Examples from Adelie in Southall, Royal Mail in Greenford, Sofology in Park Royal and XPO/House of Fraser in Milton Keynes
This is an article for WorkersWildWest no.7 - we distribute 2,000 copies in front of local factories, job centres and housing estates.
People reading the short reports in thgis issue of WorkersWildWest might think:
“Yeah, all they do is complain. If you don’t like it, you can find another job.”
“Things are bad, but that’s how things are.”
“You would need all workers to stick together, but that will never happen.”
“I would do something, but no one else will.”
We hear this a lot.
We also see people looking for so-called 'experts' to help them.
“Perhaps a lawyer could use the law to improve our situation”.
“The politicians will raise the minimum wage again”.
“We need journalists and the media to write about us!”.
What we don’t hear much about is groups of workers taking steps together to show management that they've had enough. We don’t hear about this, because it happens behind closed doors. The media doesn’t know about it and are not so interested unless it involves some big company names...
During the last few months we have met workers from four companies who have told us about small steps they have taken together. Not all workers got involved, but enough workers to show management some strength. They didn’t need any outside help for this, no expensive lawyers. It had some results and it created a better atmosphere at work because workers trusted each other more.
Groups of workers refused to work overtime without an extra break. Groups of workers went to the management office together, asking for better work uniforms. Group of workers complained about not being paid for their overtime. There are a thousand things groups of workers can do to create more space for themselves and get back some dignity.
We have to hear and share more of these stories. We have to start from these small steps and discuss how we can make them bigger. If you have a story to share, send it to us:
*** Adelie sandwich factory workers in Southall walk on the boss
Adelie is a medium sized factory that makes sandwiches, wraps and salads that are sold in shops, supermarkets, cafe's, aeroplanes and other businesses across the UK. They are behind lots of different brands so you've probably eaten something from Adelie without even realising it. They make 3 million products every week…
So they're not some back-yard company! But it is ironic that they promote an anti-slavery statement on their website when workers we've spoken say they are treated like slaves. The conditions at the site in Southall are probably as bad as they can get when companies largely operate legally. This means:
* minimum wage of £7.50 for most workers on the assembly lines who prepare the food; after working for the company for 5 - 10 - 15 years!
* no regular working hours even though most are permanent staff. They never know when they will finish work - it could be 4pm or 9pm, which makes childcare and family responsibilities difficult to juggle;
* overtime is paid at single rate;
* when orders are down, they are told they have to take the day off as holiday;
* they get one half an hour break and one 15 minutes break during the shift which can sometimes last as long as 14 hours. If they stay for 'overtime' they do not get an extra break;
* break times are also rushed because the time it takes to get through the changing room and into the canteen is part of the total time allowed for the break. So in reality, break times are even less than this;
* it is cold in the food prep area where workers stand for 8-14 hour shifts.
Can things get any worse?!
What workers did
* People want to work overtime because this is the only way to make ends meet. But their situation is being exploited by bosses who are getting away with paying their workers peanuts. One time, when some women workers decided to stay for overtime they asked for a third break after 10 hours. Managers refused. So workers on two lines got fed up and all clocked out at the same time. The next day, nobody said anything to them about leaving.
* Because it is food production it is cold in the factory, plus things are transported in and out, so it is also drafty. The uniforms that are given to workers don’t protect them from the cold and the rubber boots are often way too big or small. Shop-floor managers ignored many complaints about this. A group of a dozen workers had enough and went straight to the office of the main factory manager to demand better uniforms. This caused a big stir, the shop-floor manager screamed their head off, but things got moving.
* Workers decided to come together and write a letter to management about the short breaks, irregular shifts and long hours that left no time for family and a life outside work. Around 90 workers signed it, from all language groups, both temps and permanents. Management tried to invite single workers for a meeting, but initially workers were clear: “This is an issue of all of us, so speak to all of us”. Finally a meeting was called by HR. They wanted a meeting with just one worker but they insisted on at least 3. So 3 of them went, but it seems the meeting had no further results.
These workers - most of them women and migrant workers - have shown strength! It is a great achievement to get together nearly 100 colleagues to sign a letter to management. But a letter will go only so far: management is good at finding this or that reason, to quote this or that law that gives them the right to do what they want. In this situation we have to continue acting in groups, e.g. all take the full break together, all refusing to just be sent home unpaid. We can also try to form a real union, where the workers decide themselves what to do. The IWW can help forming such a union - see introduction on page […].
*** Don’t believe in Santa! - Temp workers at Royal Mail Greenford Sort Centre don’t take it lying down
Royal Mail hires casual workers for the Christmas period, mostly to sort the large number of parcels at this time of the year. A significant fraction of the parcels are from Amazon.
Most 'Christmas casuals' are hired directly by Royal Mail through a rather complicated and lengthy process. There are shifts from 6am to 2pm, 2pm to 10pm and 10pm to 6am. The hourly pay is £8.55 for Monday to Saturday day shifts, £9.55 for Sunday day shift and £10.55 for night shifts. The 40-minute break is not paid, so you only get paid for 7 hours and 20 minutes per day (which is not clear on the contract). Conditions are those of a zero-hours contract: if you have a 48 hours weekly shift (eight hours over six days), you are supposed to be available for these 48 hours, but Royal Mail does not guarantee that they will provide you with 48 hours of work.
This year, at the Greenford Parcel Sorting Centre, the morning shift was sent home early (after 4, 5 or 6 hours) many times during the first few weeks. Although workers grumbled a lot about this to each other, there did not say anything publicly when managers announced it. When management saw it was so easy to cut our hours, they did not hesitate to use the morning shift as a buffer. Apparently, the night shift always had its eight hours. Maybe the workers on night shift were a bit less accommodating. In fact, in previous years, when managers tried to send people home early on the day shift, some people did make a fuss out loud at the time and it definitely had an effect: after that, many times they kept people on for much longer, even if there was not much to do…
Only the last two weeks, close to Christmas, did we get our full shifts, and suddenly plenty of overtime was available. With the small amount of money we made over the first weeks (around £200 per week), the incentive to accept as many overtime hours as possible was strong. Overtime is paid at the same rate as regular hours though, so you have to take many hours before it really makes a difference. On the other hand, we had a bit of power now, because they really needed us to accept the overtime: the warehouse was overcrowded with parcels that had to be processed before December 23rd, and the time was too short for them to hire new staff. Also, the managers would lose their Christmas bonus if targets were not met...
Hence, the pressure increased: 'Ladies and gents, we need your help!' – 'Two more hours today! Everybody, two more hours!' – 'Those who stay two hours raise their hands... I want to see all hands up!' and so on and so forth. At some point, probably encouraged by the absolute power he had used over us during the first few weeks, the line manager went a bit too far. He pressurised several women by telling them: 'You stay two more hours! I don't care if you have to go home and take care of your baby. You still have time to arrange for another carer.' – 'What do you mean you have other things to do? Change your plans then. It's all about flexibility here.' – 'You can't stay for two more hours? Then don't come back tomorrow! What's your name?'
One day, a group of us, mostly women, had had enough. Being on a zero-hours contract does not mean you are a slave – you do have rights: for example, overtime is not mandatory, and one should not be bullied for refusing it. A British co-worker went to speak with the shift manager in front of all the other managers. She told him he had no right to bully us. He said she could not talk for the others – but she rightly answered that she could perfectly talk for us as we all agreed on the matter (only, her English was better than ours).
Discussions between us began on the shop floor and were continued in the canteen during the break. We thought about bringing all the kids to the warehouse and organize a nursery there. We had a good laugh thinking of the managers having to manage all these kids! We talked about a collective letter of complaint signed by all of us. Several women who had accepted the overtime under pressure decided not to stay after all. Despite all the pressure, around one third of the workers left at the end of the normal shift.
As a result of this collective protest and our visible anger, the pressure for overtime decreased slightly in the following days. But more importantly, we changed as a result of this confrontation: we would go and talk to each other, asking a colleague if she was asked to stay, or telling someone she had the right to say no, that nothing would happen to her, etc. It felt much better! Two days later, they even offered to pay the break for those accepting at least one hour of overtime. Not all workers established a link between this concession by management and our anger of the previous days – but it certainly was not Santa Claus who had decided to pay the break... We had forced them to make this concession, and there is no reason why we could not have got more out of them!
*** Sofology drivers in Premier Park, Park Royal: Road rage
Workers in the Sofology warehouse in Premier Park (Park Royal) don´t have an easy life. Sofology is a sofa company that delivers furniture all around London. Workers must start working very early and sometimes they don´t know when their shift is going to finish, specially if they have to deliver goods to places that are far away. But if workers arrive 5 minutes late management gives them big trouble! Disciplinaries are used to spread fear amongst the workers. Because the wages are low, workers need to do overtime to make ends meet, but Sofology doesn’t always pay the overtime hours.
Both agency and permanent workers have been angry about wages and working conditions, specially when it came to unpaid overtime. The company was scared of losing control: Some workers where even talking about joining a union! So they did a big bosses meeting, with managers coming from all over the country to talk with the workers, while some union members where at the gates putting extra pressure on the company. They promised the workers that all the overtime hours would be paid and that their complaints would be heard. As soon as it seemed that workers could start to organise themselves against the company, management reacted by giving concessions.
*** XPO / House of Fraser warehouse in Milton Keynes: Workers from Bulgaria draw a line
House of Fraser is a major department store chain with around 60 stores in the UK. Their warehouse in Milton Keynes is run by the logistics company XPO - the same company that runs the M&S warehouse in Neasden - which they want to close down. XPO hires agency staff through an agency called StaffLine. During peak season, between October and December, StaffLine hires a large amount of workers directly from Bulgaria.
House of Fraser, XPO and StaffLine hope that they can squeeze the workers from Bulgaria to the max. They do this by making the workers more dependent on the company:
* In the contract between StaffLine and House of Fraser they say that only 1/4 of the 500 workers from Bulgaria have to be able to speak English. Without proper language skills they think you are less likely to speak up or change your job;
* StaffLine organises the accommodation for the workers. The side-entrance door of the hostel in Luton town centre even has a sign saying ‘StaffLine’. They hope that the fear of not only losing your job, but also your room would keep workers quiet.
* Although they don’t expect workers to speak English they don’t issue them contracts in Bulgarian and they don’t explain their ‘banked hours’ system to them.
* They say that workers are guaranteed 30 hours pay every week, even if they initially work less hours. It is difficult for workers to get proof of how many hours they actually worked. When the peak season starts, the company says that workers ‘owe the company hours’ and ask them to work overtime. Workers said that they worked up to 72 hours per week.
* StaffLine also kicked people out without notice or disciplinary procedures. A group of four workers were kicked out for allegedly ‘giggling’ during the one minutes silence on Remembrance Day, when workers were gathered on the warehouse shop-floor.
With all this pressure on people you would expect that workers do whatever management tells them. But at some point a group of eight workers had enough. They spoke to their co-workers and at the end of November they told management that the majority of workers - 60 to 70 of them - would stop working crazy overtime. They also asked to see their ‘banked hours’. Management reacted by easing the pressure on workers and making promises.
Nevertheless, at the end of December a lot of workers were not paid their last week’s pay and their outstanding holiday pay. Some workers went back to their husbands and children in Bulgaria, some workers moved to different towns in the UK. We left it too late - it would be easier if a bigger group of workers would still be in Milton Keynes to demand the outstanding wages. We should be prepared for the next peak season, when new workers come from Bulgaria and tell them right from the start what last year’s problems were.