Socialist Worker

Striking back just in time—meet the workers taking on Sir Philip Green

Workers in Solihull near Birmingham are facing down the super-rich and super-hated BHS boss Philip Green. They work on the minimum wage filling orders for his Arcadia Group. For years they accepted poor pay and conditions. But not any more... Words Tomáš Tengely-Evans, Pictures Guy Smallman

Issue No. 2534

Unity on the picket line at Arcadia in Solihul, Birmingham (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Fresh from stealing BHS workers’ pensions, robber baron Sir Philip Green is trying to rip off distribution workers.

From a warehouse in Solihull, the workers keep the disgraced billionaire’s retail empire stocked across the West Midlands.

Every day they send out thousands of internet orders for the Arcadia Group’s high street shops, such as Top Shop, Burton and Miss Selfridge.

Warehouse operator DHL claims that “these are exciting times” to come to work for the company. In reality, the Arcadia business model is based on the brutal treatment of those working inside its warehouses.

Arcadia’s bullying attitude is driving workers to take on the company over pay. The GMB union members struck for 24 hours last Thursday and again on Monday of this week. They want a rise to £8.45 an hour instead of the present £7.20.

Jack, a warehouse worker, told Socialist Worker, “We feel anonymous inside there, we might as well be wearing those masks. If I had to sum it up, I’d say that they were more interested in stocks than staff.”

He added, “They’ve actually got posters inside telling us to treat everyone with fairness and respect. It’s such rubbish—we don’t get treated with fairness or respect by them.”

Belinda, another warehouse worker, agreed, “We’ve all got recognisable numbers—and that’s all we are to them. They used to have a staff survey, but they got rid of it last year because the results were so bad for the company’s name.”

Arcadia makes sure orders go out quickly by piling pressure on workers. Tom works on the “pick” section where products are selected before they’re sent off to high street stores.

“Pick is shocking to work on but it’s the same on all sections,” he told Socialist Worker.

“You’re always frantically running around.”

Workers said some of the conditions had been worse before the GMB union began organising the workplace. Jeremy said, “If you were one minute late for work, they’d dock 15 minutes of your pay.

“If you’d go to the toilet, they’d ask why you were taking so long.

He added, “But it still just seems so archaic and Dickensian.”

We feel anonymous inside there, we might as well be wearing those masks. If I had to sum it up, I’d say that they were more interested in stocks than staff

Jack, warehouse worker 

Management drive the growing intensity of work through the hated KPI—“key performance indicators”.

Jack said, “I was measured about five or six years ago by a ‘time and motion’ man with his clipboard and stop watch.

He explained, “If you’re packing you’ve got to do around 100 units an hour. If you’re on collections, who get the orders from the different parts of the warehouse, you’ve got to get through around 200 units an hour.”

Bosses enforce these targets with disciplinary action.

Tom said, “We had a three-strike policy, similar to what Sports Direct has. If you miss targets the first time, you get a telling off. If you miss it the second time, you’re taken upstairs.

“If it’s the third time, you can be out of the door.”

Workers are brutally exploited—and to many it’s clear that bosses are squeezing their profits out of them. Sanjeev told Socialist Worker, “I was unloading products a couple of years ago where ­garments come in.

“They were bought at a cost price of £5.99—I studied accounting so I know that the cost price includes everything, including wages. These were then sold off at £22.99 after we’d packed them.

“Every day we handle hundreds of thousands of garments—think how much money they’re making!”

As well as poverty wages and performance targets, this is all done in terrible workplace conditions. Jack said, “They don’t even care about the upkeep of the place.

“Three of the lifts inside don’t work, but they haven’t fixed them. One of them hasn’t worked for ten years, the other broke down two weeks ago and the other about a week ago.”

We had a three-strike policy, similar to what Sports Direct has. If you miss targets the first time, you get a telling off. If you miss it the second time, you’re taken upstairs. “If it’s the third time, you can be out of the door.

Tom, warehouse worker 

But that doesn’t matter to bosses at Arcadia because “it just means staff have to double carry things”.

He added, “In the winter the warehouse is freezing so they eventually installed heaters in one section, but it never warms up. They put the heaters on the top floor, probably because heat rises, right?

“Now they’ve got blowers up on my floor because it’s so hot that I always have a sore throat. The other floors still aren’t warmed up.”

To ensure high profits, Arcadia has tried to force its workforce to become more “flexible”.

DHL relies on “just in time” methods. This means that materials are only delivered just before they are needed on the production line, to minimise storage costs and boost profits.

DHL treats its workforce at the Arcadia warehouse in the same way, with what Tom described as “a very high turnover”.

A minority of the workers have permanent contracts, but Arcadia is relying more and more on workers with “fixed term” contracts and agency workers.

Arcadia bosses want to move people onto new “flexible” contracts so they can attack workers’ conditions even further.

Jack said, “If someone mentions wanting overtime, there’s always ‘friendly’ suggestions that you could go onto the new contact

“But I don’t know anyone who’s done that because you just end up losing out.

“If you’re on the flex contract you have to work bank holidays unless you book them off, which you’re unlikely to get.

“There’s no ‘time and a half’ after 40 hours.”

Belinda explained what working on one of these “flexible” contracts could mean. “The flexible contract the company introduced is just about getting cheap labour in at short notice,” she said.

“Some people are working seven days a week during some periods and there’s no chance to plan your life.

“On a flexible contract you can get asked on the day to flex down or up between 23 and 48 hours a week.

“Last week one group was asked to give 18 weeks’ notice in advance—how can you plan your life 18 weeks in advance?

“Then last week management told another lot they didn’t need people to work that long.

“People just get messed around.”

Belinda added, “It’s good that the government has said there should be a new minimum wage but we’re actually worse off now.”

Jack explained, “With our pension contributions, we went below the minimum wage. So they said we should step out of the company’s pension scheme and into the government’s worse one.

“So we’re going to lose out even after we stop working here”.

The dispute about wages has come out of an ongoing war on workers at the firm.

Day to day it’s just crap—and it’s only got worse during the last twenty years

Belinda, warehouse worker 

Since Arcadia has owned the warehouse, it’s relentlessly attacked conditions to maximise profits.

As Belinda said, “Day to day it’s just crap—and it’s only got worse during the last twenty years.”

Jack, who’s worked at the company for a long period, said, “We used to get a morning, night and weekend shift allowance.

“But now a lot of that has gone.”

These attacks also spurred workers on to organise—and build a union around ten years ago.

A GMB rep told Socialist Worker, “The company fought tooth and nail not to let us in.

“It started with two or three of us who made contact with the union.”

Even in a “precarious” situation, they fought and got union recognition—and as a result of the dispute the union is growing.

Ben told Socialist Worker, “We had around 100 people in the union before the strike began. Some didn’t want to join to not cause waves.

“But we don’t have to cause waves by ourselves, we can do it together. Now more and more people are joining the union.”

This dispute shines a light on how logistics function under capitalism.

Every trade unionist should support the strikers, build solidarity for their dispute—and help give billionaire Sir Philip Green a bloody nose.

Names have been changed to protect the strikers
Send messages of support to dominic.hinks@gmb.org.uk

If you enjoy Socialist Worker, please consider giving to our annual appeal to make sure we can maintain and develop our online and print versions of Socialist Worker. Go here for details and to donate.

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.