Thursday, 3 July 2008

The erosion of workers' rights

There is an insidious and ongoing campaign by the corporate world to roll back the rights and protections that the working class have won for themselves through the labour struggles of the last century. In the past few weeks alone, several stories have emerged that highlight precisely how big business is exploiting the working class and robbing us of our hard-earned livelihoods.

Arguably the biggest of these stories is the scam revolving around restaurant and hotel staff and the tips that people give to them. In a lot of instances, the employers use the fact that their employees get tips to exploit a loophole in labour laws and pay them less than the minimum wage, saying that the tips they recieve more than make up the shortfall. However, as Unite the Union explains in the introduction to their campaign on the matter:
Money left as a tip on a credit card or paid as service change on a menu is legally the property of the employer to dispose of as they wish. Bad employers use this as an opportunity to take a cut of waiter’s tips and only pass on a proportion back to them. ... employers justify their actions by charging a so called admin fee for processing staff tips. This can be anything from 8% to 15% of the money received.

The result is that, through a legal technicality, the employers not only get away with paying their staff less than the legal minimum wage, but also manage to steal away a proportion of the tips that are supposed to make up this shortfall. And it is not just the company itself, but also managers who are getting in on the act. As Unite explain, although "some employers pool tips and distribute them on a points system," which intially seems a fair way of going about it, "managers award themselves the highest points and receive the lion’s share of tips while those doing the hard work loose [sic] out." And, to add insult to injury, when incidents occur such as broken plates or glasses or customers walking out without paying, "many employers expect waiting staff to pay for these shortages out of their tips."

But this is not the only example of employers using loopholes to pay workers less. It has also been revealed that, at a construction site of an NHS hospital in Nottinghamshire, migrant workers have been paid as little as £8.80 for a full week's work. As The Guardian reports, "according to industry guidelines and an agreement between unions and the building firm Skanska, which is overseeing the project, workers on the site should have been earning more than £7 an hour."

However, the employers were taking monthly "deductions for rent, tool hire and utility bills" on a weekly basis, leaving the workers "virtually destitute." The list of abuses is a long one, wherein "one man worked a 39-hour week and took home just £8.80 after his entire monthly rent was deducted in one week, in breach of the law. A second worker was paid £79.20 for a 63-hour week and a third worked 70 hours a week for just £66. As they were registered as self-employed they did not receive holiday or sick pay. One man had £228 taken from his pay in one week for tools. The men each had a further £76.80 deducted weekly as their payment to the "construction industry scheme", which technically registers them as self-employed, meaning their employers have no requirement to pay national insurance," even though "the amount [employers can deduct for accomodation] is limited by law to a maximum of £30.10 a week, or £4.30 a day." As UCATT, the building union, states, "this means that an employee working 37 hours at £6 an hour should take home a minimum of £174.14 a week unless they have agreed to any other deductions."

And this is at a government construction site. As Michael Clapham, MP for Barnsley West and Penistone, observed: "This happened on a government project where there are good rules and a strong union - who knows what is happening on the hundreds of smaller sites around the UK?"

The third story relating to workers' rights relates to Tesco, which has come under fire from several directions at once for its business practices. Whilst Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's campaign about the welfare of Tesco's chickens and its use of produce from Zimbabwe are the most high-profile issues, there are further examples of its lack of business ethics.

As the Evening Standard reports, Tesco has been accused of "exploiting workers who are paid an average 16p an hour" because it is supplied by "an Indian factory where textile workers earn, on average, £8.75 for a 54-hour, six-day week" and "the lowest paid receive less than £7 a week." Like most cases of sweat-shop labour, "workers risk dismissal for failing to meet strict targets and are forced to work overtime but only receive money for half the extra hours recorded," and "factory bosses ordered employees, most of whom are women, to work on a Sunday to prevent them attending a union meeting scheduled for that day," whilst "as many as four out of five women examined by doctors for the Indian workers' rights organisation Cividep showed evidence of malnutrition."

At the same time, US Presidential Candidate "has written to Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy about workers' rights at its US subsidiary Fresh & Easy" in response to the fact that Tesco, like Wal-Mart in the US, refuses to recognise trade unions.

These are just a few recent examples of a trend that has been ongoing since the 1980s, when a pro-business onslaught led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan set out to crush the trade unions. Since then, union membership has been in steady decline and thus their influence has waned substantially, with even the Labour Party distancing itself and relying more heavily on donations and support from the business sector and rich private donors.

As a result, many workplaces are without worker organisation and thus any kind of protection from their employers. A lot of businesses even go to the lengths of deliberately employing students and part-time workers because they are less likely to join unions. Thus, the minimum wage is pretty much the only protection that some people have, and even that is abysmal. As well as the examples highlighted above, one of the other loopholes exploited - particularly by large American fast-food chains - is the fact that the minimum wage applies to those over-21, and thus they refuse to pay it until their employee turns 22. This is clearly unfair, as there is no justification for paying younger workers less per hour than their older counterparts doing the exact same job. On top of that, the minimum wage as it stands does not go far enough, as the TUC estimates that the minimum necessary to meet the requirements of a living wage is £6.80ph, over a pound more per hour than the current minimum wage.

And the problem continues to grow. Multinational corporations move their factories to countries where they can exploit a lack of labour laws for cheap products, migrant workers thought unable to defend themselves are exploited and paid pitiful wages, and workers in the service sector are continually taken advantage of because they are expendable. At the same time, the government is dismantling the welfare state that provides us with a safety net when we are out of work, or unable to work through disability or injury - pouring scorn upon it with populist sneers such as "sicknote Britain" - and replacing it with an even larger welfare state for big business through tax breaks, business loans, and corporate welfare.

Despite this trend, however, the working class as a whole remains largely indifferent. Why? Because the corporate media has set up a perfect scapegoat for all the things resulting from their own practices - from the social housing crisis to the stagnation of wages - to preoccupy us. Immigrants and Asylum Seekers.

As long as we continue to focus our discontent and anguish on these people, our fears perpetuated by xenophobic organisations such as the BNP and MigrationWatch, the destruction of our protections will continue and our problems will only get worse.