Unofficial overtime strike at Wincanton/Waitrose
 Working as a transport clerk at the Primrose office
 We’ll Work No More – Workers’ Report from Wealmoor Warehouse in Greenford
 Around the world, a working class in struggle – Few examples from January 2015
 Workers’ stories
 Seeing past the luxury label: Fashion warehouses Part I: From Greenford to Gurgaon
 Do you need support? Do you want to support others? – Why we need workers’ solidarity networks in Greenford
 Cleaners and porters at Ealing Hospital strike against the minimum wage
 What is this paper about?!
Rockware Avenue, Greenford UB6 0AA.
Workers: around 80
Pay: minimum wage for agency and people on new permanent contracts. People on old permanent contracts get higher amount up to £9.16/hr.
There is a Wincanton warehouse near Greenford tube station. Wincanton is the second biggest logistics company in the UK. The whole warehouse complex provides logistic services for companies like Waitrose, H&M, Neal’s Yard and Nike.
In the Waitrose part of the warehouse there are about 30 workers working on one shift. They are mainly operators of LLOPs trucks who pick wine cases into cages, which are then loaded into the trucks and transported to the next warehouse and then to Waitrose shops. The work in the warehouse is monotonous and exhausting. Workers pick heavy cases and are forced to achieve high pick rates (about 7.5 tons per shift). Half of the staff are agency workers and half are permanent. Temps earn minimum wage (£6.31 p/h now £6.50) as a base and time and a half for overtime (£9.16 p/h). But in spring 2014 Wincanton management cut the overtime bonus – we were now supposed to work overtime for the minimum wage. In May, some agency workers were called to the agency office where they were asked to sign an agreement for the cut. The cut was supposed to come into effect the next Monday. Workers were surprised and disorientated, especially since most of them didn’t have English as a first language and so didn’t know exactly what documents they were signing. The majority signed them but started to regret it when they realised what they’d done.
The next morning, friends of some workers distributed a leaflet explaining they shouldn’t sign the agreement. The agency workers who hadn’t signed it yet decided to go to the agency office together and inform the manager that they wouldn’t be signing. In response the managers threatened them, saying that as “expensive” workers they wouldn’t be given the possibility to work overtime. After that, some of them signed, but this meeting – as well as the announcement not to work overtime anymore – made an impact on Wincanton management. A few hours later all agency workers got a text saying that the cut would be postponed for a month.
In mid-June, Wincanton cut the overtime bonus for agency workers. After that most of the agency workers jointly stopped working overtime, even though it was a very busy time. The company got into trouble and tried to break this informal overtime strike in several ways:
1. They offered a dozens permanent contracts to the agency workers, who took them.
2. They started to offer more overtime to permanent staff. Since they get extra money for their overtime, they didn’t show solidarity with the temps and agreed to work the overtime, effectively as ‘scabs’.
3. Wincanton signed a contract with a new job agency. This brought in new agency workers who did not know about the informal strike.
4. Some of the agency workers quit the job in reaction to worsening conditions. After a few weeks the situation returned to normal (this was also connected with lower volumes at that time).
We decided to meet in a nearby park to talk about what to do. Around ten people came. Some people talked about immediate strike. On one hand this is good and it shows that people don’t want to accept everything, on the other hand we were not really able to discuss things step by step: if just the temps go on strike, what would the permanents do? What would management do? Are there other forms of putting pressure on the company, for example working slow? We have to learn to discuss these things when we meet together, otherwise we get trapped between “Immediate strike now” and ” Nothing can be done.”
United we stand, divided we fall
In the time of the overtime strike, workers didn’t manage to break the division between temporary and permanent staff who get better wages and a higher bonus for overtime. When agency workers jointly stopped working overtime, Wincanton used permanent staff as scabs, which saved the company from serious trouble.
Lack of solidarity between temporary and permanent workers hit both groups, since the existence of lower-paid temporary workers puts pressure on the permanent workers. This situation will cause worsening work conditions for all staff. For example: more agency workers means less overtime work for permanent workers; it limits permanent workers’ wage demands; and lets the company make even bigger profits on the backs of low-paid temporary workers.
But this is not the end of the story. A month after the agency workers lost the overtime bonus, they decided to work only 4 days out of 5. This was a reaction to the worsening conditions of work. While this decision was taken individually, the fact that so many people did it, says something about the common way in which people saw their situation. As Christmas came and things got busy, this refusal of work was a big problem for management, who then decided to offer a £25 bonus if we came in for 5 days. This was a wage increase of 10%. At the same time management brought the old overtime bonus back.
Workers did not see this as the management’s defensive reaction to their absences and working slow. Instead, workers thought the wage increase was because things were busier before christmas. But if the workers had always worked fast and come in for five days, management would not have had to offer such wage incentives. Workers’ actions resulted in more than the official demands of the trade union! A union that prefers to “fight” for better wages by discussing in the offices with management without any results!
Wincanton multi-user site, Rockware Avenue, Greenford UB6 0A
Pay: £6.50/hr up to £7.70/hr
In March – April 2014 I worked as a Templine temp in the Primrose warehouse office run by Wincanton. The Primrose website says that they do everything ‘in-house’ but that’s a bloody lie. They have to lie in order to get state funding as a ‘family start-up company’.
Four of us Templine workers received online-orders from Primrose (garden furniture, BBQ sets, etc. all made in China), we had to print the orders for the nearby warehouse. There, ten guys would pick and load the stuff, heavy bamboo fencing and all. We also had to fill in the transport delivery forms (TNT, Tufnells, DPD) on their websites. If you are not very familiar with these forms (or pissed off with your boss, like us!) it is very easy to make expensive mistakes. Ticking the wrong ‘express delivery’ box…which unfortunately cost the company £780 instead of £30 to send the £70 BBQ set to Munich for the following morning!
In spring-time there are a lot of orders – up to 900 a day – so we often worked 12-13 hour shifts, typing away names and addresses for hours non-stop. You basically go nuts, cursing the country-folks and their bad taste for water-fountains; in the shape of Buddha, looking more like obese Teletubbies run-over by our delivery truck. Anyway, they also wanted us to manage the complicated Primrose stock-database (Manhattan software), respond to emails sent by Primrose managers and other tasks that normally only supervisors would do. Two of us refused to do this work because it was stressful. You were held responsible for stuff which you were not actually paid for – we were paid only £7.70 p/h.
At the time we were still paid the overtime bonus and we worked a lot of overtime. An average of 65 hours a week overtime on a zero-hours contract – what a joke! Then they announced that the overtime bonus would be scrapped. None of us signed the new contract, which pissed them off. We also agreed amongst ourselves that we wouldn’t work any more overtime – no Sunday shifts, and we would not do extra tasks apart from data entry if they actually cut the bonus. Managers came in and talked about “mutiny” saying whoever would not work on the complex Primrose database would be sacked. They also said that we would have to continue working long hours according to work volume, but that two of us will have to go by the end of the week – the number of orders had come down a bit.
The four of us wrote and signed a letter to management saying that we would work only eight hours a day, on flexible shifts, with alternating Sundays, so that none of us would have to go – even if order numbers had come down. We tried hard to be constructive! In the meantime they had brought in a permanent worker from a different office, who was supposed to learn our job. It was clear that this guy was used as a back-up, so that in case of trouble the office would at least have one loyal employee. We did not know what to do. Management refused our proposal and sacked one of us and hired a new temp person. One of the managers was ‘helping out’ during that time. Two weeks later they sacked another one of us. The remaining two were sacked a week later. They managed to run the office with the loyal permanent, the new temp and the manager, plus a new temp they hired shortly after. Even worse: we heard that after they kicked us out they paid the temp office staff £6.50 instead of £7.70… So what did we learn?
The four of us thought that somehow we could avoid a direct conflict. We thought that the fact that it takes about a week to learn how to operate all the data-tasks would give us some leverage. Should we have refused to collaborate with the permanent worker they brought in? Should we have gone on strike right early on, when it was not that easy to replace us bit by bit? We should definitely have tried more to build a common front with the nearby warehouse guys, whose overtime bonus was also cut. That’s not an easy task, but by waiting and avoiding a conflict, we all got screwed in the end.
Wealmoor, Unit 5, Auriol Drive, Greenford
Wealmoor became infamous at the end of 2007, when a fire broke out at their Atherstone warehouse. Three firefighters died during the operation. It turned out that Wealmoor had failed to install fire-sprinklers.
In the Greenford warehouse there are about 400 workers, unloading fruit and veg from trucks and aeroplane containers arriving from Heathrow and packaging them for supermarkets. Most of us are forced to work long hours from 7am till 9pm – with Wealmoor paying only £6.50 an hour. This is no life. In the run up to Christmas they asked us to work seven days a week. Wealmoor exploits the bad situation in our home-countries by making us work for peanuts.
The job interview was the usual nonsense:
Wealmoor HR: Why do you think you are suitable for the job?
Poor applicant: Errr, I like physical exercise and I feel passionate about, errr, vegetables, you know…
Wealmoor HR: All we do is about delivering excellent customer service. When have you delivered a service before?
Poor Applicant: Errr… (Fuck, I guess she doesn’t want to hear about my community service.) Err… Well, one day there was this old lady standing…
Wealmoor HR: …Yes, the one with the heavy shopping bags, isn’t it? Well, done. Next question: You know that we pay £6.50 and that we ask people to work 12 hours, sometimes more. -do you think this will be a problem for you?
Poor applicant: No, no, working longer hours sounds great, especially, errr, when you want to save some money. Do you pay any overtime bonus?
Wealmoor HR: No. We apply the same basic rate to overtime, night-shifts and weekends.
Poor applicant: Hm, yes, keeping it basic, I guess, errr, making it simple. That’s good. (What c*nts!) What about forklift driving?
Wealmoor HR: As I said, we pay £6.50 for all…
Poor applicant: Oh… O-kay…equal pay, I get it. Kind of fair… (Kind of!)
Wealmoor HR: So I assume you are still interested. Could you start tonight then?
Poor applicant: Meaning, errr, tonight?! (Maybe I can get another two hours sleep before the shift. What the f…) Cool, yes, I have nothing else on…
Wealmoor HR: Fine. And don’t forget your hair-net!
Before you start work in the warehouse you get a one hour unpaid ‘induction’ – consisting of a talk about work-discipline. The actual health and safety induction is little more than a walk around the warehouse and being told to wash your hands before entering the warehouse. The entire ‘health and safety’ induction takes less than ten minutes.
You have to clock in every time you enter and leave the warehouse – to take your break or to go to the toilet. If you are 1 minute late or exceed your official break-time they deduct 15 minutes pay from your wages.
There are four conveyor ‘lines’ for sorting and quality checking of loose vegetables. Mainly women work on the ‘lines’, standing upright for fourteen hours. The intake department unloads the trucks. The aeroplane containers are very low, with the boxes inside weighing up to 30 kilos – it is back-breaking (and I’ve hated baby-corn ever since!). There is a station with a ‘vacuum-crane’, which operator uses to lift 30 kilo boxes onto pallets. People work around and under that crane – boxes could rip easily. There is little space, forklifts drive fast, big containers are pushed around. Some time ago an older worker broke his leg in an accident. He got no compensation.
Our wage is low, but Wealmoor could afford to pay us more money. The fruit and veg we pack for Asda, Tesco and Waitrose makes good money for these big supermarket chains and for Wealmoor. The question is how to make them give us more. They need us – hundreds of supermarkets in London can only sell snap-peas or mangos because of our work.
We struggle and we are not alone. Wealmoor writes a lot about how nice they are to the local producers, local communities and to workers on the company-owned plantations in Africa, Asia and South America. However, independent reports reveal poor conditions for workers and small producers – no surprise! The Centre from Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) produced a report on working conditions at Wealmoor mango supplier Sunshine in Peru:
“At the Sunshine packing factory in the peak period of January and February the labourers work every day of the week with an average of 14 hours a day. Their day starts at 6.00 at the factory and last until 21.00. In this peak period often when there is a large shipment workers have to stay in the factory until all the mangos for the shipment have been processed. Workers get only three months temporary contracts, although they work longer. In this way workers don’t get health insurance and other benefits they would be entitled to. The small producers of the mangos are also ripped off: on average they get 0.13 per cent of the supermarket price of a mango.”
But workers in Peru are fighting back – under harsher conditions than here in the UK. 1,800 Camposol asparagus workers organised a strike in October 2010. They were being paid for 8 hours work, even though they were working for 12 hours. They reach out a hand to us here…
Some people at the warehouse talk about forming a union. But we don’t discuss what that means. If a strike here in Greenford seems difficult, there are other things we can do: if Wealmoor does not pay us more and reduce the working-time we could work slower or not so carefully so that the quality of the orders suffers. We can do this together without a major visible action and without anyone having to play the hero. We just have to start talking and coordinating amongst ourselves.
Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
— Brazil: 20,000 striking Volkswagen and other automobile workers blocked highways in protest against redundancies. 800 sacked workers have now been reinstated
— Greece: Print and book workers went on strike and demonstrated against the introduction of Sunday work by the government
— Nigeria: Oil workers unions called for a nation-wide strike against compulsory deduction from workers’ salaries, casualisation and contract staffing
— China: 2,500 workers at Lide Shoe factory went on strike around chrismas and got better holiday pay and transport subsidies as a result
— Poland: More than 1,000 miners stopped work in twelve mines by staying underground while others blockaded railways in protest against mine closures. The government have now said they will keep the four mines planned for closure open for the time being
— Israel: After Pri Hagalil canned food company announced to close its factory 220 workers locked the gate of the plant and erected a protest tent outside. The regional labour court reacted by telling management to re-open the plant and to pay outstanding wages
— Iraq: Thousands of workers from state-owned companies took to the streets across the country demanding to be paid after going three months without wages
— USA: 2,600 hospital workers in California strike against cuts to their health insurance and pension
— Germany: Temporary workers at Amazon warehouses protested against their dismissal after the Christmas period, while permanent workers at several warehouses were on strike for better conditions
— Romania: After big demonstrations of public sector workers for higher wages in October 2014, now Dacia car workers voted to strike, demanding a 15% pay rise
— Tanzania: 1,500 railway workers who transport copper ore from one of the world’s largest mining areas to the port town Darussalam stopped work after not having received wages for the last four months
— Peru: Mass demonstrations with several thousand participants against the introduction of a ‘youth labour law’, which cuts bonuses and paid holiday for workers between 18 and 24 years of age
— Cambodia: 1,000 garment workers at CS Gold Way factory ended their strike after two days after management promises a wage increase
— India: Unions called off a strike of 500,000 mining workers against privatisation after two days
— Egypt: Despite the dictatorship there were around 100 different workers’ strikes and protests happening in December 2014 alone; In January, 7,000 textile mill workers struck against the cuts of subsidies for small cotton farmers and for the replacement of their management
— Italy: Around 300 women, men and children occupy a large administration building in Bologna’s town centre; many of the occupiers had been homeless, while the building had been empty for 12 years
— Iran: Around 20,000 workers at the Khodro car plant in Tehran went on strike and won a 7-8% wage increase plus $500 in cash every three months, in addition to extra breaks during the night shift.
Keep yourself updated:
Bart (shop assistant):
“When I found a job I did my best. I thought that I will be promoted quickly, I will start to earn more money, my situation will improve. When I was told to carry heavy things, I tried to do it as quick as possible, so that managers were satisfied with me. It annoyed me that the other employees worked much more slowly, I thought they were stupid and lazy. I worked like a dog and I was the best worker but the pay rise was not coming. Instead, one day at work I got whiplash. I realised that it was rather me who was so stupid as to destroy my health for a couple of pounds per hour. Btw…I have never got any wage rise or promotion.”
Amina (warehouse operative):
“One day I got a call from the job agency that I worked for. They asked me to come to work despite my holiday. I replied, I could not get there because the bus drivers were on strike that day. The woman from the agency then asked how far I lived from work.
“5 miles”, I replied.
She said, “Great! So get dressed and come to work on foot!“
She could not say anything more brazen, so I told her she was being unscrupulous and that she should order me a nice taxi! Every time they demand something from us we must demand something from them.”
Maria (warehouse operative):
“The most busy time in my workplace is in the summer. When others go for BBQs in the park, we work hard in the chill until late evenings. When we work, we do not have time and energy for anything else, no private life. When I complain about it, people tell me that I can always change a job. Of course I can! As long as there are better jobs to change to, people will do this. But what if the jobs and conditions are bad in general and there is nowhere better to run to? Then we will have to confront the situation where we are and try and improve things.”
“I work in a warehouse for minimum wage. I often hear from my colleagues that if we are employed by the agency, we can’t earn more. However, in some companies, there is no significant difference in pay between agency and permanent workers. And it is still profitable to keep them! Our agency also used to paid more, but no one resisted the cuts. So they cut everything they could from our wage. But what if the job agencies would actually stop to exist? Well, if they disappear the work that must be done will still be there. But surely the conditions might not be as bad..?”
Jack Wills (formerly at) Unit 4, Ockham Drive Greenford, UB6 0FD
Pay: Minimum wage (Formerly £6.31)
In 2013, Rana Plaza, a garment factory in Bangladesh, collapsed and killed over 1000 people. It made the headlines. The newspapers said the workers were helpless victims at the mercy of big multinational companies and their profits. But workers in Bangladesh are not just victims! In Bangladesh, their struggles, strikes and riots have led to them getting a 40% rise on the minimum wage. There is not so much in the news about that! The media wants us to pity these poor garment workers but instead we can respect them as struggling workers who have something to teach us. After all, our situation, working in fashion warehouses in West London is not too far from theirs.
They produce the clothes that are sent to warehouses here like the one I used to work for, Jack Wills. It’s an expensive fashion company whose clothes I can’t afford. Their slogan, ‘Fabulously British’ is a joke – there is nothing very British about the clothes being made by garment workers from different countries, nor the people from different countries who work in the Greenford warehouse.
Workers in (supply-)chains: From Delhi…
Garment workers in other countries and fashion warehouse workers in England are linked by a supply-chain: I pack and pick the clothes they make. Also, we face similar conditions: We get paid the lowest wages the company can get away with paying. We are mainly agency workers, on temporary contracts, we can be fired or our shifts cancelled at any time and with no warning. We don’t get sick pay. We get verbally abused by managers. We get victimised by management if we try and organise ourselves against them. This stands for all workers who do the ‘dirty work’ in the ‘fashion business’, whether we live in London, Dhaka or Delhi.
One of the suppliers of Jack Wills was a company called Modelama in Gurgaon, India. There have been many reports from Modelama featured in a workers’ newspaper in Delhi (Faridabad Mazdoor Samachar). These reports talk about long hours: women work from 9am-10pm, men work from 9am-2 or 5am. People work up to 300 hours a month overtime but only get paid for 150 hours at single rate. Workers who complain get fired. In 2011, a worker got electrocuted by some faulty wiring and died. Before management could come to ‘wash away’ the evidence, workers stopped working and attacked the factory, throwing stones and breaking windows. There were also peaceful sit-ins outside the gates but they were forcefully removed. They were joined by other workers in nearby factories, all angry at the way management had caused this man’s death and didn’t care; about the low pay, the single overtime, the non-payment of back wages, the no-offs strictness, the continued and regular harassment in the form of abuse, the strong surveillance in the form of fingerprint/biometric entry and the CCTV cameras at every nook and line with the suspicion of workers-as-thieves…sound familiar?
Once, when I was working at Jack Wills, we got a shipment of shirts from Modelama. But there were ‘quality issues’ and they had to be sent back. It caused big problems for the managers at the warehouse in Greenford, messing up their schedules and ‘smooth operations’. When this happened, the workers on the other side of the globe became visible. How could we turn this into a more direct connection, so that on both sides of the world, we can bring together our struggles against high pressure, bad pay and bad conditions?
Jack Wills has shops all over the world. Their distribution centre was in Greenford until a few months ago. Now it’s in Sheffield, outsourced to LF Logistics, a massive fashion logistics company. The clothes came from all over the world: garment factories in India, China, Portugal, Lithuania etc. They were sorted and picked and sent out again to the stores and for mail order deliveries. Despite the inflated prices they sell their clothes for, the agency AND most of the permanent staff worked at minimum wage.
There was bullying at Jack Wills. The supervisors shouted and screamed at us and constantly monitored our performance. They had to do this because they knew the work and pay was so shit, we would not bother much otherwise. This was obvious on the occasional weekend we would have to work, there was usually no direct supervisor so people played the music loud, joked around and hardly worked. One guy used to do dirty dancing with the broom!
The hire-and-fire attitude made people scared and competitive with each other. If you didn’t get the targets, you didn’t stick around long.
My job was shelving: I had to put each item of clothing that was returned into the correct box. A scanner told me where to go. The target was to shelve 100 items an hour, but this was reduced to 70 because so many people made mistakes (put the item into the wrong box). Even 70 items was a difficult target to meet. We often had to shelve single items, racing up and down stairs, often with heavy trolleys, up and down the many aisles, and it was very hot. Our hands became dry and cracked because of handling all the clothes that had chemicals on them.
Workers of the world, compete?!
The majority of the workforce was young and from Poland. There was a division between them and the other groups of workers, from India, Hungary, Lithuania and Romania. People would sit separately in their language groups during the break. Because communication was difficult and the target pressure created so much competition, finding moments where we could help each other and ease the individual pressure was extremely hard.
When did we get the chance? In our department, one day the pressure boiled over and a fight broke out because of ‘nationalistic favouritism’ – ‘Hungarians’ vs. ‘Polish’. The people from Poland scanning the items were giving the ‘good stock’ to the ‘Polish’ shelvers. The guys from Hungary got pissed off. I tried to use this chance to try and implement a new system where we shared the stock more equally amongst us (normally we had to fight to get the good stuff to shelve e.g. jewellery was good because you could shelve 50 items in 10 minutes but people sometimes resorted to ‘hiding’ stock from each other). Everyone agreed, but it didn’t last long: the mistrust of one worker and her idea that she would leave the job soon anyway meant the plan broke down.
The supervisor also then intervened (when one of the women from Hungary was accused of pushing a trolley into someone’s legs!). It was a confusing speech, basically because on the one hand she was saying teamwork was important (and that we shouldn’t be physically hurting each other, which was not a good example of ‘teamwork!’) but on the other hand, too much teamwork was bad, because she had to keep us feeling competitive against each other and working individually because that was how they kept everyone working like dogs. She even said how much fun it was when she was a picker, hiding stock from other pickers and screwing her workmates over! (I think to stay in this job, you had to somehow start enjoying this competition as it was something to keep you ‘motivated’). This ‘team-speech’ showed the middle-managers were happy if we are divided; but they also have to make sure things run smoothly. This tension was a fine line they had to tread.
There seemed to be a bit more co-operation amongst the permanent workers. They normally worked for free on days where there was a sample sale at the warehouse – if they were allowed to have two free sacks of clothes that they could choose before people arrived. When this rule was changed (they had to fill their sacks at the end of the sale), they refused to work. The company had to use agency staff instead. So the next time, the original rule was reinstated.
The fact that permanent staff could do this was good, but could agency staff have done it? We tried to address all temp workers with a leaflet, saying that we should stop competing, but by that time things were difficult because of the announcement that the warehouse was closing, and people had started looking for other jobs.
Some workers were being sent to a flower warehouse in Colindale or to a chocolate factory in Park Royal. Even though people move jobs a lot around here, some of us keep in touch with each other, filling each other in about our new jobs and finding out that some of us had not been paid our holiday pay from the temp agency. We finally did manage to come together against the agency to get our money…(see next article on Solidarity Networks).
Most of the temp agencies at one time or another have tried to screw us over. They don’t pay what they or the law says they should, they refuse our holiday requests and cancel our shifts. We may feel defenceless against their crap but if we decided to do something together with more people, we can put pressure on them.
This is what we mean by ‘solidarity network’: when something bad happens there is a group of people to call on to come and support you. Whether this is going to the temp agency, job centre or dodgy immigration legal advisor, or if you’re fighting an eviction if you’re being thrown out of your home. Last year in London, people from the local community managed to stop some evictions by blocking the doorways to the bailiffs.
Here is what we can achieve if we stick together:
In August 2014, a group of four of us who were employed through the ASAP agency in Greenford and used to work at the same warehouse, took action together to get the holiday pay we were entitled to. We were able to contact each other and find out we were all in a similar situation because we had exchanged phone numbers when we had left the warehouse. It was a good job we did!
We were owed money ranging from £70-150. Our individual attempts to get our money ended up going nowhere. We tried calling the office, we went individually and spoke to them face-to-face – we even phoned their head office. They never called us back. The agency always came up with different excuses as to why they were not paying: “We’ve sent your P45 now, it’s too late to get your holiday pay”, or “You needed to have given us one weeks notice before you left the agency so we don’t have to pay your holiday pay” etc. Every time a different person and a different story. It became clear to us that they were systematically avoiding paying people their outstanding wages once they had left.
They think they can do whatever they want?! They can think again…
Our individual efforts had failed, so we decided to go together and not leave until they had paid us! We didn’t need a solicitor or help from a union: we just went to the office together; three of us agency workers plus five of our friends. We had made a leaflet to give to people who were registering with the agency and gave them out in the reception area. It told them what had happened to us and, if the same thing happened to them, they should call us. We had also made some banners to show that we were serious and things could escalate if we didn’t get what we wanted. We made quite an strong impact when we all filed into the small office together…
And guess what? We got our money within 15 minutes! This was surprisingly easy for the manager to do considering that they hadn’t managed to sort this out in the last 6 weeks!
One of the workers owed money who couldn’t come to the action spoke to them on the phone later that day. The agency had said to us that he had already been paid. But he hadn’t. So when he spoke to them on the phone, he said that if they did not pay, we would all come back again together. And they instantly paid him! Actually, £40 more than he was expecting! So he left with £190. He had given up hope of getting this money back. But when we joined forces we won!
If you are having similar problems here are some actions you can take:
1. Go to the agency as a group. Whether you go with other workers and/or friends. You are more of a threat when they see a few of you and they cannot get rid of you so easily.
2. Prepare what you are going to say together beforehand. Think of what things the agency could say to fob you off and how you can counteract it.
3. At the start make your demands clearly and calmly but firmly. Say you will not leave the office until you get what you want.
4. Make some banners, talk to other workers. Show them that you mean business and can disrupt their work if they don’t do what you want!
Get in touch if you want to join a solidarity network in this area! We want to collect a list of email addresses and/or phone numbers so that we can message each other for support and action. Drop us a line at email@example.com
Working full-time is no longer a guarantee that you can pay the rent, the bills and feed yourself, let alone have a decent quality of life. Most people going to food banks actually work in low-paid jobs. Most of them need benefits. We sometimes read about campaigns by charities or politicians for the London Living Wage (£9.15/hour) or a higher minimum wage. But the problem with these campaigns is that they appeal to the very same government that is making cuts and promoting a low-waged economy. And when workers actually struggle for higher wages, the campaigners and politicians are suddenly less vocal in their support. This was the case with the 150 Medirest workers at Ealing Hospital in February 2014.
As members of the GMB union, workers went on two 48-hour and one 7-day strike for higher wages. The length of this strike was unusual, showing that the workers were willing to fight hard and lose a lot of income for what they felt they deserved. Many of them had been working at the hospital for ten or fifteen years and were still on minimum wage, even though Medirest workers doing exactly the same jobs at other London hospitals were getting over £9.
People who are seen as weak and therefore are supposed to do the dirty work for peanuts show that they have the power to do something and to refuse the minimum wage. Women, especially migrant women – including outsourced cleaners, housekeeping, canteen staff and porters – were very clearly denouncing the minimum wage, in slogans and on placards. This shows that even workers who might be considered ‘weak’ have the power to do something. This could and should have caught on, especially when so many workers nearby tolerate similar pay and conditions. So why didn’t it?
Some missed chances
Firstly, Medirest workers employed at other London hospitals were brought in to cover the work of the striking workers (‘scabs’). There was talk that these workers were getting paid £18 an hour – but we asked them and they said they were getting normal wages, only their taxi to the hospital was being paid for. A central part of the union’s strategy of putting pressure on the management was the increased costs of hiring scabs. But this was probably not too much of an added cost in the end.
Secondly, management could keep the strike ‘at arm’s length’ by not allowing the picket too near the hospital and cause too much disruption. Also, the workers weren’t allowed inside the hospital to talk to nurses, patients or perhaps more importantly, the other Medirest workers who were covering their work while they were on strike. We suggested that during their strike, workers visit other Medirest workers at other hospitals to ask them to stop covering their shifts at Ealing Hospital. We managed to use our contacts at Homerton Hospital to distribute a leaflet there asking people not to ‘scab’, which we think did stop the company using people from there. But this was not taken up very much and would have needed to have been done across many more Medirest hospitals in the surrounding areas. While the union could have contacted workers in these hospitals, they also did not do this.
What other chances were missed? Workers also didn’t make use of the fact that the Compass Group, (the massive company that owns Medirest), caters for prestigious venues and high-profile events. They could have had a ‘flying picket’ to demonstrate at these places e.g. Wembley Stadium, the Natural History Museum, V&A Museum and Madame Tussauds etc. It would have been a real embarrassment for the company and they would have been under more pressure to give into the workers’ demands.
Overall, we think the workers gave too much responsibility to the union. This meant they didn’t make the necessary effort to speak to other workers and co-ordinate their own struggle together, which would have made their position much stronger. There are many other workers in the area who face similar conditions, even if they don’t work for the same company or in hospitals.
Paper-tigers or wildcats?
What about union recognition? While workers we spoke to were supportive of the GMB union and their rep, they also said that the process of getting union recognition and going through all the formal procedures to have a legal strike had taken over a year. For many temp workers who only stay for a few months in a job, this effort would be pointless. The sense of security that a legal strike gives sounds good but in the end a hard struggle that did not really reach out to the other workers, or disrupt this multinational company’s other clients and operations, only led to a minor victory: £1 more an hour and 2 days’ more annual paid holiday.
The collectivity of the workers was apparent to anyone who saw them on the picket line. They were loud and inspired: when the manager came out, they weren’t scared to shout at him and tell him what they really thought! They bought food, whistles and flags and got lots of support from passers-by and the bus drivers. We don’t doubt their commitment and courage. But it was difficult to get an ‘assembly’ type of dynamic going, where people could discuss together what we could all do to win. People let worker leaders and the union rep answer questions for visiting supporters, but they could have answered the questions themselves. This is something to think about for the future…
Unless this dynamic is changed during the struggle, things will stay the same. The only way to take on the bosses and win is to take the struggle into our own hands! We have to self-organise. The first steps are to figure out how we can hit the company hardest and how we can involve as many other workers as possible.
We live and work in Greenford and Park Royal in London. We think that workers wherever they come from are screwed over and should fight back together. We think we have to figure out how we can run this world without bosses, bankers, politicians and mind-numbing, boring jobs in the future. Simple as that. In the meantime we will circulate this newspaper in local warehouse and industrial areas or other working-class places on a regular basis.
Things are bad enough!
Surviving on a £6,7,8,9 an hour job… no time for nothing… either the manager, the loan company or the job centre on your back… news about benefit cuts, bedroom tax and war crimes… looking for ‘reduced-items’ at Tesco’s… going back to Poland, or to India, or to live with mum and dad in Essex…? arrgh! People in the street look tired and ugly… I look tired and ugly… …the eight flat-mates are queuing in front of the single loo again… the five richest families in the UK own more than the poorest 20% of the population… …they sell out the NHS… they blame the migrants… I would stand up to management, but my work-mate would not… my work-mate thinks the same…
Dog eat dog?
Things are in a bad way, and with the crisis and austerity and all, they won’t get better. The bosses and politicians know it, too. That’s why they want us – the poor, the workers – to fight amongst ourselves, rather than them – the rich, the corporations and their state. Local poor against migrants, workers in the east of the country against those in the west, the ‘unbelievers’ against the ‘Islamists’, blablahblah. A pretty obvious strategy. In this system, where everyone has to compete with everyone else over jobs, it would be easy to put our faith in leaders who say they will defend us against the other poor people, who might come from other places, who look different, speak different. Basically other poor people to point the finger at and blame for the crisis and misery. This won’t solve the problem. We have to fight against a system that puts us in competition with each other, otherwise there will be bloodshed and the rich and middle-men will make good money off it – it wouldn’t be the first time…
Fight the power?
But ‘we’ make the world go round, don’t we?! Who builds the houses, picks the fruit, cares for the ill?! Who ships and picks the stuff passing through the West-London warehouses, the stuff which makes up 60% of what London eats day-by-day? The rich make money off our backs and if money and their law was not between us and the stuff that we produce, we would not be in the deep sh*t that we are in. But who is ‘we’? Do we know the guys who produce the ready-meals that we pick in our warehouse? Do we know the workers in the shops that the ready-meals get sent to?! We hardly know the truck drivers of our own warehouse. As soon as we want to fight for better conditions we will face the harsh reality that we have to get to know the workers around us – the workers we depend on in order to do our work and the workers who the bosses might potentially use to replace us once we start trouble. Only in this process will we discover our common power to change things!
Spread the word!
This newspaper is a means for us to exchange our experiences, about conditions at work, small things and big, hidden and open forms of struggle against crap-pay, too much work and being squeezed by landlords and middle-men. Here and in the rest of the world. We have to learn from other workers, from our defeats. No one else will do it for us. We are fed up hearing or saying: “Nothing can be done”, because a lot is being done, the question is: “What works, what doesn’t? What can we do today, with two, three work-mates around us, what can we do tomorrow? How to struggle as temps on zero-hour contracts?”
Support each other!
The newspaper is not (just) about words. We need a local network of workers who support each other: if someone doesn’t get their wages or has trouble with the job centre; if some of us are kicked out; if people need someone to leaflet their workplace or want creative ideas to undermine the management. For the struggle to survive and beyond. Do you need support? – Get in touch! And keep in touch – because others will need your support, too…
– to share your experience of your workplace (anonymously of course!)
– to write about a conflict at work and what the workers did in response – if it made a difference, or not
– if you need support for an action you want to do e.g. getting outstanding wages from the temp agency or distributing a leaflet outside your workplace
– if you like the newspaper and want to get involved!
Email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Find our website with resources you could use here: http://www.workerswildwest.wordpress.com