On 11th February, I helped organise a demonstration of around 100 GMB members outside the Marks & Spencer store in Swindon in protest against what has been described by Siôn Simon MEP, (Labour’s European Parliament spokesperson on employment) as “modern day slavery”. We were joined by Cllr Jim Grant, the leader of the Labour Group on Swindon Borough Council, and Labour councillors Nadine Watts and Steve Allsopp.
This date was deliberately chosen to coincide with the 47th anniversary of the start of an industrial dispute organised by Martin Luther King in Memphis Tennessee USA.
The Memphis Sanitation Strike began on 11th February 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. The strike received inspirational support from civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and he was assassinated in Memphis on 4th April 1968, while actively supporting the strikers. The issues that led the Memphis workers to strike included the management practices of sending staff home as soon as they started their shift with no pay, poverty wages, lack of safety equipment, and climate of fear where workers were afraid to complain, as they might get sacked or lose shifts. The strikers adopted the slogan “I am a man!”, to emphasize that they demanded respect at work.
I recently read Michael K Honey’s fantastic book “Going Down Jericho Road” about the strike, and King’s last days, which is one of the most insightful and inspiring books about trade union activism I have ever read, especially as it deals with the unglamorous reality of organising, where we have to inspire a commonwealth of solidarity between people who have all the usual human frailties that make such an enterprise difficult; and especially among working people who have been abused and oppressed, it is necessary to build confidence among those who have become accustomed to being afraid.
I have been working for about a year with the agency workers at the South Marston distribution centre of Marks and Spencer in Swindon. The workforce is divided into the following levels. i) DHL Managers, ii) “tier one” employees of DHL, iii) “tier two” employees of DHL (doing the same work but lower paid), and iv) agency workers, recruited through 24-7 Recruitment Services Ltd, but employed by an umbrella company, called Tempay Ltd. One of the most shocking aspects of industrial relations at the site is that there is a clear correlation between skin colour and pay grade. I will shortly be producing a more formal report on this, based upon the employer’s own data.
The agency workers, who are at the bottom of the heap in terms of pay and conditions, comprise the majority of the workforce; and I have been struck by how their treatment echoes the same themes as the Sanitation Workers dispute, all those years ago, which occurred in a much more avowedly racist society.The same practice occurs of abusing workers, so that when they come on for a shift they are immediately sent home, without pay. This specific practice occurs frequently at the Marks and Spencer site, and agency staff are out of pocket, especially as lack of public transport means that they often have to travel by taxi to work. This selfsame practice was one of the immediate triggers of the Sanitation Workers dispute in Memphis.
The agency workers at South Marston are given a contract for 7 hours per week, on minimum wage, but are given a rota with 37.5 hours per week. They can have their shifts cancelled at no notice, without any compensation; yet if they are unavailable for work, they can be disciplined for absenteeism. It is very hard to see how this meets the contractual requirement for mutuality of obligation, and smacks of modern day slavery.
Agency workers, many of whom have worked on the same site and same job for years, are also given inferior PPE compared to the DHL staff, who do exactly the same work, and while the DHL staff get warm clothes for the winter work in exposed areas, the agency staff get no warm clothing provided. This difference in the provision of PPE between more and less privilaged workers was again one of the grievances in Memphis.
This week, I was at a meeting where one of our members, a man of Goan heritage, was talking to a number of other workers from a different employers in Swindon, and he described the culture of casual racism from the predominantly white supervisors. He said they were expected to work harder then white employees, his audience of other mainly Goan workers nodded with an acknowlegment of shared experience.
Two Goans members were excluded from the Marks and Spencer site at the beginning of December, and were racially abused by a supervisor. GMB managed to get them back to work. At that time the contract was run by Wincanton, not DHL. Interestingly, the subsequent investigation by Wincanton concluded that the racist manager had not told the truth in his own account of the incident, and should surely therefore be regarded as an unreliable witness, however they still preferred his word over the testimony of the two workers who had been abused and excluded from the site, over the issue of whether he used racist language. One of the most pernicious aspects of institutional racism is that victims are disbelieved, discouraged and made voiceless.
In the last speech that Dr King made, on the very eve of his murder, he addressed a mass meeting of the striking sanitation workers and their supporters. Referring to the legal injunctions that had been made by Tennessee’s courts against the workers and their union, he said that he would not have been surprised if legal measures to prevent workers’ asserting their rights, in striking and demonstrating, had been made in other countries, which had no commitment to human rights, and the pursuit of liberty, but he called upon the USA to be as good as its word. The USA claimed to be a democracy based upon the rule of law, justice and individual rights, and those rights should not be only for the rich or privileged, but also even more importantly for those who most need their protection.
Marks and Spencer claims to be an ethical business, yet despite the malpractices at the South Marston site being brought to their attention months ago, their distribution centre is still based upon an oppressive culture, abusing the Swedish Derogation to avoid the equal pay provisions of the Agency Worker Regulations, and exploiting the resulting insecurity and precarious access to working hours of the majority of staff. In such circumstances where workers are treated not as human beings, but as disposable commodities, it is no surprise that the interaction of race and class has imposed itself so that out of 80 managers only 4 are non-white, but of 500 agency workers, some 90% of them are black.
Marks and Spencer should be ashamed of themselves.