There are seven million temporary and casualised workers in Britain, many of whom are paid the pathetic minimum hourly wage. Just under a million are forced to accept zero hours contracts, offering no guarantee of work. They are ‘Generation Zero’, failed by everyone. This failure is a consequence of anti-union laws and legislation that favours business. And so as we seek to create a post-capitalist, fairer society, a new model by which workers can effectively organise to end injustices may also be needed.
The plight of ‘Generation Zero’ was dramatically illustrated when Channel 4 News broadcast secretly filmed footage, taken inside the massive, fortress-like JD Sports warehouse in Rochdale.
JD Sports warehouse operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with 12 hours shifts as normal. As the video shows, workers are treated like prisoners and even their fingerprints are scanned on arrival and exit for each shift.
Allegations raised in the video include:
- workers unpaid for 30 minutes each day of queuing time (to get in and out of the warehouse)
- workers told on arrival to go home if not needed that day
- workers not allowed to sit down
- First Aid facilities are lax
- workers told “three strikes and you’re out” for trivial misdismeanours
- bullying by supervisors (bosses’ lackeys) is commonplace
- all agency-recruited workers subject to instant dismissal
Around 800 workers at JD Sports – more than half the workforce – are supplied by Assist Recruitment. All agency recruits are paid the minimum wage of £7.20 per hour but also have no entitlement to sick leave, or paid holiday leave, or pensions, or any other work-related benefits.
The Pentland Group (owned by Stephen Rubin and family) is the majority shareholder of JD Sports and, ironically, was awarded ‘Best Workplaces 2016 UK” and for Europe (see logos at bottom of their website). They must share responsibility for the dire conditions of the JD Sports “prison”.
JD Sports also has sponsorship deals with several top football clubs, including Bournemouth, Charlton Athletic, Dundee United, Blackpool, Luton Town & Oldham Athletic. They too must share in this responsibility. Similarly, shareholders at JD Sports and Assist Recruitment.
Assist Recruitment is a multinational agency, with clients all across the UK as well as the US and Canada and supplies thousands of workers in most industry sectors. Interestingly, the agency did not issue a rebuttal statement after the Channel 4 News feature. Instead it merely added its name to the statement issued by JD Sports. That is because JD Sports claims its workers get a slightly better deal than agency-recruited workers.
So why do so many workers put up with such barbaric conditions? The answer is simple: for most workers this is the only type of work available in their area. And they cannot afford to move anywhere else. In many cases they’ve been forced to accept the work by the Job Centre or their dole will be stopped.
Once inside the JD Sports prison, there’s no escape from the day-to-day drudgery. And if you’re sacked for one of the many trivial reasons given, you can’t claim dole again for several weeks, if not months. It’s a lose-lose.
But the true scandal is far, far bigger
According to the Office of National Statistics there are as many as 900,000 people on zero-hours contracts. And it’s not just the big concerns, such as Amazon or Sports Direct, who are the guilty party, but small, family run businesses too.
In big warehouses and small warehouses. In factories and on the farms. Care workers, fast-food workers, telesales and call centre workers, workers in supermarkets and shops generally. All exploited. All dehumanised. Their working lives rendered meaningless.
It gets worse. An estimated 7.1 million people scrape by each week on temporary, casual or zero-hours contracts, or are “self-employed”. Argos, Sainsbury’s, Greggs and Tesco all use agencies to recruit such workers (Tesco alone employs around 6,000 casual workers). And these figures exclude retired people, who are eking out a living on their paltry state pensions.
New ways of organising
Many low paid, casualised workers are non-unionised. Indeed, workplaces like JD Sports rely on subservient workers – hence the bullying culture.
So what if every low paid, casualised worker across the country organised within one union of low paid workers? That union of workers could, if need be, bring selected businesses to a standstill should their demands not be met. Demands such as a realistic wage, better health and safety conditions, paid holidays, paid sick leave, pensions – the rights workers once took for granted. (Nor would regular employment mean long working days: in many countries, unlike in the UK, weekly working hours have been reduced, while pay has gone up.)
But with all the legal restrictions that trade unions face, it’s perfectly understandable that massive industrial action by all or even most low paid workers would be difficult to organise. Unless…
A new model?
The Internet was created to allow the elite to collaborate, though it was not long before it was opened up to everyone – largely to exploit. So what if this technology was used to subvert that exploitation? We are in the age of networks within networks, including encrypted networks. We’re also in an age when nearly everyone of working age is online.
Online workers’ solidarity organisations – a new model for 21st Century unions? – could be set up and run by their members in a very different way to traditional trade unions. No compulsory dues, no assets to fund (and no rogue officials to sell out to the state or bosses). Ideal for wildcat strikes.
And it was only recently that 20,000 prisoners in scores of jails across the USA organised a strike, mostly via the Internet. If they can…?
The bigger challenge
Since the Industrial Revolution, people’s lives have been defined by their need to earn money through work. For many people that work is meaningless, a drudgery. Millions of people still live their lives in this way. It is nothing short of abuse on a massive scale.
In a post-capitalist society, people should not be defined in this way any longer, but seen for who they are and how their lives are lived. In such a society, every human being should have the right to a home, to education and to healthcare, as well as to work, or not, in whatever way they choose.
To realise this is our collective challenge – for our collective and indivdual wellbeing.