UNEMPLOYED? LOW WAGES? BAD SEX LIFE?! – ‘THE NATION’ WON’T HELP US!
With the crisis the influence of nationalism amongst the working class grows. We wrote down some basic thoughts.
DON’T BREAKDOWN! SLOW DOWN! – EXPERIENCES FROM SAINSBURY’S/WINCANTON DISTRIBUTION CENTRE IN GREENFORD
Imagine pulling the weight of a VW Golf behind you for 8 hours, at zero degrees celsius, on zero-hours contracts, with an electronic device strapped to your arm, which tells the boss if you pick 220 items per hour, for the minimum wage. Would you knuckle down? Or break-down?! We decided to try and fight back. Here is the full story: what we tried, what we learnt and who snitched!
EALING JOB-CENTRE: A FORKLIFT DRIVING COURSE IN PARK ROYAL THAT NEVER HAPPENED
What happens when you put job centre hoops, government cuts and private companies together? An absurd situation…
A SHORT REPORT FROM ROYAL MAIL SORTING OFFICE IN GREENFORD AND A LETTER FROM MOUNT PLEASANT SORTING OFFICE
Still buzzing from the London riots back in 2011, temp workers at the sorting office in Mount Pleasant took matters into their own hands against the crappy and corrupt temp agency Angard…
SCAMS IN SOUTHALL – WHY WE NEED WORKERS’ SOLIDARITY NETWORKS
A work-mate of ours got cheated by a local visa agent. We went to visit his office…
OCCUPY! – CURRENT STRUGGLES IN LONDON
Largely unnoticed in the far-west of Greenford various occupations happened in other parts of London. We summarised news about some of them…
WHAT IS THIS PAPER ABOUT?
A simple introduction to the paper and the ideas and practice behind it…
Click HERE for .pdf version!
A society driven by ‘profits’ where the gap between rich and poor keeps widening is unstable. Since 2008 we have lived in a state of worldwide crisis: after bank bailouts and cuts to spending, unemployment has risen, people have to move to find work and more people are competing for fewer jobs. But we have also seen an increase in struggles against the welfare cuts of the state, against corrupt governments and attacks on wages and conditions – all over the globe. So the rulers have to come up with a strategy to push through their cuts and at the same time deal with our anger and discontent. It is therefore no coincidence that in this situation we are witnessing the re-emergence of nationalism: to divide-and-rule, politicians of most parties blame the ‘immigrants’ for the miserable situation. But at the same time they say that they will squeeze ‘their local workers’ even harder: labour laws are getting worse, they want to make it even harder to go on strike, low-paid work is becoming the norm with no real national minimum wage increases on the horizon. In some countries, like Ukraine, the new nationalism creates war.
Nationalism also plays a role where we work – in warehouses or other jobs around West-London. Many of us were not born in the UK and we speak different languages. On the job some of us might feel closer to our ‘English’, ‘Polish’ or ‘Indian’ manager, than to the ‘foreign’ person who works next to them – sometimes we hope that by sticking to ‘our’ manager we will get an advantage over other workers. BUT companies are able to use divisions and stereotypes to make us compete against each other and ultimately make more profits for themselves. We need to keep our eyes on our real enemies…
* JOBS? WHY DEFEND THEM?!
Working class people – us – turn towards the nation (state) mainly to protect our jobs. But we have to question why there are ‘jobs’ and ‘a limited number of jobs’ in the first place. ‘Jobs’ are created by those with money and resources, only if the jobs create more money for them. They and their market decide what jobs we do – and most of these jobs only relate to money-making: advertising, financial services, securing the wealth of the rich. If all just worked to produce what we needed to live (housing, nice clothes, good food, funny little gadgets), then we could just share out the work equally. If we didn’t have to sell our time and energy to them for money, a lot of ‘unemployment’ would actually be a good thing. Why? Because it would mean fewer people are necessary to produce what we need: everyone could work less and we’d have more time to do other things that make us happy. But at the moment we just look and compete for jobs, because we need money, and they create jobs only if they can make more money off us. Down with their jobs, down with their unemployment!
* IN THIS SYSTEM, THE USE OF MACHINES AND HIGHER PRODUCTIVITY CREATES UNEMPLOYMENT
At the moment though, we unfortunately live in a world where we can’t escape the realities of ‘money’, unemployment and ‘crappy jobs’. Although workers produce everything, we have nothing, we have no say. Unemployment is created by the fact that as soon as the bosses are able to increase productivity, for example with the use of new machines, they will try and cut jobs – for the sake of making more profit. Under these conditions technological progress, which could make life and work easier, causes more poverty. We have to compete with the machines we’ve made for the bosses… and we lose – redundant workers get fired, more workers enter the labour-market. The competition increases as does the pressure on wages. The bosses keep the threat of unemployment hanging over our heads to keep us obedient and divided. It does not need any migrant workers for this to happen – it is the normal functioning of the system. Closing our borders would not help: in the 1930s there were millions of unemployed in the UK – were there any Indians or Romanians around??
* MOST WORKERS ARE MIGRANTS IN THEIR ‘OWN’ COUNTRY, WHETHER THEY LIKE IT OR NOT
Workers can’t stick to their roots. We have to take a job where we can find it. When the steel industry in the North-West England closed down because they weren’t making profits, people had to move to London to find work. When construction jobs paid more in Germany in the 1990s, thousands of UK workers went there. We had no say when unemployment in Poland increased by 20 – 30% in the 1990s and we had to leave. We didn’t start the war in Syria, Ukraine, Somalia and we didn’t want to fight for the warmongers who started the conflict. We had to leave. We are all migrants somehow and as long as we are just a mass of individuals, the bosses will try to make us compete with each other.
* THE STATE HELPS THE BOSSES ORGANISE THE GLOBAL (LABOUR-)MARKET AND COMPETITION AMONGST WORKERS
The state makes sure that workers and the unemployed keep competing, rather than turning against the bosses. This happens in all kinds of ways, depending on the ups and downs of the market: The state introduces lower minimum wages or apprentice-schemes for the young. Unemployed workers are forced to work ‘for their benefits’ and kept schtum by ‘benefit-scrounger’ propaganda. When workers are needed the state puts pressure on women to look for jobs, if not, they are supposed to stay at home and be a “good housewife’. If additional cheap labour is required the state shows its multicultural side and encourages workers from other countries to come. At the same time the states puts extra-pressure on them by changing EU-migrant benefit laws or by raids on ‘illegal migrants’ – in order to force them to accept shit wages and to shut up. This is the way hierarchies between different group of workers are created. In the end this puts more pressure on everybody.
* LET’S BREAK OUT OF THE COMMUNITY PRISONS
It is getting harder to survive. This and the current re-emergence of divide-and-rule-strategies, such as anti-Eastern European or anti-Muslim propaganda, pushes us deeper into our various communities. We need the community for survival, for finding a flat or a job. At the same time, the richer members of the community make nice profits off their ‘fellow countrywomen and men’. They do this by: exploiting our cheap labour such as the Polish construction gangs or as Indian restaurant workers; by taking middle-men money (visa agents, landlords); or by getting our votes as community representatives. The middle-men of our communities love to remind us that ‘we are from the same background’, they love patriotism, because this is the main basis for their business. For us, in the long run ‘the community’ will turn into a ghetto: the fear to leave it and hostilities from other workers keeps us in high levels of exploitation.
* IF WE TRUST THE NATIONAL OR RELIGIOUS MIDDLE-MEN MORE THAN WORKERS IN OTHER COUNTRIES, THERE WILL BE WAR
Nationalism is a sign of fear: “Poor people from different places and languages can’t fight together. The bosses are powerful. Better stick to those in power who at least speak the same language and promise us things”. We can understand this fear, but we fear workers turning on each other even more.
We can see what is happening in Ukraine. In the East of the country, workers in the steel and mining regions fear that once Ukraine will join the EU they will lose their jobs. This is why some of them might support the ‘separatists’, who talk bullshit about ‘Russian’ identity and who are supported by the regime in Russia. In the West of the country, unemployed workers with a better education hope that once Ukraine joins the EU they will have access to better jobs. This is why some of them might support the Ukrainian nationalists, who talk bullshit about ‘Ukrainian’ identities and who are supported by the US and the EU-regime. Although most workers try to stay out of this conflict, hundreds of them have been killed and the rise in military spending in Ukraine (over £200 million a month) means a rapid increase in poverty for ordinary people meaning good business for the national and international middle-men. The regimes in Russia and EU are themselves in crisis. Discontent amongst their local populations is rising and they can use the conflict in Ukraine to point at an external enemy. Historically, global crisis and World War went hand in hand.
* ERM… WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE?? (WACKY IDEA!)
We are confronted with a possibility: workers everywhere around the globe have to fight under increasingly similar conditions; companies and industries are global; and workers move around and learn different ways to struggle. So far the bosses and the state have used migration in order to play us off against each other, on the company level and beyond. If we look closer at some of the successful struggles of workers in history, we can see that workers who managed to use their various experiences of having lived and fought in different countries can be stronger. Workers worldwide know enough about how to do agriculture, produce garments, build houses, take care of each other – this means we can get rid of the middle-men, the bosses and the politicians, who profit from us and who would rather tip the world into another ‘Great War’ than to admit that their system is bankrupt.
Down with their system – we have the power to create something better!
Where: Auriol Drive, Greenford
Workers: 400 incl. around 100 drivers and 40 Sainsbury’s IT contract workers
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.
In this article though, we want to tell you about the attempted slow-down strike by the temp-workers, which took place in February 2015.
**Firstly, we have to look at the general situation of the temp workers. This shows that it’s not easy to build strong connections between us – something we’ll need if we want to organise to improve our conditions. Not easy – 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), but 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 orders the evening before and a confirmation in the morning. According to this ‘volume’ that needs to be picked, they supply a certain 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? Firstly, it means they don’t have to guarantee hours, so there are no big costs in hiring people. More importantly though, 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 Wincanton exactly how many items you’ve picked per hour. The productivity calculation is arbitrary – 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 in 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 reasons people are scared and feel competitive with each other. The permanent Wincanton workers have less stress because their shifts can’t 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. But 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 which stands in the way of organising: the problem of (language) groups. Obviously, a big mix of people work in the warehouse. E.g. older men from Iraq, young women from Romania or Poland (for some of whom is not only their first job in the UK but their first job at all). The atmosphere was not bad between us pickers, 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.
There is a union inside the warehouse, Unite, but it is targeted towards permanent workers, not 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 have never been 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 presuure on the company. This also means asking ourselves if the temps alone, without the support of the permanents and/or drivers, would be able to do something successfully**
It is clear that the temps all had similar problems and so 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 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 attempted to 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. 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 Marks & Spencer warehouse run by Wincanton in Swindon. Workers there were asking for equal pay, they had 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!” The leaflet said that we, the temps, will need the support of the permanents – and that at the same time the permanents have an interest in the temps getting better conditions, 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 anything more than moral support.
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 will need this kind of support in the future and to that end, we are trying to build a solidarity network in West- London. In the meantime, we can concentrate on finding ways to build our strength with our workmates inside the warehouses.
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 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 rather than giving an individually-signed letter. 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 did pay you £9, there would be so many applications, all “inexperienced” young people or people who just arrived in the UK (people like you!), wouldn’t stand a chance; so we’re actually doing you a favour!” They even said this to people who had been working there for over a year! But at least it showed that they took the situation seriously and wanted to know whether we would back up our demands with actions.
Reactions of 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 Wincanton’s 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 start 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 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% or so, which would delay things by an hour or so.
**The third lesson – we have to learn from our mistakes**
The idea of a slow-down had been circulating for a couple of weeks. We decided to do it one Sunday because Sunday is the most busy day during the week. On that day, a group of ten or so people started to work slow. The word spread that the slow-down was happening, but again, the action was mainly co-ordinated 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 better treatment from management. 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. It was also useful to create uncertainty in the minds of 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 sense of humour, don’t let them get you down!
In 2014 I was unemployed for a month or two, so I had to sign on at Ealing job centre. The guys working there were friendly and didn’t put too much pressure on me to apply for jobs that didn’t exist. I thought I might as well use the time in-between jobs to learn something useful, so I asked them whether they could put me on a fork-lift driving course.
I went for an ‘assessment day’ to an office building in Park Royal, on Coronation Road near Middlesex hospital. There were already 20 other guys waiting, all men, as if you’d need balls to drive a forklift! Anyway, the person from the private training company CSM, which gets job centre contracts (www.csmtraining.co.uk), explained to us what the course would look like:
“The course will take two weeks. The job centre actually does not finance any forklift driving courses, they pay CSM for teaching you how to apply for jobs: write good CVs, smarten up, conduct good job interviews and so on. We, CSM, will get paid for two weeks job training and out of that money we pay for the actual two days forklift training, which will take place at the end of the two weeks. Today I want to check your maths and writing skills…”
Most of the guys thought that this was a big waste of time, especially after a rather humiliating three-hour test of our spelling and counting. But by that time we were already trapped: the guy told us that from today onwards we would have to attend all of the 10 training days, otherwise the job centre would sanction us and stop paying our benefits. But in the end…
…due to the spending cuts, the job centre scrapped the whole course! So because they had no money for this private company to teach us bullshit during a blown-up two-week course, we wouldn’t even get the chance to learn something useful. This might actually have increased our ‘employability’ – or however they call our ability to step on the heads of other poor ‘job-seekers’ on the market. It’s all pretty absurd…
This story did not end too badly considering that, at the same time, the government is trying everything it can to cut peoples’ benefits. They use companies like Atos (now Maximus) to get people off disability allowance; hundreds of thousands of people are sanctioned arbitrarily when on JSA; there is a battle to get through to the tax office to claim working tax credits; bedroom tax evictions are soaring; and people who have been living and working in the UK for years (or even have been born here but went abroad for 3 or 4 months) now have to do habitual residence tests again.
Below you can find a list of links in case you need advice. Get in touch if you have trouble with the state machinery, we will try to support each other!
Information about what you can do against sanctions:
General advice and help for claimants in London:
Another useful site and an invite to a UK wide claimants meeting on 30th May in London:
Basic info about your rights in Polish, Hungarian, Spanish:
We probably all know about the changes happening at Royal Mail – a process of privatisation that means postmen and women have had their pay cut and their workload increased. The workers have, so far, not been able to stop this. We think that they won’t now be able to without co-ordinating their struggle with more people, in particular the temporary workers and workers from other private postal companies such as TNT, DHL or UK Mail, who are getting bigger and bigger.
The following reports from friends are an invitation to exchange our experiences. Send us your thoughts!
Short Report from Greenford
“I worked as a casual at Greenford sorting office for 4 weeks in December 2014. We had one day paid training, then worked six days a week. They paid us £7 per hour. Nearly all of the 110 or so people on our shift were casuals, 70% of us women. None of us was taken on as a regular worker after Christmas – although they said that people could sign up with the temp agency, Angard, which offers irregular shifts at minimum wage. There were also some agency workers from Manpower, some of them drove forklifts. No idea whether they stayed on after Christmas or whether they were also kicked out again. We sorted small parcels into cages and pushed cages to the loading area. Some of us did inventory work. Nearly 90% of the parcels were Amazon orders. So I think the fact that Amazon have announced they want to use their own system for parcel deliveries in the future will have a big impact on the workers at Royal Mail.”
Letter from Mount Pleasant
‘I have worked as a casual postal sorter at Mount Pleasant for several years now. I’ve previously worked at the old sorting office in Whitechapel Road and the big modern Bromley-by-Bow mail centre (which has now shut – as has the Nine Elms sorting office, Rathbone Place and a few others in London). The hourly pay is still £6.80 per hour, it has been stuck at this rate for the last four years. When I was doing the same work in 2007 at Bromley-by-Bow I was being paid £7.40 per hour, the pay crashed after that. Meanwhile what several permanent workers at Mount Pleasant have told me is how, with overtime and weekend rates and extra hours their take home pay at the end of the week was higher in absolute terms (never mind inflation) in the 1990s than it is now!
“Natural biological wastage”, if you can call it that, has been a significant factor in how Royal Mail has restructured and downsized the workforce at Mount Pleasant. Many of the permanent staff have simply been allowed to get older without many new people getting recruited into permanent positions to replace them. Many accept early retirement or voluntary redundancy. In fact while I was there in December 2014 there was a little party for 40 permanent staff who had just accepted early retirement.
I was working on the evening shift (“lates”), which used to be a classic 8-hour shift. There used to be more than one break and part of the break was paid. Little by little the shift has been reorganised, so now there is only one break, the main meal break, which is only half an hour and unpaid. The whole shift is now from 2:30pm to 10pm, most resting and idle time has been eliminated from the work process – depending on when you get your break you might work 4 and a half hours at a stretch – packet sorting, moving containers and trolleys, bagging – continuously standing. But it was noticeable that chairs had reappeared for those wanting/needing to sit while working at the manual letter sort-frames. The chairs had been missing for a couple of years. No significant time was given at the end of the shift to go and collect your bag/coat and sign out, so it would often be way past after 10pm before us temps would get to leave the building.
In recent years the length of the Christmas temp work has gotten shorter. You used to be able to work from late November all the way up to xmas and then do extra clear-up work that could keep you going until January. This has shrunk to 3 and half weeks or less in December and nothing more.
There is a big mix of many different groups in terms of race and culture at Mount Pleasant, at shop-floor level it is majority non-white and quite international. There’s a large female workforce, as well. Many fellow workers there I’ve spoken to, both temps and permanent are quite radically conscious of their own situation, both in immediate workplace exploitation terms and in wider political terms, and people express anger and discontent. But at the same time people are aware of the balance of forces stacked against them, and I think many are wary of the danger of allowing themselves to be provoked into an ill-judged and self-defeating action. Despite the big changes to Mount Pleasant it still also functions as a sort of social hub where lots of people from across London network and keep in touch with each other.’
The Angard temp workers conflict in 2011
It was in November/December of 2011, when I worked at Mount Pleasant that Royal Mail made the ugly decision to experiment with ‘outsourcing’ the recruiting and employing of the seasonal temps (during the xmas period) to a spurious web-based ghost agency, “Angard Staffing”. This is really a detached deniable business of some of the Royal Mail higher managers. The idea being, we guess, was to treat us all just like agency temps. “Casual flexible resource” being the technical term they were using. This allows the managers directly in control of you in the office to try and wash their hands of any responsibility regarding issues with your pay, tax, documentation etc. Previously you could at least get the managers to let you go upstairs to the “Book Room” to try and sort out those kind of problems. In the Book Room there was usually somebody in front of you to deal with. But with the ghost agency they could fob you off and leave you in the lurch, with just an email address and phone number, neither of which would ever get answered. Their official postal address was miles away in Northampton.
It soon became clear Angard were a complete bureaucratic mess. Some people were sent to the wrong offices to start work. Many of the 18,000 or so temps across the country didn’t get any pay or corrupt wage slips for over three weeks! There were angry spontaneous stoppages of work by large groups of temps. Middle-managers were forced by us to come down to the floor to speak to us. This happened in many other offices across the country, particularly in the Midlands and the North. The dispute continued on and off for several days and there was support and sympathy from many permanent staff – rather than coldness and hostility the ‘casuals’ used to sometimes get in earlier years. Some of the drivers also brought us news of trouble and stoppages at the other offices. Some of the younger temps, refusing any of the managers’ instructions and threats, were visibly still ‘buzzing’ from the atmosphere of the urban riots in August. The trouble at Royal Mail was given a brief mention in some of the national newspapers.
Royal Mail managers ended up having to pay emergency pay cheques in advance of our proper wages, for those who needed them, out of their own funds, to calm the majority of people down. These emergency cheques had to be cashed in the nearby post office, where people queued to get their money. Several post offices next to affected sorting offices temporarily ran out of cash – leading to more trouble. The manoeuvre of paying out the emergency advance money succeeded in diffusing and dispersing most of the anger. Some people, after accepting this money, went on holiday and never returned. Eventually we got our proper pay and documentation from Angard. Funnily enough, with the bureaucratic chaos, some people even ended up getting overpaid.
In a situation like this there were discussions about tactics, and some of us came to the conclusion that it might be a better tactic NOT to “walk out”, but to the contrary to insist on staying INSIDE the building and causing trouble inside the workplace. If we walked out they might just close the door behind us and leave us permanently in the cold with no pay and job. There was even a danger the agency could deny we had ever done any work as many of us hadn’t, up to the trouble breaking out, been given proper documentation confirming our employment.
In a sort of little victory, for the following year November/December 2012, Royal Mail UK scrapped the outsourcing of the recruitment and employment of the majority of the seasonal temps, and the main casual recruitment operation was brought back in-house direct with Royal Mail.”
In the last issue, we suggested starting up a West-London solidarity network so that when we need help, others can support our actions. Against landlords that rip us off or temp agencies that steal more of our wages and screw us over. Below is another story of how a solidarity network might be able to help us in our daily fights.
A work friend of mine, a woman from Punjab who hopes to renew her visa to stay in the UK, gave £10,000 to a ‘visa advisor’, Mr Patel, in Southall. His company, Aaryas Careers Ltd. offered to give her IT training at his (apparently Home Office registered) company that would sponsor her visa application. She only got 2 weeks training, and then was given fake documents to apply for a visa.
This is a common story. These kind of ‘legal advisors’ take advantage of people who are desperate to stay in the UK and have an insecure immigration status. They know that the people are too scared to report fraud to the police because they might then be deported.
But my friend did decide to fight back after Mr Patel refused to refund her money. First he agreed to give her a cheque for £10,000. But then straightaway he called the bank and said his chequebook had been stolen so when she went to cash the cheque, the bank thought she was committing fraud and froze her bank account!
So a few of us went with her to the office to put some pressure on him. He was not in the office (although his car was outside) and he left his two young receptionists there to deal with his disgruntled customers: us, as well as two other groups of people who were also asking for their money back. One group came all the way from Southampton, and had paid this guy £25,000! The other man who was also there to get back his money started filming the receptionists and taking photos of the ‘diplomas’ and accreditation certificates on the wall. The receptionists got nervous and called the police (who never came). Mr Patel just left them there to cop the flak…
We went back the next day. Even though he tried to intimidate us by asking us for our IDs and addresses (which we refused to give him) and shouting, he was definitely nervous and worried. He wanted to talk to my friend and her husband alone and he agreed to pay another instalment of £2000, which he did. We have given him a deadline to pay back the rest, if he doesn’t do it, we will go back, hopefully with more people. We will continue to escalate our actions until we get back all the money…
The visa-agent was able to rip people off because he himself was well established and could appeal to poorer and more desperate people that are ‘from the same community, speaking the same language’. Therefore we question this idea of ‘community’. The ‘community’ covers up the differences we know exist between us, most importantly between those who are able to make money and those who get ripped off. To fight the exploiters we have to build communities based on an international working class solidarity, not the colour of our skin, religion, caste and cultural practices.
With the state, police and Home Office all on the same side, the only thing we can do is apply pressure ourselves to get the money back.
If you are in a similar position here are some things we tried and thought of doing:
1. Go with a larger group of people to the office and kick up a fuss.
2. Talk to others inside and outside the office who are thinking about using the services of the immigration advisor and tell them about your bad experiences.
3. Get you and all your friends to bombard the office with emails and phone calls.
4. Find out what other companies the office works with e.g. which English language college they send people who want a student visa or the company they send people who want a work visa. Say you will visit them and kick up a fuss there. It is good to try and embarrass them publicly.
5. Same goes for any clubs or groups they belong to as part of their public reputation and image.
If you want to join the Solidarity Network – if you need help and support or want to help and support others, get in touch!
We’ve heard of the Occupy movement, thousands of people around the world taking over public space to highlight the fact that the system is not working. While these spectacles are largely over, the tactic of ‘occupying’ has lived on. In London at the moment, different groups of people are occupying universities, housing estates, workplaces and shopping centres to disrupt the day-to-day machinery that tries to enslave us and take back what is ours…
First off, there’s the FightForTheAylesbury campaign, which started on January 31st 2015. At the end of the March for Homes, a housing demonstration in central London, a group of about 150 people went off the general route and took over a block of flats on the Aylesbury Estate that is now almost totally empty. Southwark Council is trying to force all residents out of their homes so they can sell off the land to developers who will build new flats for the rich instead. A common story across London. A barbed-wire fence that the council built around the whole estate was torn down by protestors, but afterwards, the remaining squatters were evicted.
Another housing occupation is happening at Sweets Way Estate in Barnet. Residents who have been in this area for decades are being forced out, aided by council policy to force up rents. Activists and residents have re-opened 4 of the houses, which are all in very good living condition.
Students are also in the middle of occupations. At the London School of Economics, students are demanding that the university stops running as a business for profit which stamps on the interests of workers and students. Students have united with cleaners, catering staff, security staff, and porters to demand an end to zero hours contracts, proper remuneration for overtime, and free education.
At the University of London Senate House Library, a group of women also occupied on 8th March, demanding free education. They wrote: “On International Women’s Day we should not just celebrate our long past victories but fight for more. We know this will not be won in the boardroom, it will be won on the streets and in occupations.”
In January 2015, Angry Language Brigade occupied their workplace after they were fired without proper pay or notice. Teachers from the Leicester Square School of English, some of whom were on illegal self-employed contracts, quickly decided to occupy. But the place had already been gutted. They met others who had been left high and dry: a cleaner had not been paid for 3 months and several host families left unpaid for accommodation they had provided to students. So next, they targeted the owner’s other business interests as well as his reputation e.g. writing to the posh school where he was a governor. He had to resign. The battle and pickets continue…
Public spaces are also being reclaimed: In December 2014 hundreds of people went to a ‘die-in’ at the Westfield Shopping Centre in Shepherds Bush. Organised by London Black Revolutionaries, this was in solidarity with protests in the US over the deaths of Eric Garner and other Black men murdered by the police. Business suffered and the police were called.
Occupying a space can often have more impact than standing outside: the business/university/council can’t just carry on as normal. The question now is, when do we occupy our warehouses??!
We live and work in Greenford and Park Royal. We think that workers, wherever they come from, are screwed over and should fight back together. We have to figure out how we can run this world without bosses, bankers, politicians and mind-numbing, boring jobs in the future.
This newspaper is a means for us to exchange our experiences about conditions at work. We have to learn from other workers. 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?”
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!
Other websites we find useful:
WHERE DO WE GIVE OUT THIS PAPER?
We try to distribute this paper once a month at following places – if you have other suggestions where we could hand it out, let us know.
– Greenford Auriol Drive (amongst others, Sainsbury’s and Tesco warehouses)
– Park Royal (Bakkavor, Greencore, Premier Park)
– Royal Mail DC (Greenford and Princess Royal)
– Greenford Retail Park
– Ealing and Southall Job Centre
– Greenford Bus Depot
– 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!
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Find our website with resources you could use here: