The British government has for three years repeatedly blocked a European Union regulation that would make it illegal for Gate Gourmet to bring in super-exploited agency workers to undercut permanent staff.
And it is making no moves to allow the regulation to come into force, despite promises made to the unions in the so-called “Warwick agreement” last summer.
The “Temporary Agency Workers Directive” gives temporary workers the right to the same terms and conditions as permanent staff.
If it had been introduced when it was drafted in 2002, it would be in force now and Gate Gourmet would not legally be able to bring in agency workers from its own front outfit and the Blue Arrow company to scab at lower rates of pay.
New Labour pledged in July last year to reverse its opposition to the directive as part of the Warwick agreement it came to with the four big unions, including the T&G.
But 13 months on there is no sign of that. An internal TUC document from June of this year says its general secretary, Brendan Barber, had been told by Blair that he merely “believed” that the government’s “negotiating stance” was in line with the Warwick agreement.
But Britain now has the presidency of the EU and could put the issue to the top of the agenda.
Instead, the Department of Trade and Industry does not mention it as one of its priorities and neither did Blair when he spoke at the European parliament.
Both boast of Britain having the most deregulated economy in Europe.
There has been an explosion in the use of agency workers as part of the drive to contract out services. Some are provided by big companies such as Blue Arrow, whose Ealing office was picketed by supporters of the Gate Gourmet workers on Friday of last week.
Others, often from eastern Europe, are supplied by fly-by-night outfits.
There can be no sympathy for those who are willingly helping Gate Gourmet bust its workforce and their union.
But most agency workers are not signing up to scab. They face appalling conditions.
Polish workers employed by IP Enterprises in London, for example, were forced to work 12 hour shifts, five days a week for just £150.
Several workers are now pursuing the company for unpaid wages. Because they are not allowed to claim benefits in Britain, they have had to go back to Poland and fight the case from there.
“I know of scores of cases of unpaid wages, no proper contract, illegal deductions from wages, pay below the minimum wage and other abuses,” says a member of the TUC’s staff.
They need strong unions. But that depends on winning disputes such as the one at Gate Gourmet.