Four reports from short visits at different warehouses in Manchester, Leeds, Bradford area.
Thanks to Manchester, Hebden Bridge and Leeds Plan C and Bradford and London IWW for hosting the meetings on the northern leg of our AngryWorkers tour!
While the main event was a film screening about the logistics workers movement in Italy plus a discussion about the extent to which their situation is relevant to warehouse and logistics workers in the UK, we squeezed in some time for warehouse-spotting! We visited four sites to hand out leaflets and about 300 West-London newspapers and chat to workers leaving their shift.
If anyone is interested in co-ordinating a longer-term presence with us at these sites (or others), get in touch! For example, we could distribute newsletters for workers at Amazon warehouses in the UK - we have contacts directly with workers at the Amazon warehouses in Poland and Germany. We think workers here would be interested in finding out what's been going on over there e.g. strikes in Germany, their weak and strong points, efforts at organisation with a worker-led syndicalist union in Poland, the fact that in Germany, they no longer have a countdown for their picking targets…we have direct workers interviews that can be turned into material for Amazon workers in the UK. So if you have a 'fulfilment centre' near you and have some time and energy to work with us on this, send us a message...
And here are some short reports of our visits to the Sainsbury's, Asos, Alpha LSG and M&S warehouses in the north. We went to Sainsbury's because that is where some of us worked in west London  and to Alpha LSG as one of us currently works at the warehouse near Heathrow. We heard about the Asos warehouse because of a vice article (link below) and M&S is similar to the situation in Sainsbury's, there is an ongoing dispute at the depot in Swindon.
*** Sainsbury's distribution centre
Sherburn-in-Elmet, Leeds. West Yorkshire
Staff: 900-1,100 workers
Wage: £9.25/hr for permanents (£7.85 for their first 3-month probationary period) and £7/hr for temps
Run by: Wincanton
Union: The union guy was sent out to talk to us. He said that this depot was Unite, which has a 2% wage demand is in half of the Sainsbury's depots in the UK while USDAW has control of the other half. Obviously this makes it difficult to co-ordinate across warehouses from a union point of view. The union guy we spoke to said that before he arrived the union was very disorganised here; he managed to organise the office with printers and broadband.
Workforce: Permanents largely from England, many of the temps are from Poland. There are different agency workers for the recycling unit, who get paid slightly more per hour.
Extra Info: this DC is pretty huge, delivering to both convenience stores and larger supermarkets. It has a really large geographical remit, it sends stuff all the way as far up as Glasgow and south to Derby. There are 122 loading bays which give some scale of the place.
There is a driver shortage.
Info for militants: It's a bit in the middle of nowhere although part of a larger industry/warehouse area. There are no bus stops nearby so most people arrive by car and the temps have a car-sharing system. So basically it means you have to stand at the main entrance where the barriers are that let the cars in and out. So it's a bit difficult to talk to people, although there is a smoking shelter where most people gather just inside the barriers so you have to go onto the site to talk to people there - which we did and nobody stopped us. But this was after the main manager, security manager and police had arrived! They were hostile at first although they had to try and move us in accordance with 'health and safety' because it was not their private property we were standing on. After we chatted to them for a while, they eased off and the security actually became quite friendly and gave us some information!
*** Asos, online fashion warehouse
Staff: 1,100 permanents plus 1,900 temps
Wage: Temp wages £6.77/hr, permanents get £7/hr; some people said they get a yearly salary of £12,000 before tax (picker); a stock controller said he earns around £7.80/hr after two years in the company.
Run by: Norbert Dentressangle
Agency: Transline. They also have an office in Poland and Romania, where some of the people we talked to had been recruited through, although they have to pay their own transport and living costs to get to and stay in the UK, and even then, they are not guaranteed the job because they might fail the interview test (50 questions, mainly about health and safety but to test people's english. You have to get 45 out of 50 correct).
Union: there is no union recognition agreement but Unite wants to get in.
Workforce: Mainly Polish and Romanian, plus more ex-long-term unemployed type of English people (who mainly said the job is alright). Some of them were recruited directly through the job centre in Barnsley and that this used to happen more than it does now. There seemed to be people from Eastern Europe there who were seeing this as a stop-gap to bigger and better things e.g. there was a guy from Romania who wanted to do a politics degree at London Met and who had a psychology degree from Romania. There was also a young Polish guy who had an alright job in Poland and was just coming here on an extended holiday to see whether or not it was worth staying.
Extra Info: Size of 6 football pitches!
Because the warehouse is kinda in the middle of nowhere, people have to rely on buses. We spoke to one woman who used to work there before - she got the job via the job centre- but because Asos had not arranged anything with the bus company, it was difficult to get there and back at times co-ordinated with the shift times so she left the job. But after a while, Asos and the bus company negotiated buses to come at the right times (we spoke to the bus driver because the bus had broken down) and so this woman had started working there again.
Info for militants: There is only one bus stop so it was very easy to hang out there and speak to most people. Removed a NationalFront sticker. Shift times are from 7am - 3pm and 3pm -11pm.
Some conversations: One guy said the main problem was that 'they treat us like dogs' and there is incompetent management. A young guy from Poland rented a room nearby (£70 p/w), a couple from Romania said that you can hire a 3-bedroom flat for £500 per month; targets are achievable 80 per hour with slow trolley, 120 with fast trolley; people complained about safety shoes, they are too low and so the trolley bashes into your ankles. A big induction/interview process was taking place when we went there so we met lots of guys who'd just had their interview and done the 50-question test. In general people's english was pretty good, people said that there wasn't too much segregation between different language groups; a young black guy didn't pass the interview because he told them about a suspended sentence two years ago; a guy from Romania said that lots of people leave for other jobs, but then come back again because they haven't managed to find anything better.
Some recent comments from warehouse workers at this site are being left at the following website: http://www.indeed.co.uk/cmp/Transline-Group/reviews
"I have learned in the past 2 years since i have been working in ASOS, that no matter how hard you work, you won't be aprecciate and that nobody is not irreplaceable"
"It's a good working environment, but it's not a secure job. I passed 4 reviews and I didn't get a permanent contract. I've been working there for almost a year and though I am one of the best pickers I didn't get it which is a bit disappointing."
"Transline filled a void after a long spell of un-employment,it was never my intention to remain there, no prospects.6am Shift,,Check in,Health and Safety Team Brief each shift.
Instructions given for shift,,timed for toilet breaks, Thirty minuets break for food loose 5 minuets due to scanning off. Everything Time and Motion and computerised."
"The hardest part of the Job was hitting targets, a typical day at work wasn't very interesting as it was the same everyday."
*** Alpha LSG, airline catering
For Manchester Airport
Staff: In total around 200 workers (including kitchen, warehouse, drivers)
Contracts: One guy said that there are 38 different contracts inside this one warehouse!
Background: 90% of the older Alpha workers were transferred to an agency called GAS after their merger with LSG two years ago, and had to accept a wage cut. Management promised the same pay as LSG after two years, but wages still at £6.70, while LSG are paid over £8 (kitchen?). After two and a half years some people went to management and asked about getting the same pay, but management said that they haven't given a written promise, so "what do you want?"; also GAS pays no sick pay; workers have trouble with the tax office because they sent two contracts (old Alpha and GAS), so people were treated as if they had two jobs.
Union: People said that they weren't doing much (which is different from what the union claims: they said that they had forced LSG to take the workers back in-house.)
Some conversations: One driver said that they had had a pay offer of 0% this year and that they were thinking about stopping working overtime (may be because agency drivers are paid more?); while there are rumours that Alpha LSG might lose the American Airline contract in London, this hadn't been heard in Manchester;
Extra Info: A difference to London LSG is that the drivers have mates, so there are always two people in a truck
Info for militants: 6am-2pm, 7am-3pm
There was a good place to stand by the barriers where all the staff in cars came in and out, as well as the lorries that either went towards the airport or to the adjoining site over the road. A manager came out pretty fast and said she thought it was 'inappropriate' that we were standing there and 'for our own health and safety' we should move. Which we didn't and they left us alone after that.
*** M&S, distribution centre
ProLogis Logistics Park, Bradford
We chose this warehouse because temp staff at the M&S warehouse in Swindon (organised through GMB) are disputing the loophole in the Agency Workers Directive that means temp workers get less money than the permanents. The law states that agency staff are entitled to the same pay and conditions as permanent workers after 12-weeks of working in the same workplace. But to get around this, agency workers have to sign a permanent contract with the temp agency, which means the legislation no longer applies to them. This is called the 'Swedish Derogation' and GMB have organised gimmick protests outside M&S stores e.g. dressing up as ABBA. They balloted for strike action when two worker militants were sacked but reneged when they was reinstated.
GMB took their case to the EU Commission in Brussels and this year the logistics company said they would hire 150 new permanent workers.
Many of the agency staff at this depot near Swindon had been working there for years, on minimum wage. It was exactly the same set-up as the situation we were in at the Sainsbury's depot in Greenford, albeit the staff turnover was much higher. The situation at the warehouse in Bradford also seemed to be the same.
Wages: minimum wage for temp workers
Run by: Norbert Dentressangle
Info for militants: Shift times were 7am-3pm for the warehouse pickers. We didn't really manage to have too many conversations at this one even though it was easy to stand at the gate and stop people as they were coming out. Many people leave in cars though. They took papers, but no chance to talk. There was a smoking shelter that some people gathered at, it was quite easy to access this.
"this was threw the agency.they make you travel into work on a night on the last bus then send you home an hour or two in to shift most nights so it ends up costing you money to work for them, the management was poor and un organised and took no responsibilities for mistakes"