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Catalyst #10 (May 2004)

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Tesco - greedmerchants

Tescos are the biggest retailers in the UK, turning billions of profits a year. £1 in every £8 spent in shops in the UK is spent in Tescos. But anyone who thinks that all this money and profit means Tescos can afford to be reasonable to their workers is in cloud cuckoo land. It is quite the opposite - massive individual wealth like this only happens when massive exploitation is their agenda.

After a 13 year battle an unemployed ex-employee of Tesco is likely to lose her house and find herself being made homeless after she lost her claim for £ 100,000 for injuries sustained during the period when she worked for the company. Tesco are poised to take court action against Mima Rac, aged 58, from Falkirk to claim expenses in the region of £23.000 against her.

Mrs Rae was a part time checkout operator at the Falkirk store from 1986 until she was sacked in November 1992. She regularly worked on the express checkout - one of the busiest. Its proximity close to the main doors meant, in Mrs Rae's words, "we often sat with our feet encased in brown paper bags to try to keep warm".

She experienced numerous problems with upper back, neck, shoulder and arm pain. In 1990, she begun to experience pain radiating from the middle finger of her right hand. After a new checkout system was installed, there were numerous problems as it either ran slowly, over-ran, didn't stop at all, or jammed altogether. She took time off from work after suffering back strain. This should have been recorded in the in-store accident book by the staff manageress, but it wasn't. According to others who worked during the time the reporting of accidents was actively discouraged by store managers. An in-store maintenance engineer at the Falkirk store has confirmed that he was often called to repair the checkouts.

In 1991, Mima suffered strained ligaments and muscle spasms in her lower back and across her shoulders. She paid privately for osteopathic treatment. Her request to change her busiest and longest shift and for an additional five minutes on her unpaid tea break were refused.

In December 1991, aware that her repeated absences were putting her employment in jeopardy, she approached Mr W Keeley, her USDAW representative who advised her to attempt to try to force Tesco's hand by getting the cause of the accident in 1990 retrospectively recorded in the store's accident book.

She was offered a job in Tesco's garage which she turned down, as it would have required prolonged periods of sitting down. She remained on sick leave to help her back recover until, in November 1992, Tesco sacked her. As this was illegal she followed Tesco's grievance procedures and, in February 1993, was told that each time a vacancy arose in the store her suitability or otherwise for the position would be discussed with her.

She was again offered a job in Tesco's garage but with shifts that ended at midnight, when public transport had ceased. When, in June 1993, she inquired about forthcoming job vacancies, she was told that the only job on offer was five evenings a week collecting damaged stock. Meanwhile. other Tesco employees in Falkirk began to report similar injuries, and Mima informed USDAW hoping they would discreetly contact the other workers. Instead, on 19th July 1993, the union wrote to say they were no longer prepared to pursue her case. She got other legal representation and on 6 September 1993, one day before the three year time limit, a writ was delivered to Tesco but the case remained on ice for the next four ears. In 1997, Tesco offered to settle for £2.500 plus expenses.

Mrs Rae was not the only checkout operator pursuing an RSI claim. In June 1998, Doug Russell, Health and Safety Officer for USDAW, claimed to know of more than 650 cases involving USDAW members, with 50 checkout workers obtaining settlements for injuries. This is not surprising, considering that concerns for the welfare of checkout operators first surfaced in the mid 1990's, when it was suggested that the operation of some checkouts was associated with high levels of musculoskeletal disorders principally affecting the lower back, upper arm-neck-soulder region and in the hand/wrist area.

USDAW are currently pursuing "a few hundred" cases of RSI complaints. He said that since the 1980s "new technology has brought about big improvements" for checkout operators with "companies such as Tesco now involving operators in designing the structure and lay-out".

When the case finally reached tribunal it found against Mrs Rae. Her physical and mental health has been compromised over the past 13 years, and she now says she is unemployable. She is also broke and the financial drain has ruined a once happy marriage.

Temp workers campaign

The Solidarity Federation have been at the forefront of campaigns to support temporary and casual workers. We would like to see these workers better organised and able to resist attacks on, and improve, their pay and conditions. We urge all temporary workers, and those in full time employment to support initiatives such as the Bristol Against Casualisation Campaign.

There are some 1.7 million temporary workers in the UK who make up 7% of the workforce. Capitalism uses temporary workers for their flexibility, in other words they can be exploited easier. Some are employed directly but many are employed through agencies. While the government and employers promote the illusion of choice with temporary working the reality is far different for the vast majority of the temporary workforce.

This year, as every year, that parasitic front organisation for the promotion of casualisation, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), is planning to name one lucky worker as "One in a million". This is as a part of their self-styled National Temporary Worker's Week.

While this blessed worker is bestowed with this honour, what will the other 999,999 temporary workers in each million be doing? Like every day, wondering if they will have work next week, if joining a union will get them the sack, guessing how much the permanent worker alongside them earns, contemplating how things might be better...

In opposition to the REC and National Temporary Worker's Week, Bristol Against Casualisation Campaign is proposing a week of counter events called Fighting Temporary Work Week. They are calling for a National Picket of Employment Agencies on I 7th - 21 st May 2004. Choose your target agency - in Bristol they picked Manpower offices but go for your least favourite agency and picket outside - or use your imagination to make them know we are fighting back.

While the agency bosses quaff champagne, nibble canapes and discuss how to screw that extra penny out of our hard labours, we suggest everyone against casualisation; express your anger at their greed - no more death, poor pay and worsening work conditions.

A 'Cider and Pork Scratching Reception' (veggie option available) has been organised for the 20th May 2004, Parliament Square, Westminster, London - 4.00pm. There is also a Fight Temporary Work - One-day conference, 22nd May 2004 (Free admission) to be held in Bristol, a forum for those engaged in fighting casualisation to discuss strategies and build alliances.

The job agencies have had it easy· it is time for us to unite in opposition to casualisation and fight back. If you need a start, contact SoIFed (www.solfed.ol1l.uk) or gather at the BACC Bristol conference - email brlstolacc@hotm.il.com (Box 4, Greenleaf Bookshop, 82 Colston S~ Bristol, BS1 SBB
Ansaphone: On9 2018881).

The objectives are:

  • To encourage dialogue between all workers involved in the struggle against Casualisation, to formulate strategies to fight against the erosion of workers rights and conditions.
  • To highlight the efforts of workers fighting back against this trend that is eroding workers rights and working conditions.
  • To promote awareness of the role of employment agencies in the growing use of casualised labour in all sectors.

Striking back

On train catering staff based at Manchester Piccadilly Train Station are taking strike action in protest at management's attempt to impose new rosters.

The catering staff, employed by Virgin West Coast, currently work a 14-hour shift in return for extra days off. Management plan to impose an 8-hour shift pattern, which will not only mean that on board catering staff will lose around 60 free days per year, it will also lead to significant job losses. At Wolverhampton, where the shift patterns were recently brought in, management have begun to recruit part-time staff, as the first step in the casualisation of the on board catering service on the whole of the West Coast Main line.

Predictably Virgin's much cultivated caring and friendly image was soon dropped when it became clear that staff were prepared to take action. Prior to the first 24-hour strike, letters were sent to all staff threatening those who took part in the strike with the sack. After the second day's strike, a further letter was sent to all staff stating that Virgin had used management scabs to break the strike. It also stated that there had been a significant increase in revenue, which would be investigated, the implication being that staff had been thieving.

This management propaganda and intimidation has only strengthened the resolve of the strikers to resist management bullying. The next move should be to try to get the other depots to take similar action and create a united front involving all on-train catering staff employed by Virgin West Coast.
 

Problems at work - No. 8: Minimum Wage, Maximum Hours

The announcement that the minimum wage is set to rise to £4.85 next predictably had union leaders, desperate for a reason to stick with Labour, claiming that in the fight against poverty the Govemment really is making a difference. They are deluding themselves; the minimum wage is not about ending poverty, it is set so low it merely legaises poverty wages. Labour see a  low wage economy, in which the working class remain powerless, as the essential ingredient of a 'successful' 'free market' economy. Labour's inspiration is not justice or equality, but the USA, where the minimum wage has been in force for years and has done nothing to prevent the growth in poverty and obscene inequalities.

The TUC is happy to hail the minimum wage as a triumph, but this reflects more their desperation and failure, rather than any use in the minimum wage. In the distant past, the unions linked poverty directly to the failure of capitalism, and it was seen as something that couId not be tolerated. Today, unions have come to terms with capitalism and the inevitable poverty it brings. The days when the unions sought to empower the poor through organisation as the means of fighting a capitalist system that condemned them to a life of poverty are long gone. Now they would rather see the poor as helpless victims to be pitied and if possible - but not organised.

From this perspedive, the TUC is the same as the Tories - they see poverty as due to the failing of the poor. The TUC talks asmuch but but cares ilttle about poverty, and hide their indifference behind the minimum wage. The minimum wage amounts to throwing a beggar a few bob for a cup of tea in order to be able to sit down to enjoy the union expense-account dinner with a clear conscience. The TUC has given up the fight against capitalism and poverty - instead, they preach partnership with a system that condemns and stunts the lives of millions.

Hours - women lose out

British workers already work the longest hours and receive the least number of holidays in the EU. However for those at the bottom of the pile, the situation is much worse. Govenrment statistics show that last year three million workers - two thirds of them women - did not get paid for bank holidays over the Easter period. As a result, they suffered a drop in earnings - and all because in the UK employers can treat bank holidays as a normaI working day, and then send workers home without pay.

Many other peopIe will be forced to take bank holidays as part of their minimum right to four weeks paid holiday. The UK is the only EU member state that allows employers to include public holidays in the European minimum of four weeks paid hoiday. It is 133 years since the introduction of the Easter Monday bank holiday, yet a significant minority of UK workers are still not getting it.

Those most likely to lose out are women workers in low paid and less skilled jobs - in other words, those who can Ieast afford it. The job types with the highest proportion of women losing out are sales and customer service jobs (23%) and personal service jobs (23%). Workers in the hotel and restaurant sector are the most likely to be sent home without pay (32%), while in health and social work over 400,000 people are affected.

Labour Britain is also now blocking an EU Directive that would provide equal pay and improved rights for agency workers. Agency workers are among the worst exploited, with poor pay and often poor and dangerous conditions, where health & safety is ignored. The Directive would have improved pay and conditions of agency workers and brought some much-needed regulation to a notoriously unregulated industry. What few laws there are governing agencies are routinely ignored. It is not gang leaders that are at the forefront of exploiting illegal immigrants, it is job agencies, who treat them appallingly, knowing that they will not complain to the authorities.

The fact that Britain is out of step with Europe on casualisation is no accident. Poor pay and conditions and laws allowing hiring and firing at will are the bedrock of Britain's so-called economic success. More protection for workers is badly needed, but this is never going to happen under Labour because it goes against its fundamentalist free market dogma. In the long run, only a return of working class collective power will turn back the capitalist onslaught of the last 30 years. And that will only come about with the defeat of the anti-trade union legislation and a return to free collective bargaining.

Let us sack you happy

As reported in the last Catalyst, Britain's biggest insurer is axing over 2,000 jobs in one of the worst examples of outsourcing to hit the UK. It is now clear the job losses are to be centred in Norwich, York and Perth. Norwich has already been hit in a drive to outsource 900 jobs to Delhi and Bangalore. Amicus, who called the move 'despicable' and vowed to fight it, has delivered little in terms of saving workers' jobs.

Outsourcing, recently endorsed by Labour Cabinet ministers as good for business ("and therefore good for us"), is projected to strip 200,000 jobs from the UK by 2008. Most of those affected are doing data input or call centre work: sectors already notorious for their high turnover of staff. Hence workers with little legal or union protection are being protected, and while the unions aren't much cop, they are invariably better than nothing.

Steve Bennett, who lost his job at Norwich Union in March said: "A large proportion of the staff have been there for under two years. so there's not much chance of any action being taken. The management have been underhand on a couple of issues. To begin with they announced a 'goodwill' bonus of £500 to anyone working their full notice, subject to performance and attendance. Six weeks later they moved the goal posts and announced the bonus would only go to staff who wouldn' t be getting statutory redundancy. Just 20% of staff will now receive money." Norwich Union also withdrew the bonus to anyone subject to disciplinary warnings in the last two years. Of course, suddenly the number of these has increased. One worker was disciplined for taking one day off following the death of his grandfather.

3,000 UK jobs have already been moved to India in the past year which at an average UK call centre wage of £ 12,500 a year has sucked around £37.5 million out of Britain's economy. Indian wages for the same job are £1,200 a year, so India's economy has benefited by a mere £3.6million. So, guess who makes out of it?!

Norwich Union currently employs around 30,000 people in the UK, and has refused to rule out further outsourcing in the future in a bid to maximise their profits. Taking all costs into account, Norwich Union hopes to save 40% on wage bills. Although it is unlikely any of these cost savings will be passed onto consumers. With 2.5 million customers, it is the world's 7th largest insurer, with a market value of £10.8 billion, and loads of naff adverts. "Let us quote you happy"? Try asking the thousands of workers thrown on the scrapheap how happy they have been quoted.

About Catalyst

Catalyst is the quarterly freesheet of the Solidarity Federation. If you want to get hold of a copy, get in touch with your nearest SolFed local, or email catalyst@solfed.org.uk. If you would like to distribute Catalyst, please get in touch with the Catalyst collective.

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