Saturday, 14 May 2016

The new pecking orders on our shop floors

Complex new pecking orders have emerged on the shop floors of medium and large workplaces.   

The overwhelming majority of one-million zero-hour workers are doing regular hours in a role that has a permanent need.  If these workers question management or ask for something to be improved, they will not be asked back again.   To unionise is virtually impossible.  Where unions are recognised, use of zero-hour contracts is extremely rare. 

Next up in the pecking order....the agency worker.   Within this class of worker, there are different types.  Most now are "Swedish Derogation" or "pay between assignments". These contracts get around the legal requirement for equal pay with “the perms” after twelve weeks continuous work.

The vast majority of these 1.4 million workers are doing a permanent job.  

The original idea behind Agency contracts was to provide employers with an easy way to increase labour supply during a temporary peak, eg the Christmas period in a retail warehouse.  Nobody has a problem with this.  Employers have totally abused this facility.   They are now used to provide a permanent underclass of worker, with fewer rights.  As with zero hour contracts, getting unionised is extremely difficult, and the reality is that if you complain, you will lose your “placement”.

This 2nd class permanent workforce places downwards pressure on wages.  I regularly meet Agency workers who have been grafting on the same placement for many years - alongside “perms” who earn a lot more.  This is a systematic abuse on a massive scale.   

Unfortunately, a permanent minority Agency workforce is present today in many unionised workplaces. In an increasing number of non-union workforces, the "perms" are a minority compared to the Agency workers.  At the Amazon warehouse in Rugely, there are just 50 perms. The Agency workforce fluctuates between 400 and 1200.

There are now several classes of permanent worker. The lowest class is the worker with less than two years service.  They are lower class perms as they have so few enforceable rights.

I recently came across a decent family man with a “proper job” /  permanent contract.  This man was sacked because the Director didn’t like the way he walked.  There was no legal remedy because this man didn't have enough service to have any legal remedy.  When you are being managed by a bully, two years is a long, long time. This is a great way to ensure that large proportions of a workforce stay in permanent fear.  The two year wait for unfair dismissal rights are a green light for bullies to bully.

Many workplaces now have inferior terms and conditions for new entrants.
Over time. this places downwards pressure upon the the longer established perms. Some employers aggressively "manage out" better paid workers so they can be replaced with a cheaper option.  

The very top of the pile are the highly unionised workers who have resisted the introduction of worse terms for new entrants, and have been strong enough to resist the casualisation of large parts of the workforce.  Resentful bosses tell them how lucky they are. On this point there is equality, as the one thing that unites most workers is that they are regularly told how lucky they are to have a job.

These changes are radical and far reaching, and have spread across the private sector like wildfire since the the introduction of the anti-union laws.  It is the legislative framework and political mood music that allows and encourages these divisive and unpleasant developments.

In practice, only Union members have employment rights. Since the coalition introduced hefty charges for employment tribunals, the number of claims have dropped by 80% . Non-union workers have been priced out of most of the private sector. .  How many workers even know this has just happened?     Very few non-union workers can realistically take a claim to a tribunal. The media
silence on this national disgrace is very disturbing.

I've not mentioned that pensions have been clobbered just about everywhere.  I've not mentioned that overtime at double time is increasingly hard to find, or that sick pay is increasingly rare.  The trend is to regard evening, night and weekend work as ordinary, without the making of additional unsocial payments.  And the nice little things, like going out for a colleagues birthday during the working day, have almost completely died. 

Miserable “business reorganisations” have become a constant management obsession across large swathes of British industry.

So have employers cleverly developed new contracts to meet genuine new “business needs”.  No. They have simply casualised people.  Our media are hopelessly ill-equipped to tell this story. Not even the BBC employs a single industrial correspondant. The escalating impact of the anti-union laws is the great untold story of our times.

But it gets worse. Consider the "contracted out" or "TUPE'd" workers. The employer of these workers is subservient to “the client” employer of the same workplace.
There are the millions of these workers.  They are the security guards, the cleaners, the receptionists, the caterers, the cooks etc

This giant army of workers are treated disgracefully.. They don’t get pay rises. They are individually replaced with Agency or zero-hour workers, so that new miserable pecking orders can develop. This large slice of the population is facing ever growing insecurity and in-work poverty.  

The anti-union laws stop the “core” workers from helping the “TUPE'd” workers.  I regularly despair as I'm given horror stories of how factory cleaners and other contracted out workers are abused.  I never have a week without coming across this.

All Unions want is for the many to be able to support the few.  Until the anti-union laws came in, that's what happened.  If the factory cleaners were shouted at and abused, then the factory shop floor operatives stepped in and helped them.  The management soon realised it was better to be reasonable with the cleaners.

But since the last Tory government, UK workers can only have a trade dispute (ie strike) with their employer.  So “core" workers in a factory have to watch in misery as "non core" friends and family that work with them are abused, shouted at and much worse.   This can be gut-wrenching to watch. Decent people will never get used to it. 

The many defending the few has to be called “secondary action”.   The media make this sound like union workers want strike action at the drop of a hat in support of a distant dispute.  This is a very false portrayal.   Unions have been stripped of the essential tools that are needed to help some of the most vulnerable workers. Unions have a moral responsibility to organise for the restoration of these collective human rights.

The emerging casual labour market in the UK is totally unnecessary. It is causing needless bullying, poverty and reduced taxation revenue. 

So yes, the anti-union laws have weakened workers.  They have allowed a race to the bottom for minority groups of workers, and place downwards wage pressure upon millions of others.

Before the anti-union laws, there were large parts of the private sector that were out of bounds for unions.  Rampant use of casual and zero hour contracts have worsened this appalling situation, For many millions of people, achieving collective bargaining is effectively impossible.

Until that changes, the race to the bottom will continue.

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