Report on recent industrial struggles
Housing workers in both Knowsley and Manchester are resisting attacks on wages and conditions, happening in both cases under Labour council rule.
In Knowsley social housing repairs are contracted out to Vivark Ltd and Knowsley Housing Trust whilst the council tries to shuffle off responsibility. Vivark workers have seen their conditions of employment worsen, with fewer holidays, lower pensions, longer hours and reduced sick pay. Now, after years of pay freezes and below-inflation rises, the workforce have rejected Vivark’s derisory offer of a 2% rise and gone on strike. Workers plan to strike on Mondays and Fridays from 1 December till 19 February.
Labour-run Manchester council also contracts out its housing repair services to private outfits which like to ride roughshod over workers’ welfare. A company called Mears, and a Mears subsidiary called Manchester Working, are responsible for maintenance work on council houses, including 12,000 properties managed by yet another entity called Northwards Housing. 180 repair workers who find themselves caught in this maze of shadow-employers have been fighting to scrap pay differentials which result in some workers being paid up to £3,500 a year less for doing the same work. They have already notched up 40 days of strike action in 2017, and on 13 November began a new cycle of strikes planned to run until February.
A survey conducted by Unite makes it clear that the problems at Mears are not limited to a dispute over pay differentials, but spring from a whole management culture of bullying and contempt for the workforce, a culture which thrives in the unaccountable, buck-passing, money-grubbing ethos fostered by the whole contracting-out scam which the Labour council has wholeheartedly embraced. According to Unite, "Levels of mental ill health were found to be very high with 37 per cent of the workers confirming they had suffered an illness; principally depression and anxiety. Of these workers a staggering 89 per cent believed that work had contributed to their illness and in three quarters of cases the illness was so severe that time off work was necessary. Once again 59 per cent of sufferers had not raised their illness with management. The survey further found that 91 per cent of the workforce was suffering from stress, with 98 per cent of these sufferers believing that work had contributed to their condition. Despite this 63 per cent had not informed the employer about their condition, for a third of these workers the condition was so severe that they had to take time off work. In a damning indictment of Mears’ management, 79 per cent of the workforce said that their health had deteriorated in the last 12 months, with 70 per cent recording that both their physical and mental health had been affected. Disturbingly 92 per cent of workers said that Mears’ management took neither their physical or mental health seriously.”
Unite concludes that “bad management by Mears is making workers ill”. What it fails to note is that this “bad management” results from the Labour council’s own abdication of responsibility for running its own services, and is all going on right under the nose of Greater Manchester’s mayor, one Andy Burnham (See NSSN bulletin 367 and Unite website).
Further on the topic of cheap labour: TUC figures estimate that there are currently 900,000 apprentices in England, of whom 135,000 are being paid less than the legal minimum wage. The minimum wage for apprentices under 19 and in the first year of work is £3.50 an hour, yet even this pittance is considered too much by criminal employers who think they can get away with breaking the law and hiring even cheaper labour. And for the most part they are right: according to documents disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), out of all the thousands of cases of illegal underpayment to an apprentice, fewer than five have resulted in prosecution. In the vast majority of cases, the most a rogue employer has to face is a fixed penalty slap on the wrist. By contrast, an apprentice who dares blow the whistle on illegal underpayment in the first place risks losing his job and possible blacklisting. The balance of risk is all in the rogue employer’s favour (‘135,000 apprentices in England are being paid less than the apprentices’ minimum wage’, TUC, 23 November 2017).
The Met sabotage police spy inquiry
Three years into the inquiry into the state’s use of undercover police officers to spy on activists and blacklisted workers, the parameters of the investigation remain unclear, the Metropolitan police stand accused of shredding documentary evidence in defiance of official orders and to date no evidence has even been heard. Indeed it is now being mooted that the earliest date at which evidence could be tabled would be 2019!
Rather than haul the Met over the coals for their foot-dragging and obstruction of justice, the judge now in charge, Sir John Mitting, announced a drastic reduction in the transparency of the inquiry. Whilst he grudgingly accepted that a woman activist seduced by an undercover cop had a "compelling moral claim" to know who the cop really was, he denied the same right to other victims of undercover spying, on the grounds of "national security" and a tender care for the officers’ "human rights".
How blacklisting and spying on trade union activists who challenge breaches in health and safety in the building trade constitute a threat to national security was not explained. As for Mitting’s ruling that hearings woud be held in secret when the spies had "genuine concerns" that identifying them might pose a "real risk to their lives and safety", blacklisted construction worker Dave Smith challenged Mitting in open court, pointing out that "There’s a lot about the human rights of the undercover officers, but precious little about the people who have been spied on", and adding that there is "a very obvious imbalance of justice," with about eight QCs representing the British state, whilst the victims, from a vast range of different campaigns, had just one counsel between them all (Conrad Landin, ‘Uproar in court after Mitting says spycops may never be named’, Morning Star, 20 November 2017).
Blacklisting in Honduras
Meanwhile in the world of neo-colonial exploitation there is not even the attempt to conceal the use of the blacklist as a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon workers who dare stand up for decent pay and working conditions. The fruit company Fyffes, formerly Irish but acquired in 2016 by Japanese company Sumitoma, has a wholly owned subsidiary in Honduras. Fyffes in Honduras has a long history of denying workers’ rights to a minimum wage, proper holiday pay, freedom of association and even the most basic right to join a trade union. When the mainly female pickers fought back, joining a trade union and demanding unpaid wages and benefits, Fyffes marked their cards. When the melon season came around, a thousand of the pickers were not rehired. Worse, they have been told that they are blacklisted from any alternative work in the area, condemning their families to starvation (Fyffes sack and blacklist 1,000 women, GMB, 27 November 2017).