by Louise Raw, from the Morning Star
I spend a lot of time writing, and reading, about conditions in Victorian England. These days I hardly need to open a history book to do it – a newspaper will do almost as well.
Now, as then, we have a government doing nothing to prevent the disproportionate impact of recession and cutbacks on the working class.
Rising unemployment, even malnourished children, are regularly documented by the press. And Victorian eugenicists would have been delighted with PM’s recent suggestions on cutting benefits to families with over three children. (Stop them breeding! They’re at it like rabbits, you know.)
Even more 19th century are the scandalous conditions and treatment endured by hospital workers in Swindon, as exposed by the Carillion dispute.
In Victorian England workers – especially migrant men and women escaping starvation and oppression in Ireland – had to literally fight for work.
Dockers would line up every day in their thousands to join the desperate scrabble for a day’s hire, calling out beseechingly to the foreman to try to catch his eye.
In the 21st century, supervisors working for Carillion – a private firm subcontracted to run the facilities contract at Great Western Hospital – saw a better way of doing things, by demanding “considerations” in the form of money, goods and even gold in exchange for annual leave, overtime or shift changes.
Some 145 workers, mainly Asian women of Goan heritage, have been subjected to racial abuse and bullying as well as ongoing extortion by the exclusively white management team.
Although the women are on low incomes, the supervisors’ illegal demands have not even been commensurate with this. One supervisor demanded £1,000 from a woman worker. When she protested, the price dropped to £500.
The threats attached to the financial demands were explicit – one worker was told: “I can sack you – and if you give me gold I will let you keep your job.”
The workers are the backbone of the NHS, working as cleaners, catering workers and ancillary staff at Swindon and Great Western General Hospital.
All too often such vital work is considered low status, but the women are committed and dedicated, taking personal pride in the cleanliness of their wards. This is, of course, a crucial line of defence between patients and potentially fatal infections.
There is evidence that these abuses were reported to Carillion management in 2009, but no action was taken.
The GMB union believes that a culture of institutionalised racism meant that the staff were not believed.
Only after more than 100 staff submitted a grievance in December 2011 did Carillion conduct a token investigation, quickly concluding there was no case to answer.
Only after workers took strike action did a second, slightly more thorough investigation begin.
Carillion now admits that racism, bullying and what it wonderfully terms “inappropriate gift-giving” did in fact take place, but it has, with extreme reluctance, dismissed only one supervisor.
It admits that allegations had been made against this individual before, but states “no compelling evidence” was found. It accepts no responsibility and claims the problem has not been severe.
Workers have therefore been forced to continue to work under other perpetrators of harassment and racial abuse, which was naturally distressing and intimidating – as it was probably intended to be.
Despite this, workers had the courage to give evidence about the corrupt and racist culture at Carillion at grievance hearings.
The firm’s response? To add insult to injury by disciplining them – for offering bribes.
However, like the London matchwomen and dockers in the 1880s who fought back against appalling exploitation, the Carillion workers have shown themselves a force to be reckoned with.
Like their Victorian counterparts they are supposedly powerless in the labour relationship, but their strength lies in their dignity, solidarity and identity.
Dockers and matchmakers were often from Irish families, giving them strong cultural and political networks to draw on, as well as a history of resistance.
The Goan workers have a similar sense of unity. As one shop steward put it, “I am not just doing this for myself, I am doing this to help my community.”
As is often the case, being forced to strike has in itself increased the confidence and empowerment of the workers – the very opposite of what the employers hoped.
GMB organiser Carole Vallelly says: “During the first protests the women understandably felt a bit awkward holding placards and would almost hide behind them.
“By the time we came to protest outside Southmead Hospital [a new Carillion build], they were singing and chanting through the megaphone.”
Vallelly adds: “As we all know, going on strike isn’t easy and there are still the same supervisors in place that have had bullying complaints against them.
“They are making life particularly hard for our members, denying them overtime etc. We have around 60 tribunal claims in at the moment and more in the pipeline.”
The workers have also linked to the Blacklist Support Group, as Carillion has been a major player in the blacklisting scandal – further evidence of its anti-union ethos.
An illegal blacklist was exposed in 2009, when private company the Consulting Association was raided over breaches of the Data Protection Act.
More than 3,000 people were found to be on the list, which had been used to block them from gaining employment.
In some cases workers had been labelled “troublemakers” on the basis of doing no more than asking for health and safety measures or simply joining a trade union.
King’s College London professor of public law Keith Ewing describes the blacklist as “the worst human rights abuse in relation to workers” in Britain in 50 years.
No surprise that Carillion has been an enthusiastic user of the blacklist.
In one three-month period it was found to have spent several thousands of pounds checking 2,776 names against the list.
Carillion also admitted in court in January 2012 that its managers and managers of Carillion subsidiaries had supplied damaging and false information to the blacklist, which would have prevented workers from gaining employment.
But once again the firm tried to wriggle out of accepting responsibility for its actions.
GMB general secretary Paul Kenny says: “Carillon state that the blacklisting practices highlighted occurred many years ago and relate to businesses acquired by Carillon. No doubt they will be as shocked as we were to discover that the Consulting Association was invoicing them directly for searches right up to the date that the Information Commissioners Office raided their offices in 2009.
“These invoices are entirely separate from those provided to companies acquired by Carillon.
“Either Carillon does not have a command of internal finances and pays invoices without understanding who they are paying, which would be astonishing.
“Or they are telling a barefaced lie in order to try and conceal their shameful activities.”
Both the blacklist and the cover-up mentality of Carillion are further evidence of how well organised and co-ordinated those who oppose workers’ rights can be.
This is what we’re up against in the 21st century labour market. And further proof – if it were needed – that the left must be united in standing firm against it.
Louise Raw is the author of Striking A Light: The Bryant & May Matchwomen” (Continuum Press). She is organising a festival to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the matchwomen’s strike at the Bishopsgate Institute on Saturday July 6 2013 (www.matchwomensfestival.com and www.facebook.com/Matchwomen )
Messages of support for the Carillion workers can be sent c/o Carole Vallelly at firstname.lastname@example.org .