Slow-down at Sainsburys warehouse in Greenford
Auriol Drive, Greenford, UB6 0TP
Workers: 400, including around 100 drivers and 40 IT-contract workers for Sainsbury’s
Pay: £6.70 for temps, (£7.70 after 6pm), £9.15 for permanents
There would be a lot of stories to tell from Sainsbury’s distribution centre, about testicles turning into icicles in the ‘Freezer’ department (-27 degrees), about the never-ending sickening loop of Capital and Heart radio in the ‘Chill’ (zero degrees), pump-truck races and bullying shop-floor managers, who look and behave like constipated gnomes. About friendships and drug tests. People will tell them another time…Fo’ sho’!
In this article we want to tell you about the attempt to have a slow-down strike by the temp-workers, which took place in February 2015.
* Firstly, we have to analyse the general situation of the temp-workers. This will show why it is difficult to create a strong connection between us, which would be a necessary to organise anything to improve our conditions. Difficult, but not impossible.
The distribution centre
The distribution centre supplies groceries to about 180 Sainsbury’s convenience stores, mainly around North and South-London but also as far away as Portsmouth and Southampton. Deliveries come in from the suppliers – vegetables, sandwiches, meat etc. These pallets are broken down, people then pick orders by putting a certain number of items into ‘cages’. These cages are then loaded onto trucks and sent to the various stores. In ‘Ambient’ people use electrical vehicles (LLOPs), in the ‘Chill’ and ‘Produce’ people pull pallets around with pump-trucks. Some pallets can be as heavy as a small car.
Zero-hours and the cancellation of shifts
Of the 60 – 100 workers picking in the ‘Chill’, more than half of them are employed by the agency Templine. Male temp workers stay on average for three months, female workers longer. As a temp you don’t get guaranteed hours, they might give you five or six days on a rota, but cancel your shift two hours before you are supposed to start work. This happens frequently.
Templine gets the number of orders for the next day the evening before, a confirmation in the morning. According to this ‘volume’, e.g. 60,000 items to pick in ‘Chill’ and ‘Produce’, they supply a number of workers. If the volume is high, they ask people to work overtime or seven days a week, if it is low, people might get only one or two shifts per week.
Templine hires an oversupply of people. Why is this? They don’t have to guarantee hours, so there are no big costs to hire people and more importantly, it enables Templine/Wincanton/Sainsbury’s to use the cancellation of shifts as a way to put pressure on people to work faster. If your productivity is low, you are more likely to get cancelled.
The productivity rate
How do they measure your productivity? We get a combination of a wrist-digital-watch and a scanner, which you put on your finger to scan items and labels for the shop cages. The wrist-watch tells you how many items to pick for which shop and it tells them exactly how many items you pick per hour. The productivity calculation is arbitrary e.g. it does not take into account the weight of things and it gives you a higher percentage for picking single items.
Your productivity rate is shoved into your face in various ways throughout the day. There are computer screens in the warehouse, which display your individual ‘CPM-rate’, agency office guys walk through the warehouse and tell you your CPM, in the briefing-room (where we gather before the shift) they put a daily update of individuals’ CPM on the board and last, but not fucking least, they send you a text message in the morning before work, telling you that you either performed well or badly the day before. If your CPM-rate is too low for a period of time you are ordered to attend a ‘meeting’, basically a bollocking.
In this sense they have created a classic rat-race: people are afraid to drop down on the CPM-list and get cancelled, BUT by everyone working faster they need less people per shift and can cancel more shifts. This is one of the factors why people are scared and feel some competition amongst each other. The permanent Wincanton workers have less stress and their shifts cannot be cancelled (they are guaranteed at least 40 hours a week).
The carrot of a permanent job
Another way to make people work faster and to ‘compete’ is the carrot of a permanent job. People work fast if they think they have a chance. The hiring process is even more arbitrary than the CPM-rate. Some guys have been working fast for two years, applied four times, but never got hired. Other people got a permanent job after three months. No surprise that people come up with all kinds of ‘theories’: “the Polish get a permanent job, because lots of the shop-floor managers are Polish”, “they don’t like Romanians”, “if your skin is brown, you don’t stand a chance”. Management plays with these ‘theories’, they like to see warehouse workers from, for example, Poland feeling closer to the shop floor manager from Poland, than to their workmate from Somalia.
The (language) divisions
This leads us to another problem of creating connections between us, which is the problem of (language) groups. Obviously, a big mix of people work in the warehouse. E.g. young women from Romania or Poland (for some of them it is not only their first job in the UK but their first job at all) and older men from Iraq (with quite different life experiences). The atmosphere is not bad, but certain people ‘stick to themselves’, mostly because their English is pretty bad so communication with others is difficult; some also mistrust others based on stereotypes and racist assumptions. This makes it difficult to discuss our conditions and to discuss what we can do to improve them. Because, as you can see, these are very hard conditions for doing something together, against the company.
There is a union inside the warehouse, Unite. But this is targeted towards permanent workers, not the temp workers. In a situation where many temp workers leave after a few months, there seemed little point in joining the union – also because they were not approached with something like a medium-term plan to do something about their conditions.
* Secondly, we have to analyse what people have already tried to do to put pressure on the company. This also means questioning if the temps alone, without the support of the permanents and/or the drivers, would be able to do something successfully.
It is clear that the temps have similar problems and that the demand of “four guaranteed shifts per week and £9.15 per hour” was a good starting-point. As agency workers who can get their shifts cancelled and generally have a more precarious work life e.g. no sick pay, we think they should be compensated for this through a higher hourly rate. This was generally historically the case with agency workers in many sectors. But what do you do with such a demand? You have to enforce it. But how?
It is not easy to discuss in bigger groups at work. Managers watch you. People are stressing. You don’t all get your break-time together. So there were smaller meetings with five, ten, fifteen people after work. But even meeting after work, around 8pm, is difficult, because people (who come out at slightly different times depending on how quick you manage to escape!) are tired.
At this point it helped, that friends of workers distributed a first leaflet, basically spreading the news of the demand and discussing the idea of a collective ‘slow-down’ to put pressure on management. In hindsight we are not sure whether this was productive, because it also warned management that something was brewing. But it did generate discussions amongst us inside the warehouse.
Some people suggested collecting signatures for a petition to Templine. We took a list with the names of all Templine colleagues and decided who we could ask first. We thought that once we had twenty ‘safe’ candidates and their signatures on paper, others who might otherwise hesitate might sign, too. While some people were scared to sign, thinking they might be cancelled, it was not difficult to collect 30 signatures. But then people started raising concerns: if a majority of temps would do something, they could easily sack 20 of us, ask the permanents to work overtime and hire new people. While the idea was that everyone should take responsibility for getting signatures, in reality it was only a small handful of us so that was another reason we decided to stop with the letter for the time being.
Protest of temps at Wincanton in Swindon
In the meantime we heard of protests by temp workers employed at the Mark and Spencer warehouse run by Wincanton in Swindon. We tried to get in touch with them, but only had the contact details of the official union organiser. Workers there asked for equal pay, they staged protests in front of M&S stores. Better than nothing, but not enough to make Wincanton or M&S move. We distributed some news articles about their protest inside our warehouse to show people that other temp workers in exactly our situation were doing stuff.
Second leaflet, for the permanents
At this point friends distributed another leaflet, this time mainly targeting the permanents and drivers. They distributed it holding a banner saying “Wincanton pay us more!”, which drivers could see from some distance. The leaflet basically said that we, the temps, will need the support of the permanents – and that at the same time the permanents have an interest in better conditions of the temps, so that management cannot put more pressure on them: “Look at these temps, they work harder than you, for the minimum wage”. Some drivers liked the leaflets and sent us solidarity emails – which was great, but not enough to build mutual trust.
We had heard about strikes of warehouse workers in Italy. These strikes were started by a minority of workers, a bit like in our situation, but supporters of these workers helped them by blockading the gates of the warehouse. 200 guys in front of the gates and the trucks would have to stay put. The other ‘more scared’ workers then find the courage to join in. Most of these supporters are other warehouse workers, but also some students or people from left-wing social centres. We don’t have that kind of support.
Reading out our demands
We had another bigger meeting and decided to read out our demands during one of the briefings where everyone gathers before the shift starts. This is when managers tell the temps and permanents that they have to work harder and focus on good stacking. Two guys people volunteered to read it out and we knew that this would put them at risk. But we thought it would be better to read this out – effectively it was coming from all the Templine workers – than giving a petition with individual names on it. Everyone stayed in the briefing room while the two read out the demand, and most people later on thought it was positive and started to discuss more – but again, only in small and separate groups.
Reactions of Templine management
Templine reacted by sending a higher manager from Birmingham and over the following week they called all of the 70 or so workers for individual ‘conversations’ into the office. They talked the usual bullshit: “we would like to pay you more, but Wincanton won’t and actually, if we would pay you £9, there would be so many applications, all young people or people who just arrived in the UK (people like you!), would not stand a chance; so we are actually doing you a favour!”. But at least it showed that they took the situation seriously and wanted to check out whether we would back up the demands with actions.
Reactions of Wincanton permanent colleagues
What was the reaction of the permanent Wincanton workers? When people heard that we had read out our demands most of them said: “Yes, you poor guys, they should pay you better. Good luck.” So yes, most people were somehow supportive, but only individually. On the whole, the permanent Wincanton workers are more scared. Either the new permanents are on a strict 3-month probation that they want to pass. Or they feel they have more to lose if Sainsbury’s cancels the Wincanton contract – a regular threat by management to keep us working fast. At any rate it would be difficult for permanent staff to find another ‘low-skilled’ job for £9 an hour. The threat of losing the Sainsbury’s contract does not work on the temps really, why should it? We could either get re-hired as temps to the replacement company, or we could be hired directly by Sainsbury’s like our colleagues at the Tesco warehouse next door, where they don’t have agencies.
A bit clueless
So Templine/Wincanton now knew about our demands, but it was clear from the beginning that they wouldn’t do anything. For several weeks we discussed what to do. The problem was, that the discussions happened one-to-one and that the barriers between the three, four main language groups were not broken down. So it always needed three, four people to go from one person to the other, within their groups. The idea of a slow-down was discussed. One day, everyone was supposed to work 70 per cent or so, which would delay things by an hour or so.
* Thirdly, we have to learn from our mistakes.
The idea of a slow-down had been circulating for a couple of weeks. One Sunday a group of ten or so people started to work slow and the word spread, but again, mainly through the same three, four people. About three quarters of the temps worked slow, the average productivity dropped by around 20 per cent. The atmosphere was good! After four hours a small prick from the temp-office started to run up and down the warehouse telling people: “What the fuck are you doing? I had to go to a meeting with Wincanton. If I’ll be fucked, you’ll be fucked, too”. At the same time Wincanton asked the permanent staff to work overtime, which means 12-hours in zero degrees. Most of them did, which was very unfortunate, because after the shift, although productivity was still down by 20 per cent, we didn’t finish any later than usual. ‘Finishing and sending the trucks out on time’ is of major importance for Wincanton. Nevertheless, many people thought it was a good action and that we should repeat it… …but then came the backlash.
A dozen snitches
It was clear to Templine that they had to do something, otherwise there would be trouble from Wincanton and Sainsbury’s. Afterwards we found out that one temp worker had approached Templine that Sunday to snitch about what was going on and in the following week two workers got suspended and accused of “inciting fellow workers to lower their productivity”. Managers called temp workers to individual investigation interviews. They asked people who was behind the slow-down and to help them, showed them photos of people. Most people kept schtum, but a dozen people snitched. We have to be careful with the term ‘snitch’: some of them are indeed spine-less or manipulative cunts who betray their fellow work-/class-/prison-mates in order to get brownie points. But others are just frightened rabbits staring into the bosses’ headlights. For whatever reason, some people talked and that was, at least for the moment, the end of the slow-down idea.
That’ll learn ya!
What can we learn from this story?
a) Don’t let three, four people do the job of coordinating the action. Even if they keep a low profile, after a while people will identify the action with them and then they are in the line of fire. Keep it more dispersed and ask everyone to get involved, to talk to other people. Build all kinds of communication channels: at work, outside of work. That’s easier said then done, though!
b) Take your time. Also that is easier said than done, given that people usually only stay for three, four months, because they think they can find something better. This system puts us in a rat-race. It takes time to build trust and friendships, but with such a turnover of people, we have to make the effort and sometimes take a risk. But let’s be honest: we don’t have much to lose anyway! – although we know that some of us have more to lose than others: more difficulties to find another job or to get unemployment benefits. We have to take that into account and support each other.
c) We are not sure whether the distribution of the leaflets was a clever idea, because it warned management that something was going on. At the same time it was necessary in order to reach people like drivers or guys on other shifts, in other departments. And also to impress management: they might be more careful before sacking people immediately if they are not sure whether 100 supporters and media could turn up.
d) Get support, but don’t rely solely on it! It would be good to have a network of 200 – 300 supporters, workers at other places, students etc., here in West-London, who could help out blockading, or at least threatening to blockade the warehouse. This won’t solve our problem and in the long-run we might face some legal trouble, but it would help in the early days of trying to improve our life at work. If you agree, drop us an email, and we’ll add you to our solidarity network.
e) Don’t lose your humour, don’t let them get you down!