By Ian Hodson, National President BFAWU
THE TORIES’ ‘LIVING WAGE’ has been a disaster for many low paid workers. Figures from the Low Pay Commission suggest that nearly half of all low paid jobs are in two sectors – wholesale/retail and hotels/ restaurants. The introduction of the living wage has resulted in a further widening of inequality in workplaces, with workers below the age of 25 being paid less and, in many cases, other workers having their overtime, shift premium and bank holiday payments slashed in order to fund a paltry increase. As a result of this, our union has seen strikes across the 2 Sisters Food Group, with potentially more to come.
Our union has been trying to organise workers at Samworth Brothers – a company which recently hit the headlines for slashing their employees’ terms and conditions in order to make them fund the living wage themselves. When the workers there started to contact us for help and to join the BFAWU, they singled out the person they felt was responsible for organising the union at the site and sacked him. Kumaran Bose’s only crime was to speak out against the unfairness of the changes. The company then attempted to use ‘union-busting’ techniques to misinform, mislead and intimidate the rest of the staff.
In many cases, workers are looking at losses of between £1,500-£5,000 a year. But it’s not just food manufacturing that’s being hit, as others working in big DIY chain B&Q, the John Lewis Partnership (which includes Waitrose), Marks and Spencer, Tesco and coffee chain Cafe Nero have all slashed their already hard-pressed workers’ terms and conditions to fund this Tory gimmick. The living wage is calculated according to the basic cost of living in the UK. This is what is needed to be able to simply exist – not necessarily what is needed in order to live comfortably. In Britain, it has become acceptable for people to have to do two or three different jobs in order to put food on the table. A young woman I met who works in Poundland starts work at 7 am, finishes at 5 pm, and then does a cleaning job from 5.30 pm -7 pm before working in a restaurant for three hours or more, for six or sometimes seven days a week. That’s just so she can pay her rent, council tax and fuel bills. She still struggles to pay for transport to and from work. When I asked what she does away from work, she said that she sometimes gets a bottle of wine and has friends round, as going out is too expensive a ‘treat’. This is how many young workers are living today.
What has also become apparent is the link between low pay/job insecurity and mental health. Many young people are not able to earn enough in order to do the things that young people should be able to do, such as enjoying the odd night out and buying new clothes. This inequality and job insecurity is hamstringing their ability to make and build new relationships, develop social skills and grow their self esteem and confidence. It’s a damning indictment that workers and trade unions have to stick their heads above the parapet and be demonised, simply for making the call for a minimum wage of £10 an hour that doesn’t exclude young people and an end to the despicable exploitation of zero hours contracts.
Our Glasgow branch of BFAWU members from the fast-food industry organised a recruitment drive with some top bands, comedians and a personal message from Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. The event was very well attended and everyone signed up to the campaign for an end to the youth rate and the call for £10 an hour and trade unions rights. We will be holding more events organised by our members, building our union and giving a platform for working people to come together and build a fairer more inclusive society. The government-led agenda of slashing rights and restrictions in the workplace, allowing huge rent rises and ever spiralling transport and food costs, along with stagnating wages, isn’t an economic necessity. It’s a political choice. People are beginning to realise this and are finally waking up to the fact that many politicians are bankrolled by big business and have only their interests at heart. People are witnessing their public services being stripped to the bone and their terms and conditions being slashed while big corporations like Google, Apple and McDonald’s avoid tax and Mike Ashley and Philip Green avoid the dock. The ‘difficult decisions’ politicians make never affect these people.
Let’s put the blame where it belongs – not on migrants, the disabled and the unemployed. Let’s instead blame the politicians whose decisions are having a detrimental effect on those at the bottom end of the pay-scale and are allowing the real villains of the piece to get away with murder. Don’t be divided by the prejudices of the 1%. Our unity frightens the life out of them.