An agency worker recalls several years' temping in London, trying to help his co-workers and do as little work as possible.
Since the 1980s there has been a determined attack on wages and working conditions by employers and the government. Following the defeat of the miners strike, and then other organised groups of workers like the printers and the dockers, these attacks have been very successful.
Myself and my friends are part of probably the first generation to be less well off than our parents. The falling level of real wages is particularly apparent looking at house prices. Average house prices used to be around 2.5 times the average annual wage1 - now they are around 7.5 times the average wage2 . That's not to mention the fact that more than 50% of people earn less than the mean average wage.
A big part of this assault has been casualisation - destroying permanent jobs and replacing them with low paid, casual agency workers with no employment rights. This is great for employers, who can take on and sack workers at will, and keep wages down by simply replacing anyone who asks for more or causes trouble. But it's a tragedy for us workers, who are left permanently vulnerable, precarious, constantly having to worry about our next assignment and our next pay cheque, whether we will be able to pay our rent (getting a mortgage or buying somewhere doesn't even come into the equation).
Health and safety also suffers, as workers can't speak up about unsafe conditions because we can be replaced in an instant. This has had tragic consequences, none more so than the killing of Simon Jones, an agency worker in Brighton decapitated on his first day working on the docks.3
With agency work, the employee is doubly screwed, as you have two sets of employers extracting profit from you. In one of my jobs I saw my agency's invoice - while I was getting £7 an hour they were charging £15.
On top of all that, most of the work that is actually done - and certainly pretty much all the work I have ever done - is completely socially useless. Meaning that in a rationally organised economy it would not have to be done. Only the madness of the profit motive means that so many of us have to waste our lives doing these pointless, monotonous tasks which benefit nothing except our employers' bank balances.
So all this being the case, I didn't really have much respect for temp agencies, or the employers who hire them. As well as my being naturally quite a lazy bastard, I decided that I was going to try to resist this state of affairs.
Where possible, I tried to get involved in collective organising at work, to try to improve the position of myself and my co-workers. And where this was not possible, I tried to do the absolute bare minimum of work. This was not, however, merely a selfish act. While much maligned, the lazy worker actually provides a great service to society as a whole, and to his/her fellow worker.
Let me explain: Slow work means more workers are needed. More workers means lower unemployment. Lower unemployment means greater demand for labour. Greater demand for labour means higher wages.4 So if all workers were as lazy as me, we would all be a lot better off!
I should point out here, however that I always made sure I didn't let down my colleagues, and never minded going the extra mile to help them out. What I tried to do where I could was encourage everyone to resist work and lower our workloads together (as opposed to just make others work harder to cover for one slacker).
I'm writing this account of my experiences in the hopes that it might give others ideas on ways to collectively or individually resist the imposition of work, or contribute in some small way towards a general undermining of the work ethic and hopefully helping to foster just that little bit more workers' solidarity. I also hope that more people might be inspired to write their accounts of work resistance - just click submit content above!
In the year 2000 I left school, not having any work experience apart from a paper round, but I knew how to use a computer so I figured I would look for work in an office.
Not seeing much in the way of permanent jobs, I registered with a couple of temp agencies, and soon enough was offered a job in an immigration department of the Home Office as a filing clerk on £6 an hour.
Going in on my first day, I realised I wasn't going to be living the life of an average civil servant. The job was in a dingy basement garage, with stickers across the walls and ceiling saying "warning: do not touch: asbestos". In the garage were racks of shelves, many of them stuffed with files. It turned out that builders had moved all of the files from an old facility to this new storing place. However, when they moved them some files were out as they were still active and still in use. The builders packed in the files as tightly as possible on the shelves, so when workers tried to return the files they had out to the new shelves none of them would fit.
So I was hired with three other temps (a postal worker who had been made redundant, a student and an Australian), and our job was to take all these thousands of files off the shelves and re-stack them, leaving a bit of a gap on each shelf. Up to that point it was the most ridiculous thing I had ever had to do.
After starting, and initially working very hard, I noticed the other workers taking it pretty easy. Realising there was no point working harder than any of them, I slowed down as well. The work environment we had was crap, the pay was terrible, and the actual job was mindnumbingly boring, so there was no point killing yourself over it. And a key thing was that the slower we worked, the longer we would have a job for, and so ultimately the more money we would get.
Luckily, the basement was such a dump that the manager hardly ever came to check up on us. One or two permanent workers came down to see how we were getting on once or twice a week, usually in the middle of the day.
So informally, without really even talking about it us temps started getting in later and later, taking longer and longer lunch breaks, and leaving earlier and earlier. Not to mention just hanging out during the day, chatting, reading the papers, smoking, pushing each other round in the file carts and generally just having quite a nice time, while still of course filling in our time sheets for a full day.
We would also read some of the case files. They were mostly very sad stories of asylum seekers who had been viciously persecuted in their home countries, some being raped or having their families killed, but who had their applications rejected simply because they did not submit their forms on time. While talking to other people there, I found out that in many cases applicants were not aware of deadlines, and did not have access to translators who could have helped them complete them. A couple of the other temps had quite a negative opinion of asylum seekers, thinking that many of them were "bogus", until working here when the brutality of the asylum system was very apparent.
Pretty soon we got into a nice rhythm of working slowly and mucking about a lot. We ended up working there for about three months, with a couple of staff changes, when if we'd gone through it at full pace it probably would have taken us about two weeks!
I had a few other very short-term assignments in various different places; I don't remember them all. In some ways casual work suited my lifestyle at the time: I was not that interested in working, was not spending much money (I was was living in squats) and so would save up during assignments then take holidays - often going to big international anticapitalist demonstrations abroad like Gothenberg and Genoa, amongst others.
After getting back from the anti-G8 riots in Genoa, I got a job as an administrative assistant in a film archive. The work was okay, I had to log films in and out of database and deal with customer enquiries over the phone and e-mail. I would also check out films I was personally interested in, watch them and then return them without logging it on the system.
I could do the work pretty quickly, then would mess around on the internet, chat to co-workers and take an excessive amount of cigarette breaks.
After a couple of months of of working there, the (mostly female) permanent staff began a campaign of rolling industrial action: a half day strike once a week in support of a pay offer and improved conditions, including better maternity rights. People didn't talk much about this in the run-up to the action, and my supervisor told me to come into work as usual, despite her being in union member who planned to strike herself. I said that I wouldn't cross a picket line, but was told by the union members I should come into work.
I didn't, and instead joined the workers' demonstration outside the office, and went to work in the afternoon. After this apparently the team manager said I should be replaced, but my supervisor and some other team members went into his office saying I should be kept on. So one day I was given my week's notice, but the following I was told I could stay on. My employment there ended anyhow after a couple of weeks - I don't know if this was quicker than it would have been had I not joined the strike, there was no real way of knowing.
My next long-term assignment was as a data entry clerk for a charity. My job was to update the supporter address database. It was ridiculously dull - seven or eight hours sat in front of a PC, ticking boxes and typing addresses and postcodes. The only enjoyment to be got from it was finding the occasional funny name, like Doug Witherspoon and Dr Doctor (really!).
On top of that, I previously had a high opinion of this charity. But after working there for a bit this changed completely. Like many nonprofits today, it started as a campaigning charity, but more recently just acts as privatisation on the cheap for the government. There is more money to be made in vying for government contracts, undercutting the wages and conditions of public sector workers, than in helping people! Apart from that, much of its activity was expended on raising more money, to buy more ads, hire more fundraisers, do more mail outs and raise yet more money.
Not only that, but due to its charity status workers can always be told "work harder, work longer, go without this, etc it's to help the poor". Needless to say, the senior managers and executives of the charity were hardly poor, the chief executive himself being a particularly slimy character, who rocked up every day in his Mercedes and frittered much of his obscenely high salary up his nose...
It was doing this job that I developed repetitive strain injury (RSI) which has unfortunately stayed with me ever since. I informed my manager that I was experiencing a lot of pain entering the data, but was offered no help apart from having someone check my seat was at the right height.
So, I started to try to find ways to slack off again. It was quite difficult, as the incoming data was relentless - and most of it was quite pointless. But I went as slowly as possible, and found that I could save myself time by simply not entering data from some of the documents and just putting them straight in the recycling. With this free time I could then do other things I enjoyed, like surf the net, make international calls (I actually got caught at this and had to pay them the £80 mine came to, as I didn't realise they monitored them!), have extended smoking breaks, chat to colleagues... After a while I hooked up with a hot girl in the PR department, so we would flirt over the office e-mail then fuck in the post room and return to our desks.
At the time I was also involved (for my sins) in the Anarchist Youth Network (AYN). So occasionally I would stay late at the office, get brownie points for being such a hard worker, and print masses of subversive literature when everyone else had gone. Over the whole time I worked there I must have printed and photocopied thousands of leaflets and stickers, and hundreds of pamphlets which we then distributed for free.
Despite the work and the place being crap, I stayed there for a couple of years, then got a different job at the same charity in the subsidiary office down the road. (My life at this point was quite stable, I got sick of the instability of squatting so was paying rent and needed near full-time employment) This was doing more general administration, and a big part of it was putting together information packs for events, of which there were a lot. It was a bit more varied and a bit better paid than the data entry, and so a bit less soul destroying. I took over the job from a permanent worker who was doing five days a week, and left.
After doing the job for a few weeks the way I had been inducted by the permanent worker, I started trying out quicker ways of getting the work done. I found I could save a huge amount of time by bundling together complete sets of information packs which I could then copy altogether, instead of copying all the subsections and fact sheets separately and compiling them after. Basically this meant that instead of standing in front of the copier for hours feeding stuff in like the previous worker did, I just put it all in at once and pressed "go".
So with all this extra time I could go sit at the back of the copy room for a couple of hours and relax, read books or magazines, put music on. I even set up an elephant's foot stool, a shelf and some conveniently placed stacks of paper so that I could wedge myself in and nap without being seen from the window. I would have a couple of info packs on my lap so that the noise of someone coming in would wake me and I could instantly appear to be working.
Also, using the cover of making these info packs I printed thousands more anarchist flyers, pamphlets and zines. I also volunteered to attend meetings down at the main office, so that I could hook up with the girl there before making my way back.
So here, I had a pretty sweet deal. However, I made a huge mistake. I had been trying to get a permanent job at this place, with no luck (one receptionist job was advertised on their website for one week only, and it received 500 applicants), so I was keen to look like a good worker. So I thought telling my boss about how clever I was in making the admin systems so much more efficient would get me some points.
Unfortunately, all it did was meant he reviewed my work, saw that I could do it in much less time and so cut my hours from five days a week to 2 1/2. The wanker.
This is not a mistake I will ever make again - and is something that I always stress to anyone starting out at work. If you come up with an innovation that makes your job quicker,
[i] keep it to yourself
[/i]. Use the extra time to do things you want to do.
In spite of this, I kept working there for another couple of years, and got other part-time jobs to make up the money.
I joined the union at this workplace, and went to the monthly meetings. I tried to get a few people to join, but it wasn't a particularly active branch and didn't really do much, so I wasn't able to get that involved. I soon stopped making much of an effort to get people to join the union, because in the absence of any actual collective organisation being a paper member was pointless. When I first sought out the rep the first thing she told me was that they "weren't troublemakers". And that was accurate enough. The main collective issue which was discussed at length at the meetings was the annual cost of living pay claim, where we came up with a figure to request of management (usually around 5%) based on cost of living increases, then after a few months of back and forth would settle for 2.5% or 3% (I can't remember exactly what now). There was hardly any communication between the workforce as a whole and the union reps through this process.
In spite of there being little organisation, in my team we did try to do things to make work that little bit nicer for each other. We covered for each other if people nipped out, pinched biscuits and refreshments reserved for visitors for each other, etc. I was a smoker at the time, and those of us that did smoke used to take (sometimes very!) regular breaks together. On one break I said how I thought it was unfair that we were entitled to take breaks whenever we wanted, but the non-smokers couldn't. So we decided to just tell the non-smokers and new starters that they were entitled to "fresh air" breaks of 5 or 10 minutes or so when they pleased. By the time management got wind of this it was already an established practice. And management in places like charities rely on the goodwill of staff, and so often very reluctant to provoke conflict. Taking away what was now this established "right" would have provoked conflict, so it was just allowed to continue.
Occasionally I got the additional odd job to do for some extra hours. One of these was to enter demographic data about attendees at our events. This was quite a big job, as the data hadn't been entered in ages, so there were about 20,000 people to do. So my manager asked me to enter five and tell him how long it took. So I did five, as slowly as feasibly possible. He used this figure to estimate that it would take me three weeks to do the lot.
I did think that this was actually a futile exercise, because the data wouldn't tell us anything useful - attendees at our events don't come to us directly, they are sent by a certain kind of public-sector body. So the demographic makeup of our attendees would be the makeup of staff in those bodies. It's not like if we had disproportionately few ethnic minority or disabled attendees we could take any sort of action to address this. The manager just thought that we probably should record this information on a spreadsheet. And it was work! So I didn't say this to him.
What I did do, however, was taken sample of about 200 files randomly out of the total. I entered them, which took me a couple of hours. Then for the rest of the 19,800 I copied and pasted the first 200 I did and then went through and jumbled them up a bit. I then spent three weeks pissing around on the internet, much of which was on enrager.net (libcom.org's original name). I was pretty pleased with myself about this.
The last permanent job I went for there was the job I had actually been doing for the previous year and a half. I was told after the interview by my manager (the aforementioned wanker) who did the interview and who sat two desks away from me that I would know within a week whether I had been successful or not. Six weeks later, I realised I had not been when the woman who was successful came into the office and started working. The manager himself was a lazy fucker who would always leave at around 3:30 p.m. claiming he had to attend a "meeting". Once on an afternoon off I saw him in the shops on Oxford Street after he had claimed this, and on a couple of other occasions people had phoned up complaining that he hadn't shown up to meetings which he had left the office supposedly to attend.
After I left, management slashed the wages of the workforce, ironically leaving a lot of them in poverty, although not before awarding themselves significant pay rises of course.
I vowed to never work in a charity again if I could help it.
After having my hours cut at the charity, I did a few random jobs for short periods of time, at places like the NSPCC, South West Trains, the citizens advice bureau headquarters and a few others.
One of my housemates was working part-time in a university library archive, which he said he enjoyed, and he was going to leave the country so he suggested I apply for his job when advertised it. So I did, and got the job.
It was working evening and weekend shifts on casual hourly contracts, so not technically agency work, but just as insecure. The hourly wage, however was okay, and I liked my co-workers a lot. Us casuals were all similar ages, most of the others were university students themselves as well.
The permanent staff would work 9-to-5, Monday to Friday, so we would cover weekday evenings and weekends until 9 p.m. In some ways this was annoying, because it cut into your life, meaning you would miss evening social engagements, and would not be able to stay out too late on Fridays. But in some ways it was great, because we only had an hour overlap on weekdays with the permanent staff - and our bosses.
We had a line manager, who was a very nice, quiet, middle-aged woman, and her boss was the team manager, who was not at all nice. Thankfully, almost all of our dealings were with the line manager, who also allocated us work.
Basically we had two main jobs - to catalogue new collections (go through boxes of books and papers, entering the titles and physical locations of each of them on a database and write a corresponding reference number back on the document) and to copy sets of documents for researchers.
The latter task had to be done to a pretty tight schedule, because the library guaranteed work within a specific timescale. The former task, however, was ongoing. It also involved a fair bit of heavy lifting.
Thankfully, there was usually never too much of the copying. This work us casuals would share out equally between us. We would take it in turns to do roughly equal amounts of work, job, leaving a note for the next person on what stage we were up to. This work was also charged, but as we were the only people around we had a lot of leeway with this. Us making people pay didn't benefit us in the slightest. In fact, it made extra work for us as we had to write out a receipt and log it on a spreadsheet. So we used to give out a lot of freebies - particularly to individuals, who weren't just going to expense the cost to their employer.
When I started I didn't want to take the piss, so with the cataloguing, I observed the rate of work of the others, and went along with that. However, I soon realised that not only was the work not very closely monitored by the managers, but actually us finishing a job created new work for our line manager, who then had to sort us out a new job to do.
Realising this was quite an epiphany. Already the pace of our work was pretty appalling, but it started slowing pretty much to a halt.
In the office there were two of us working at any one time, so in the week we would take it in turns to leave an hour early, and on a Saturday we would arrange for one of us to get in an hour later, and the other to leave an hour earlier (usually depending on who was going out the previous night) and take alternate two-hour lunch breaks.
We would also use the time to do our own thing. The students would do their school work, I would read books, magazines and stuff from the archive, and post articles to libcom. I requested an ergonomic backrest, which I used as a pillow to nap under my desk on the weekends. Then I started bringing in DVDs to watch on the computer. Despite this, we got the copying done on time and made crawling the slow progress on the cataloguing and got congratulated by our line manager for our speedy work!
Once I literally dragged out a cataloguing job for about two months when it actually took me about an hour to do.
After a while, I decided to join the union at the University, UNISON. I spoke to the rep there about our status as hourly contract staff, and if there were anything we could do to become permanent, part-time workers. This would mean we would get entitlements to sick pay, holiday pay and pension benefits which we were denied as casuals. I didn't hear anything back from him.
So as a team we approach this with our line manager and team manager, and nothing changed. So we went to HR. Apparently we were an anomaly in the University, and so they said actually should have all been proper employees.
So we were put on fixed term contracts (of around a year I believe), but then as the Lord giveth with one hand he taketh away with the other: the University reduced our hourly wage so that our hourly wage plus holiday pay would equal previous hourly wage.5
This meant that to get any benefit we would have to take advantage of the sick leave - which we did. However, calling in sick created work for whoever the other person on duty with us was, so this did initially cause some tension when one person called in sick several times. However, I argued with the person who was getting annoyed that she should just call in sick an equal number of times herself! Which she then did, taking a week off.
It also came in very handy when I was injured moving very heavy boxes (not having had any manual handling training), and had to have an operation and several weeks off work. Unfortunately my other part-time temp jobs did not pay this, so it was a very hard time for me financially. I attempted to pursue taking legal action against the university for this, but the union would not back me since I had not been a member for enough time before it occurred, and in the end it would have been very difficult to prove who was at fault, and a potential payout I would have received too low to bother continuing with.
In this job the pay wasn't great, and the hours weren't great, but the camaraderie and the dossing was amazing, so I kept it up until I came across the opportunity of a full-time temp position in a local council.
One particular high point was the Christmas party. Despite it being a public sector workplace, they put on a fancy Xmas bash with free drinks (including an almost certainly unhygienic giant vodka luge), albeit which only went on till 8 PM. So throughout the evening our team, in addition to drinking as much as humanly possible at the time, would steal extra drinks in dribs and drabs with the caps still on. Perpetuating gender stereotypes we pinched Becks for the boys and Smirnoff Ices for the girls, and after 8 we then went up onto the roof and got absolutely plastered with our spoils.
A girl I was going out with was occasionally a temp at a local council. She suggested I go do temp work there as well, as there was often a lot of work going. So I registered with one of the agencies they dealt with, and soon enough got an interview and a job in a small training department.
I quickly noticed that a lot of the systems were very inefficient - a lot of information was duplicated, and a lot of tasks were done manually that could be automated. So I spent a couple of weeks overhauling everything and making it a lot more efficient. However, I didn't repeat my mistake at the charity of telling the manager about it. I mentioned a couple of things, and used some of the extra time to make a lot of superficial changes to the workspace - tidying up the filing system, making uniform labels for everything, so the office space looked quite fancy.
Then I used the time I gained to doss around. I started getting in later, and the manager was too nice to say anything about it. I moved the desks around to "tidy up", but also made it so no one could see my screen, so then would surf the net, and even watch DVD movies in work hours.
I spoke to the local UNISON rep (an SWP hack) saying I was a member of UNISON at another part-time job, asking if I could get involved in helping out with any organising work, of agency workers for example. He said okay and he would get back to me, which he did much later, by asking if I wanted to help give out leaflets for anti-war demonstrations at the local tube station. I tried speaking to him again about an idea I had to try and equalise wages for agency workers. But he just came back with more leaflets for another SWP front project, so I gave up on him.
By myself I then went round my floor talking to the other three agency workers, who were all on the same grade job as me. We found we were all on different wages, and decided to ask together to be put on the wage of the best earner. We had all been there for a little while at this point, and this was agreed to by the two relevant managers.
After having been there a few months the government announced plans to attack public sector workers pensions - particularly those in local government. There was widespread outrage against this, which forced the unions to organise a joint ballot for industrial action, which led to over 1 million workers in nine-odd unions walking out on 28 March.
Members of the largest union, UNISON, not a hardline union by any means, voted 80% for discontinuous strike action, a figure which was broadly similar in the other unions. As the first strike day approached, I didn't hear anything about it until just a couple of days before. The floor I was on had a very low level of union membership, but my manager was a UNISON member. She told me know that she thought because she was a manager she would not be allowed to strike - I told her that on the contrary all union members were supposed to strike!
So the strike day came, I visited the picket lines briefly to show my support, but couldn't stand on them for risk of getting fired. The strike was very well observed across the country: thousands of schools were shut, rubbish was left uncollected, council buildings were closed. My manager did stay at home, but some other workers on my floor went in. A couple of temps went to work as well; I spoke to them about the strike the next day and one or two had an attitude like they had been "rebellious" by "defying" the picket line.
I tried to tell them that the strikers were not against them - but that we should support the struggle of the permanent workers to defend their pensions, even though we didn't have them, because if they lost then soon enough there wouldn't be any decent permanent jobs with good pensions for us to get in the future.
The fight against the pension cuts was quickly derailed by the unions. They called off the scheduled future strike action for "talks", which of course proved fruitless, but in the months they went on the workers who had built up a lot of confidence in the first day of strike action became slowly demoralised and demobilised. The unions then helped negotiate a slightly less worse package of cuts, which they then recommended to their members. And instead of presenting the offer in its true nature - as cuts, UNISON presented them as opposed to the initial proposed cuts, so they presented these attacks on conditions as improvements which had been won.
It was clear there was going to be no further industrial action, so 97% of UNISON members accepted this deal.
This was a very useful lesson to me, as at this stage I did still hold some illusion in the unions as tools which workers could use to defend their conditions - as opposed to predominantly a barrier to be overcome, even in defensive struggles. It was also a pattern which has sadly been to reoccur several times - in the public sector pay struggles of 2008, and significantly in the postal workers strikes of 2007 and 2009.
While at this council, I came across another part-time temp vacancy which I got. It was in a small office on a housing estate. The work was completely pointless: really tedious, completely bureaucratic, generic admin. The work didn't involve helping tenants at all. To this day I don't really know what the team did. Something to do with supposedly attempting to encourage "participation" and doing "consultation". We published lots of brochures depicting white people and black people holding hands.
To make matters worse my two bosses were absolute morons. One asked me to edit a PDF of a chart. I explained to her that I could not just edit the PDF electronically, I would need the source file and programme that it was created from. I explained that the only way I could edit it would be to physically print is the edits onto small bits of paper, then cut them out, stick them over the original and photocopy it. She told me to then do this.
When I presented at the final chart, she then had my other manager pulled me into her office for a bollocking for not following her instructions and making an electronic edited document. I tried to explain that this was physically impossible, but this boss was even more cretinous than the first.
When I was hospitalised at the archiving job, I had to take time off sick from this job. I didn't get a card, any phone calls or indeed anything from my managers asking how I was. I then pretty much decided to do absolutely fuck all. After I decided this, having two managers I realised could have its advantages. Whenever one asked me to do something, I told them I was doing too much work for the other, and I would get to it when I could. The regular tasks I was given to do, like sort through these trays of documents to file, I would just shuffle around the couple of papers at the top and leave it. I was the only one who checked the voicemail, so I just started deleting all the messages without listening to them.
Then basically all day I would spend posting news stories to libcom, editing stuff for the history section, e-mailing and calling people. If I got left alone in the office then I would nap at the desk.
My biggest achievement was that for four weeks I did absolutely no work at all. Then basically my two managers spoke to one another. I got wind of this happening, then one of them asked to meet with me the next day. I invented a doctor's appointment to avoid that, then I quit.
My other job in the training department soon came to an end when the department was deleted in a restructure. But thankfully shortly after I applied for a permanent job, and for the first time actually got it! So, after seven years of temping and part-time casual work, I finally had a proper job with a regular pay cheque, so I wouldn't have to worry so much about being able to make rent this month. Of course, it's still crap, but it doesn't mean I will lose my home if I get ill for more than two weeks.
During the time I was temping, many times I have seen the issue raised in radical circles of how to organise agency workers. Now, this is an important issue, as agency working is a key way employers are breaking up workers' organisation and making all of us more "flexible" to suit them - disposable with few rights. However, many of the suggestions which keep coming up are deeply flawed. The main two I am thinking of here are starting a union for temp workers, or starting a temp workers co-op.
On the union front, firstly contrary to what many people believe unions are not simply organisations of workers to defend workers' interests, but in fact are primarily large bureaucracies concerned with perpetuating themselves and their positions of influence. Effectively their social role is to help negotiate the sale of pliant labour to capital - and to do this they must be able to control their membership. This is gone into in much more detail in our section on unions here. Secondly, even if recruiting workers into unions could help them, agency workers are so split up and divided across so many sites and employers that this would be impractical.
While employed by agencies, temp workers are usually much more affected by the workplaces they are based in, which hire them. And these are the organisations who are ultimately paying their wages as well.
With an agency workers co-op, the same pressures would be exerted on it by the market as exerted on all other agencies - the need to cut costs and provide staff who will work the hardest for the least money. The problems of workers co-op's within a capitalist economy are gone into in much more detail in this debate here.
So basically I think the only practical way of improving conditions for agency workers is for permanent and agency staff in particular workplaces to organise together. Workers on permanent contracts can do a lot to help this, and more generally can try to challenge the actual use of agency workers. However, people should be careful that they do not blame agency workers themselves for any problems which result from the use of agency staff - the problem is the agency work itself.
Now I'm permanent, we invite agency workers and non-union members to union meetings. We all share the same problems where we work, and more we talk together and discuss issues which affect us the clearer it becomes that we are all in the same boat. We try to get agency workers to support us if ever we take some sort of industrial action - which we have done in national strikes over pay, as well as in local boycotts to get a suspended worker reinstated.
In return, we help try to get agency workers permanent jobs, and support them individually with any problems they have with management.
These are very small steps, but we have got results, and so over time local workplace cultures can be changed, and workers can take them with them when they leave.
I hope that this text has contributed again in a small way towards encouraging workers to try to approach their problems collectively. Please post up here if you have any similar stories of work avoidance or workplace resistance.
- 1http://www.york.ac.uk/inst/chp/hfrtable/up02040ab.PDF - this only shows the annual wage of people buying houses, which will be higher than the actual average. But it still clearly demonstrates the lower real cost of housing
- 4 This is actually a precis of my favourite political poster used by the old revolutionary union Industrial Workers of the World on the Australian railways in the early 20th century
- 5 In retrospect this is something we could have challenged on legal grounds and probably won but unfortunately we did not know this at the time.