Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Agency workers don't have smear tests

According to the Agency's themselves, there are around 1.3 million agency workers in Britain today.

At Amazon's warehouse in Rugely, there are 50 "shop floor perms" (people who have a proper job) and anything between 400 and 1000 Agency workers.

Amazon are (in my experience) a worse employer than most, but at most warehouses (and at a host of other sectors) there is always an element of "permanent Agency" on the books.   There are many reasons - most of which are disgusting, why employers do this.

Life is hard for the Agency worker on a long term assignment.  Of course, there shouldn't be such a thing as a long-term Agency assignment - the whole point of Agency is that it's there to fill a short-term labour shortage.  The whole point of Agency work is being systematically abused by our employers.

This means that many thousands of Agency workers have been on the same assignment for one, two, four, even seven years.

So why is life hard?  Are there not laws to stop abuse?

In legal theory, Agency workers are protected.  In practice, they are not - which I will explain.

Agency workers on a long-term assignment cannot afford to be ill.  They cannot afford to ask for time off. They cannot afford to answer the line-supervisor back.  Typically, absence is "letting the team down".

A naive Agency worker on the first six months of an assignment may ask for time off, but most savvy Agency workers simply wouldn't ask about a smear test appointment for a week on Thursday that's just come through the post.  Typically they think, "Well, I think I'm OK, so it'll be alright.  There's no symptoms, OK I feel like **** but that's just because I'm knackered and working 12 hour shifts 6 days a week, and because I'm not eating well.  Maybe if I just wait until the next smear test I will have been offered a permanent contract by then".

Of course, any Agency would fiercely refute this blog, and would say it's very happy workers would be encouraged to report any such problem and they would take it seriously.  And I don't doubt that some of it's senior management will be blissfully unaware of what happens on shop-floors. But what really does happen is that the Agency worker that falls out of favour (for whatever reason) is simply told they are not needed any more - and that's that. It's virtually impossible to prove your suspicions are correct about the reason why your assignment has ended.

Non-union Agency workers (and that's the vast majority) in my experience all share the same miserable, hopeless plan.  The plan is to be as productive as possible, work as hard as possible, never go to the dentist, pretend not to be ill, put up with anything and everything...and hope...hope over hope that fairness will win the day....hope over hope that one day the employer will recognise that they are excellent, and will take them on as a perm.

But of course this desperate plan is doomed to fail.  The individual behavior of one Agency worker will not effect the business strategy of the HR Director of the client company. In fact the reverse, as the client employer will be delighted at the productive, cheap Agency workforce, and this in turn helps to put the perms onto the back-foot and weakens their position.

And so the effects are clear.

Women are missing smear tests and other essential things that prevent death.

Bullying and other forms of abuse are rife.

Being totally at the behest of the Agency/employer makes family life and parenthood difficult, verging upon impossible. eg "Can you come in on Sunday? Well don't bother coming in on Monday then.  I SAID, can you coming in on Sunday?! Good, I thought that's what you said."

The (usually) low pay of the Agency workers then gets propped up by the state, as super-rich multi-nationals  rake it in while the rest of us pick up the tab.

It makes my blood boil that Unions are presented as narrowly interested only in employment rights, as if they were an end in themselves.  Proper contracts of employment, decent employment rights and union rights are not the end I seek.  They are the means to give people the dignity to go and have that smear test they need, go to see the Doctor during the working day, make plans for the future, be paid a fair share of the wealth they have created, and to have a decent, healthy life, free from bullying and exploitation.

For these reasons and more, that's why I believe in full employment rights from day one of the job, and strong Trade Unions.

Another day, another quiet Union victory

There's a famous employer on "my patch", and Unite is the recognised union for the workers at this factory.

About five months ago I got chatting to one of the drivers.  They don't work directly for the factory employer anymore, and they told me they don't recall ever getting a pay rise.  There was no union recognition.

I signed up all seven drivers into Unite. They elected a steward. I met the "HR business partner" and explained that as there was 100% Unite membership, we would like recognition. He laughed.

I persisted, and got a letter from this employer telling me they "preferred to solve problems directly with our employees rather than via a union". Privately, they told me that they wouldn't award Unite recognition as they didn't have to.

The UK's union recognition laws, introduced in 1999, do not apply to bargaining unit's of nineteen workers or less.

So some people at the same factory were being allowed union recognition - others not.  You would think we could bring everybody at the factory together for this shared issue ( and you could in virtually any other democracy ) - but our laws call this "secondary action" and we are not allowed to do this.  Our restrictive laws insist that in this instance, we could only ballot our drivers employed by the smaller employer.  This despite the fact that the main factory employer clearly calls all the shots, and ultimately still pays the drivers wages! This is wrong and is an example of what we mean by "anti-union laws".

This left me with two options.  I took the gentle option first....

....I drafted a letter of grievance and all the drivers signed it.  The employer, in it's wisdom, decided not to hear the grievance.

This took me to my final option.  You don't need union recognition to have a trade dispute - for a trade dispute, a union only needs members.  I gave this employer notice of our intention to ballot our seven drivers for strike action in support of union recognition.

Five months on, there is now a signed recognition agreement.  Our steward - now recognised in his role, will be attending a Unite Stage 1 Reps course next week - with paid release from work.   In March, the first annual pay negotiations will take place.  A pay settlement date of 1st April has been agreed and written into the agreement.

There was no strike.The threat of publicity won Unite it's demands. And that's why I've mentioned no names here.

And this is something many people will never have thought about - that Unions use the media when things are going badly - far, far more often than when things are going well.

It depresses me to hear people say "Unions never win anymore" when the plain truth is that Unions have victories all the time. Resolving difficult situations quietly is often the best way to achieve results....