Monday 12 August 2013

British Jobs for British Workers?

One thing's for certain, Tony wouldn't have stood for it. The shambolic bungling of today's "big speech" by shadow immigration spokesperson, Chris Bryant lacked the smooth running of a Blair-era media operation. But Labour getting a handle on employers' preferences for East European workers from a recognisably labour movement point-of-view would never have passed muster back then either.

To be honest, I'm not interested in the media's mischief-making about first and second drafts of Chris's speech. Anecdotally - and reinforced by Channel 4 News features on it last night - it *is* true that Tesco and Next are hiring in East European workers, and often in places where the supply of labour is plentiful. In both cases warehouse working is involved.

Both companies argue that their actions are "fair" because everyone, whether Poles, Czechs, Lats, Lithuanians or local are paid the minimum wage. Nor do Tesco or Next shirk their National Insurance responsibilities. Neither the spirit nor the letter are violated. Everything is above board and within the law. But as the C4 report notes, despite the back-pedalling, anecdotal evidence suggests that Tesco moving its distribution centre was an occasion for an assault on the pay and conditions of workers. If hiring lots of East Europeans on minimum wage six-month rolling contracts isn't about forcing down the price and increasing the flexibility of warehousing labour, you can only assume it's a fortuitous circumstance that Tesco and Next would profit handsomely from this.

Hence these sharp practices are widespread for precisely this reason. However, interestingly, in the old job a firm was brought to our attention for doing exactly the same as Tesco and Next were doing, and luckily I had the opportunity to sit in on a meeting where management of the company concerned explained the situation.

We were told that, unfortunately, local workers (particularly young workers) were not well-suited to the discipline of warehouse work. It demands unsociable hours that - apparently - clash with the social lives of young adults. More often than not people would be taken on who would then drop out very quickly. It cost the company money in training as employees never reached full productive capacity and therefore realise the investment each represented. Entry level was minimum wage and a worker who stuck it out after six months would start going up the pay grades - but transition to a new contract. As the labour market wasn't producing the workers they required, they extensively made use of Czechs and Poles who, in the company's opinion, had a much better ethic of labour discipline, punctuality and long-term commitment. Had someone from Tesco or Next agreed to be interviewed, exactly the same argument would have been advanced. They daren't say lazy British workers, but it's what they think. From the standpoint of managing a for-profit company, it makes some sort of logical sense. Fairness, however, doesn't come into it.

Unlike Tesco or Next, the warehouse jobs offered by the company were minimum wage from the outset. There were not, as far as I can recall, any premiums attached to unsociable working. Perhaps if wages were slightly more generous recruitment and retention would not be a problem. After all, how much money would have been saved if the job paid decently from the outset as opposed to the actual costs of high staff turnover? How about offering job security too? Why take on a six month minimum wage contract with no security when a labour market, as tight and limited as Stoke-on-Trent's is, has greater opportunities to offer? The third is about unsociable hours. Delivery and dispatch times are not iron laws of nature. Companies can, if they wish, seek to minimise their necessity and thereby make themselves a more attractive place to work.

To be fair to this particular employer, it does recognise a union and they are pushing along these lines. This, however, is a sector-wide problem. There are ways and means for the government to step in, but it comes down to the kind of economy you want. And the Tory/LibDem coalition are totally okay with low paid 'indigenous' workers facing off against East Europeans in a race to the bottom. It is nevertheless refreshing to see Labour cut to the quick and speak to this issue without stirring the pot of hate and prejudice.


Sarah AB said...

I found it interesting to compare your post to this piece on LFF.

Here's one passage:

"Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the Bryant speech was its florid language and use of unsubstantiated anecdote. He talked about “horror stories of hotel managers who cut the hours of British workers to give their jobs migrants.” Such public articulations risk reinforcing and increasing public concerns about the impact of migrants on wages and jobs."

It raises similar issues/tensions to some of the discussions around political Islam and secularism here. There is first of all the question of just how much of a problem there is WRT employers favouring immigrants who may be more easily exploited - and your piece and the LFF post offer different perspectives. Of course if the anecdotal evidence about hotel practice is untrue, that *is* worrying. But if it is true then I did not find the language particularly florid, although I did find the emphases towards the beginning of the speech rather more slanted to those worried about immigrants than those worried about working conditions and wages. Also, if it is true, then I don't think one should avoid discussing something which clearly reflects unscrupulous practice on the part of employers or, if that is to put it too strongly, a climate in which wages will fall and working conditions worsen. Although one should certainly be cautious about the way one frames the point so as to avoid feeding into xenophobia.

Anonymous said...

Some very honest comments. I know of employers locally who have said the same thing - and these were not firmns offering 'crap jobs' as such

Phil said...

I completely agree, Sarah. We do have to be very careful how this is framed.

I've offered my anecdote because it chimes with the examples Chris Bryant mentioned. But I think all would benefit if there was some clarity offered.

Incidentally, the firm mentioned in my piece tended not to take on the same Poles again. Not through want of trying but because thos that stuck around locally afterwards tended to migrate to better paid and less insecure work. It's not immigration, it's employment practice that's at fault.

Anonymous said...

Nothing makes me more sick than liberal 'concern'. We see in Egypt that liberals and secularists think nothing of massacring opponents, so get off the high horses.

These 'anecdotal' stories come from union surveys, union feedback etc. The holocaust is built on a mountain of anecdotal stories. A real fucking problem is being highlighted here and something should be done about it.

Phil said...

Indeed it should. Now the problem has been identified and acknowledged by Labour's front bench, what's the follow through?

Gary Elsby said...

I think the point should be highlighted for the long game.

If 'immigrants' are stealing all of our jobs, then surely we must ask who is actually giving them those jobs?

Why does the unemployed lad on the council estate remain unemployed?

Those that want a referendum on life revel in this stuff and their desires are met by the beneficiaries of the bosses.