GMB members are demonstrating outside Marks & Spencer store in Regent Street, Swindon from 11am today, 11th February, ‘in protest against modern day slavery at the M&S distribution centre’.
This date coincides with the 47th anniversary of the start of an industrial dispute organised by Martin Luther King in Memphis Tennessee USA.
They will be holding two 3-metre wide banners reading ‘Marks and Spencer, ethical trading starts at home’ and ‘Marks and Spencer: We are not slaves!’
They will also be holding A2 placards reading ‘I am a man!’ and ‘I am a woman!’, facsimiles of those used by strikers during the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike.
Members at Marks & Spencer Distribution Centre in Swindon have voted by 97% to be represented by GMB. The ballot result, from a 76% turnout, was a 97% YES, in favour of GMB recognition. It is a breakthrough of gaining trade union recognition with a so-called umbrella company.
Although the Distribution Centre is owned and 100% dedicated to M&S, they contract DHL (previously Wincanton) to run the Distribution centre, which use a recruitment agency, 24-7 Recruitment, to provide agency workers.
These workers are then given employment contracts with yet another company, Tempay Ltd.
Tempay shares the same registered business address as 24-7.
Workers for Tempay Ltd have 7-hour per week contracts, but are given rotas for 37 hours. If they are not available for every day of rota they are disciplined for absenteeism, but the employer can cancel work days with no notice, and even send them home as soon as they arrive for work.
Carole Vallelly, GMB Organiser, said: ‘GMB’s next step will be to prepare and submit a pay claim for GMB members, and secure for them a wage that allows them to live with dignity.
‘It is a scandal that a company like Marks and Spencer, who boast about their ethical credentials, are exploiting workers in conditions akin to modern day slavery.
‘Even 24-7 senior managers cannot explain the commercial relationship with Tempay. Staff don’t even have the dignity of knowing who they work for.
‘The actual employer, Tempay Ltd, although it employs 2,500 people has only two administrative staff for payroll, it has no managers, no HR department, and no internal structure for governance.
‘It is a paper company that seemingly only exists for legal avoidance. Employment through these so-called Umbrella companies has spread like wildfire though distribution and construction sectors.
‘Low pay and precarious employment means workers on these contracts feel like second class citizens, unable to get a mortgage or be granted hire purchase or loans, and unable to even feel secure that they can pay the rent or feed their families.
‘Many prestigious High Street companies, including Marks and Spencer, use employment agencies in their supply chain to push wage costs down and inhibit staff from asserting employment rights.
‘The culture of abusing agency worker status has led to employers treating their staff as commodities, breaking the moral contract that hard work should be rewarded.’
A non-reciprocal arrangement reminiscent of bonded labour, one GMB Shop Steward, Domingos Dias, has been issued a written warning for absenteeism, even though he had worked more than his contracted hours during the relevant period.
GMB deplores the fact that offering permanent contracts for the nominal 7 hours allows employers to evade and frustrate the provisions of the Agency Workers Regulations (AWR), which came into force in 2011 and should guarantee equal pay after 12 weeks.
This abuse is popularly called the ‘Swedish Derogation’.
Tempay workers receive just £6.50 per hour, while people doing exactly the same work for DHL earn up to £2 per hour more.
Many of the Tempay staff have worked at the same Marks and Spencer site for several years. Over 75% of non-managerial staff are agency workers, but agency workers are not used to deal with fluctuating work volumes, but to lower staffing costs of effectively permanent employees.
Such long permanent assignments are contrary to the intention of the Swedish Derogation, and indicate clearly that this is an avoidance tactic, claims the GMB.
Agency staff are in the position of needing to be available for work, so they cannot take employment elsewhere, but are not guaranteed any more than 7 hours per week.
Staff, including pregnant women, have turned up to work at 6am on a Sunday for a shift they had been required to attend by the rota, having needed a taxi to get to the site, to be immediately sent home without pay as they are not required, meaning they actually lose money.
Staff working for the agency are issued inferior PPE (personal protective equipment) compared to staff working for DHL.
Staff working for the agency are not issued with warm clothes for outside work in winter compared to staff working for DHL who are issued with warm clothing.
The precarious nature of their employment has made staff (before GMB was involved) afraid to assert their rights, and they have suffered bullying and arbitrary management.
At the South Marston site, some 90% of 800 non-managerial staff (agency and hirer) are non-white, but of 82 managers, only four are non-white.
Promotions are based upon a system of patronage and favouritism.
Carole Vallelly said: ‘It is astounding that nearly 50 years after the death of Martin Luther King, we are encountering the same issues of low paid workers being exploited in a manner akin to modern day slavery.’
• 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 emphasise that they demanded respect at work.
• Thousands of care workers are being paid well under the minimum wage, a report released on Monday revealed.
The report exposes the scandalous situation where carers do not get paid for the large proportion of the day they spend travelling to and from the people they care for.
The study suggests that more than a tenth of UK care workers are being paid less than the national minimum wage of £6.50 an hour.
The Resolution Foundation think tank says its research indicates that about 160,000 people are losing out on an average as much as £815 each a year.
It said some firms wrongly did not pay staff when they travelled between clients, on training or when ‘on call’.
The minimum wage regulations clearly state that working time includes ‘travelling in connection with work’. The care industry sector employs about 1.4 million people in the UK.
Meanwhile, two care providers in Surrey and London have slashed pay and conditions for some of their staff.
Sheila Carlson, Regional Organiser for the GMB said: ‘Huge cuts have been made in central government funding to local councils.
‘These cuts have in turn been passed on to providers of services. With over 80% of the cost of care being staff costs, it is easy to see where any cuts will fall.
‘Care workers who earn low wages anyway, are now facing even further attacks to their income.
‘People who can least afford it are carrying the burden of this government’s attempt to curb spending.’
• Elderly and disabled people are being ‘auctioned’ off’ on the internet as councils attempt to find the cheapest private care homes.
Anger has erupted over the process which has been described as a ‘cattle market’ and an ‘eBay-style bidding service’.
At least a dozen local authorities are listing vulnerable people’s details on the internet.
They list the elderly or disabled person’s age, what care they require and which medication they need.
They then ask private care homes to bid for the individual and it is often the cheapest bid which wins.