Tuesday, 31 March 2015

G1? - Tip of the iceberg

Tip of the iceberg

At the weekend Sunday Mail contained further coverage of our campaign to bear down on the poor treatment of staff, in the fast food sector, in pubs and club chains and further afield.

Last week, much of the focus has been on the G1 Group, owned by Stefan King, following its naming and shaming as having short-changed its workers to the tune of £45,000 through illegal non-payment of the Minimum Wage.  This is of course entirely reprehensible and its right that it should be reported.

But what has emerged since the start of last week has been a litany of accounts of poor employment practice, beyond the non-payment of the Minimum Wage, which should shock any reasonable person.

Short-hours contracts and non-payment for hours worked

The Sunday Mail, reflecting the general mood, is very focussed on Zero-hours contracts.  They have rightly exposed the very many companies, including Sports Direct and MacDonalds who use them. However simply focussing on Zero-hours does not portray the full picture.

For example, G1 protests that “there are no zero-hours contracts” at the company, however “Staff can be sent home where the bar is not busy enough, where permitted by the contract”.  Quick translation – we issue short-hours contracts and as soon as the small number of contractual hours are fulfilled we can treat the worker just as if they were on zero-hours.

This story in the Daily Mirror today shows how firms use short-hours contracts in almost exactly the way to zero-hours contracts (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/argos-homebase-tesco-exploit-workers-3630972)

So no surprise to hear comments from those who have contacted us such as:

“I would often come into work only to be sent home with no pay”.

And of course, when the places are busy, the opposite is true.

“We were never paid past 4am but weren't allowed to leave if they still needed us.”

“We stopped being paid when the bar shut, but we obviously had to stay for longer to clean up and sort everything out.

“I was regularly getting out at 5am when I had stopped being paid at 3am.”

So it’s very important to recognise that a company which is not using zero-hours contracts can very often find other ways get around it.  It should also be remembered that as soon as someone on the Minimum Wage works for any period of time for nothing, their salary goes below the minimum.  That’s illegal.

Unfair, but also dangerous

Stretching the working day into the early hours without notice is unfair and dangerous.  Many G1 employees speak of being forced to work late and then having to walk home in the early hours, sometimes miles, to avoid having to pay themselves for a taxi at significant cost.

“the cost of a taxi would have taken away about a third of the money I made that night”

“No staff taxis when I worked at Cab Vol for them either, finishing between 3.30 and 5.30 in the morning I had to either walk home alone or pay for a taxi myself, which I wasn't about to do. They also clocked us out before we finished a lot, or went back to alter our clock-out times later.”

Working hours and no breaks

Most of the people we have spoken to report an expectation that staff will work through their breaks.

“The worst part is we would work 12 hour shifts on our feet with a 15 minute break, sometimes no break.”

“My main qualm was the fact that we got no breaks in 8-10 hour shifts. And it was the kind of job where you were constantly running around glass collecting, working at the bar or serving – it was a really busy place. I think I could have had a break maybe if I'd really pushed for one, because my manager was a nice guy, but no one did so didn't want to be the only one, y'know how it is (I was 20 at the time and a little less sure of myself”

The regulations stipulate minimum breaks dependant on hours worked. So the latter case breaks the law. As for the first, frighteningly, it is just proves just how minimal legal protection can be.  Individuals working a 12-hour shift are only entitled to one 20-minute break, unless the contract says otherwise.  This is one of very many reasons why, currently, the law cannot be relied upon to provide adequate protection.

But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it.  That’s where trade unions and political and consumer pressure come in.

Paying for uniforms

Every worker and former worker who has contacted us describes having to pay for their own uniform.

“We were told that black top, trouser and shoes were the uniform and that don’t tell them you can’t afford a shirt/trousers as Primark is cheap enough.  We had to pay for our own uniforms and were never told that we could claim it back.  I was working 3 nights back to back at the weekends in a sweaty club so getting home and getting clothes washed at 4 am was not possible so the purchase of multiple tops and trousers was necessary.  Although I only worked part time (20 hours) it was easy to wear out shoes every few weeks.  The consequence of not being presentable or having the correct uniform would result in a dramatic loss in in hours with no explanation.  There would be theme nights a couple of times a month (poptastic etc) and at Halloween if you were on all weekend you would be expected to be in costume.  No one was ever recompensed for having to dress in theme but we were told it was mandatory.  The carrot would be that the best dressed won £50 best dressed prize with a team of 20 bar staff it is easy to see who was actually winning.”

Payment for training

“When in the office I scanned all paperwork, including new starts, which meant I soon was asked to process it all too. The contracts for bar/floor staff changed when I was there. The main contract said I agree to sign the attached form about uniform, and I agree to sign the other attached form about staff training. Both of which were agreeing to pay a deposit towards uniform, and one which said staff pay towards their own (compulsory) training. Which, incidentally, was mostly common sense rubbish, or things that don't actually provide any formal certification, and ignored any previous training/experience a person may have had. We had returning members of staff who, if they hadn't left, wouldn't have had to pay for the training, but had to in order to get their jobs back. Some chose not to come back.”

There is no justification for being forced to pay for basic training - although the practice seems fairly prevalent.  We will be contacting a number of major employers in these sectors to establish what their practice is.

A specific example of more general exploitation

All of these accounts, and many more, relate to the G1 Group.  But many of these practices are common throughout the industry.  Low pay is endemic. Zero-hours and short-hours contracts are everywhere. Workers are being routinely exploited and disrespected. Young people are at the forefront but it affects those of all ages.

So it is of course welcome to hear politicians from Labour and the SNP committing to abolishing zero-hours contracts and increasing the Minimum Wage (to £8.00 and £8.70 by 2020 respectively.

But the truth is we are in serious danger of creating a false auction of virtue, in which the politicians battle with each other over relatively minimal improvements in employment protection, whilst people in precarious employment are routinely exploited. As well as stronger employment law and minimum wage protection, we need the freedom for unions to operate effectively and the introduction of collective bargaining and sectoral bargaining, particularly in low pay sectors.  We also need consumers, parents, communities, organised groups and others to refuse to accept that this is the way things should be.

For too many young people, this is becoming a normalised experience of work, nothing more than an extension of what they expect in a society which treats them unequally and without respect.

The good news is that many young people are angry, and getting angrier. The STUC recognises that in order to support young people in fighting back against poor employment we might need to campaign in different ways, and most importantly perhaps, to find ways in which young people can lead our campaigns.

Watch this space …

Dave Moxham

To report your experience of work, or to receive further information about the campaign, call 0141 3378100 or email info@stuc.org.uk

Friday, 20 March 2015

Stand Up to Racism and Fascism: Why We Need to March on Saturday 21st March

To mark UN Anti-Racism day tomorrow, Saturday 21st March, a call went out from Keefra- the Greek anti-nazi movement, which had success in tackling Golden Dawn- to hold anti-racist demonstrations. Across Europe anti-racist campaigners have rallied to the call, and in the UK demonstrations are now planned in London, Cardiff and Glasgow.

In Glasgow the March will assemble in George Square at 10.30 am and is likely to be very well attended given the range of organisations that have already pledged their support. This level of support remains essential, however, as questions of identity are currently quite high on the agenda and worryingly signs of racism are ever more present in our political discourse.

How many column inches are given over to rise of Islamic State- a repugnant and in many ways fascist organisation committing unacceptable crimes? But our press coverage doesn't just shine a light on these crimes or cover the deteriorating situation in Syria, but rather contains a sharp edge of fear and suspicion focused at the Muslim community here. This coverage has the effect that the Muslim community must stay on the gerbil wheel of repentance for crimes carried out by others, often half a world away.

This coupled with the sorts of comments that we see around incidents closer to home such as Robert Murdoch’s tweet soon after the Charlie Hebdo attacks where he said ‘Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible’ shows the growth of an unacceptable view that whole communities become responsible for the actions of a few.

This issue is mirrored in the recent rise in antisemitism, with the Community Security Trust reporting over 1,000 incidents this year - the highest they have ever recorded- and Police Scotland are also reporting a rise in incidents in Scotland. Much of this rise came during the Israeli action in Gaza- which was unacceptable and which the STUC campaigned against- but which cannot be laid at the door of the Jewish community more widely.   

Nor is it appropriate that we spend our time demanding apologies or denouncements from Muslim people or Jewish people living in the UK in response to these sorts of incidents. Yes the actions of IS and the actions of the Israeli state both have a religious dimension to them, but this does not mean that everyone who shares that religion believes in them or is responsible for their actions. Equally we get nowhere in our fight against IS or our campaign for a just peace in Israel and Palestine if we spend our time searching for the enemy within, and with that become oppressors in our own country.

With these issues in mind the March on Saturday has been billed with the tag lines: no racism, no Islamophobia, no antisemitism, no to scapegoating immigrants and yes to diversity.

With the election looming large it is important that we send a clear message around the sort of country we want to live in. Austerity politics is hurting workers and communities, but it cannot be used as a vehicle to divide us. We need to ensure that we stand together in our fight against racism and in our fight against austerity and ensure that no one is left behind and no one is demonised or sacrificed in the pursuit of a few extra votes.

The fight against racism is not an easy fight, but it can be won. In many ways, however, it is a fight that begins in ourselves, in our communities and in our workplaces. We need to ensure that we are not tempted by lazy prejudices or assumptions, nor are we prepared to stay silent when confronted with others who are. In this election we have already seen a Scottish elected representative racially abuse a Scottish Minister. These sorts of actions are not acceptable, and we must ensure that people who hold such views find no success in our democracy but we can only do that if racism finds no place in our community.

The March on Saturday cannot be considered a beginning in our fight against racism, nor will it be an end, but it does offer an opportunity to come together and find a collective voice. A voice that says clearly and loudly: No racism.    

Helen Martin STUC
For more information on the march click here  

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

New Scottish Government Economic Strategy: Corp Tax and Inequality

There’s much to discuss in the 82 pages of the Scottish Government’s new/updated/refreshed economic strategy published today. I’ll try to return to other stuff over the next few days but confine this blog to two specific issues.

The first is the dropping of the Scottish Government/SNP’s longstanding commitment to a deep, blanket cut in corporation tax (see page 80) in favour of a more nuanced approach targeted at encouraging specific investments (e.g. R&D) and sectors (e.g. manufacturing).

Why focus on a reserved, and therefore for the immediate purposes of this strategy, an irrelevant power? Well, by arguing for years that pulling this single ‘lever’ (yuck!) would have a transformational economic impact, Scottish ministers did the ongoing and essential debate around Scotland’s economic development a huge disservice. This difficult, complex process was reduced to a simple, superficially plausible story of how one tax cut could and would dramatically boost growth and jobs. Risible comparisons with Ireland’s Celtic Tiger crowded out nuanced consideration of how policies successful in other nations might be effectively transplanted into the specific economic, cultural and institutional context of 21st century Scotland.

Now we can hopefully get back to a national debate that embraces the fundamental complexities, difficult decisions and trade-offs intrinsic to economic development policy. For economic development is a tortuous slog – in a modern, advanced economy like Scotland there are no quick big fixes, no single policies that will reliably, significantly and sustainably boost the long-term growth rate. If such policies existed, they would already have been implemented with great gusto across the developed world. 

Politicians are understandably nervous about ‘u-turns’ so the First Minister and her team should be congratulated for having the courage to revisit a once defining policy. It would be pretty churlish to do anything but sincerely and enthusiastically welcome the reversal. It couldn’t have been an easy decision. Let’s just look forward to a better quality debate; one in which fairy stories are eschewed not relentlessly promoted.

The second issue is the scope of measures proposed to reduce inequality. These centre on labour market participation, fair work, childcare, educational attainment and regional development – all laudable and important but in totality insufficient to significantly reduce inequality.

Indeed, reading the strategy today transported me back to November 2013 and publication of the White Paper. While the refrain ‘the UK is the fourth most unequal country in the developed world’ rattled noisily around the campaign, the White Paper singularly failed to address those factorswhich had made it so.

What are the distinguishing features of the UK model? Why did inequalities of income and wealth shoot up in the 1980s and remain relatively high? The explanation is surely to be found in (these are additional to the trends in skill biased technological change and trade which have acted to increase inequality in most of the developed world):

  • A relatively low level of collective bargaining coverage – contributing to trends in both low and high pay;
  • Very lightly regulated labour and product markets;
  • A large and powerful financial sector, a more financialised economy – contributing to inequality through the enrichment of its participants, shifting resources away from the productive economy and by forcing firms to focus on immediate shareholder value;
  • A uniquely febrile market for corporate control and poor corporate governance exacerbate the trends embedded in financialisation – the UK model is quite uniquely short-termist;
  • A uniquely relaxed attitude to ownership (just think - Germany has had only three hostile takeovers since the second world war and all three only proceeded after significant intervention);
  • Tax changes, particularly steep cuts in the higher rate of income tax which have changed incentives at the top i.e. encouraged executives to bargain in their own interests rather than those of the firm; and,
  • Privatisation and outsourcing – pursued with more vigour and to a greater extent in the UK, witness the extent of state ownership of transport and utilities in most other advanced economies.

Now clearly the economic strategy, as far as possible within current powers, tries to steer a different course on industrial relations to which the STUC will endeavour to contribute positively. But the words collective bargaining are absent and the mooted partnership approach – although reasonable and a welcome relief from the Coalition’s aggressive approach to both trade unions and employment legislation - will not reverse the fundamental asymmetries in economic power underlying the growth in inequality. And, unfortunately, the strategy is silent on the other issues raised above.

I was fortunate enough to be present when the First Minister’s gave two excellent speeches to (mainly) business audiences at SSE Glasgow in November and the National Economic Forum in December. Her argument on both occasions can be crudely, but fairly I think, reduced to the following syllogism:

  • Tackling inequality is good for growth
  • Growth is good for business
  • Ergo, tackling inequality is good for business.

The propositions may be true but the conclusion is seriously flawed for inequality in Scotland (or the UK as a whole) will not be tackled without challenging the prevailing business culture. Some may object that the Scottish Government doesn’t have the powers to, for instance, implement structural reform of the financial sector, reform corporate governance or reverse anti-trade union legislation. They would of course be perfectly correct. But not currently possessing a power has never prevented Scottish ministers stating what they would do with it once devolved. The point is that factors fundamental to reducing inequality have been ignored, even in the White Paper. The new economic strategy is similarly myopic.

The Scottish Government claims that ‘increasing competitiveness’ and ‘tackling inequality’ – the ‘twin pillars’ on which the strategy is built – are ‘mutually supportive’. But what does this actually mean? Haven’t the supply side reforms implemented over the past four decades in the name of boosting competitiveness directly exacerbated inequality? Boosting competitiveness has usually been code for deregulation of labour and product markets, tax cuts for business and wealthy individuals and anti-union legislation.

This isn’t the Scottish Government’s agenda and it would be ridiculous to paint the new strategy in this way. But it will be impossible to tackle inequality effectively without implementing measures which have for a long time now been regarded as bad for competitiveness. So big challenges for the Scottish Government, and those organisations like ours that want to see the strategy work and for employer representative organisations who have tended to pursue a very narrow agenda on competitiveness. I'll try to explore some of these issues in future blogs.

Finally, while the Scottish Government has failed to produce a compelling inequality reduction strategy it’s probably worth pointing out that the opposition has hardly covered itself in glory on this issue. If Jim Murphy wants to ‘end inequality’ (an outcome irreconcilable with any functioning economic system ever devised) he might start thinking about how Labour will start to address the issues neglected in today's strategy.
Stephen Boyd, STUC