us already knew - that we are exploited and it would be time for us to organise! They encouraged us to join the union on mass so that they could successfully represent us. I had known of the SIPTU for a few months and had even tried to had in a membership application, but Grafton, as my employer, had blocked my membership. It came out later that they had no right to do this.
What happened then?
The following week one of the top SIPTU activists visited our workplace. Temp workers from all the three shifts had a meeting with him. The guy told us they would help us. SIPTU is the largest union in Ireland, one often hears of their actions on the radio, there are adverts for them in the busses. They are very active. They had already helped us with some small questions, after an announcement by the SIPTU at the Jobs Agency (previously Job Shop) the guys had immediately got their P60 accounts, which they needed for their tax year calculations.
How many of you joined the union?
I that that during this time half the temp workers at Tesco joined the SIPTU. Maybe a third. Many workers hesitated, partly because they were only working here for the holidays and would go back to their own countries in three months. Others were afraid to stick their necks out too far. There were also those for whom the 3.75 Euros membership fee per week was simply too much. They didn’t understand that they could win more by joining. At the moment there is a new employment law coming in Ireland. Situations like the one we find ourselves in at the moment, will be illegal: that we do the exact same work as the permanent workers, but earn 200 Euros less per week! The SIPTU are doing intense lobbying work to change this sick situation.
What is your daily life like at Tesco at the moment?
The SIPTU are currently preparing a complaint against Grafton and Jobs about all their irregularities. The next thing to go to the employment tribunal is about the sacking of our colleagues last week, who did not reach the imposed norms. It was cleverly arranged. Tesco told the temp agencies which workers had to go. The agency told the guy in a very rude way, that he didn’t have any more work, AND they told him at 6 in the morning in front of the gates to the warehouse when he went to sign in for his shift. There were two such cases. Legally the agency should find the person another job, for at least the same wage. They also have to pay any time in-between, if they do not find new work right away. Most people don’t know that, which benefits the agency. If you don’t demand any holiday pay, you can be sure the agency won’t remember to give you this all by themselves!
For three weeks now the daily norm is now 1000 boxes for us! Finally it became clear that our resistance was not successful and our joy unfounded. The manager invited us all one by one to a meeting as said, like old friends, we all have to achieve more, and it is an order from above, that they can’t influence at all. Sure they like us and all, but if it doesn’t suit us, then they will have to get rid of us and get new workers. And finally, when some of us can pick 1200 or even 1400, why can’t the rest of us pick 1000? With this they managed to talk many of us into picking 1000 and more and more of the guys are now doing this. And this really puts pressure on our backs! There are only a few of us remaining, who are staying on the 800 limit. We are ready to act, but we counting on the union helping us.
How do you think this conflict will end up?
After the success of the ‘t-shirt action’ I wanted to just go ahead and form a temp workers committee at Tesco. We even met at work to discuss this. I though of a press conference to really publicise the issue widely. It is clear that Tesco is afraid of public criticism. When it came out how badly they were treating the workers from the east, it damaged their carefully constructed image. But most of our circle thought that it wouldn’t make sense, we wouldn’t have a chance against such a huge colossus. There was only a handful of us radicals, actually only three who were prepared to risk our jobs in order to preserve our dignity and - and a healthy spine. Afterwards the idea was taken care of by the committee. But I think it will perhaps also bring some results, if we rely on the SIPTU. They are the professionals. They have got employees, offices, support amongst the people. As an anarchist I do not get along with everyone, which is not the case for the SIPTU. And if the agency tells me that I will not be working for Tesco any more, maybe then I will chain myself to the forklift truck. Since they sacked one of us for not fulfilling the norm, I have been going to work with my t-shirt again: We are picking 800. No more. I am determined to resist until the end. Luckily I have not fallen victim to the slave syndrome that has spread amongst our countrymen!
[prol-position news #4, 12/2005] www.prol-position.net. Edited by libcom for accuracy.
- 1. libcom note: we are unsure as to what is meant here, but it could be unclear due to language barrier issues