Workers at the Euro Packaging factory in Birmingham have organised a series of strikes against low pay and bullying managers, and now they've voted to go all out. Some of the strikers and Respect candidate Salma Yaqoob spoke to Salma Iqbal about the dispute.
BOSSES AT Euro Packaging in Birmingham thought that the workers were an easy target for exploitation. Most of the workers at the factory, which prints carrier bags for several major supermarkets, are recent arrivals from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. Mohammed Saleem says, 'I started working at Euro Packaging five years ago, when I first arrived in England from Pakistan. My cousin was working at the factory and that is how I started working there. This was the method used to employ the majority of people. We worked very hard but this was not appreciated by the management.'
Workers were put under immense pressure in order to reach targets, many of which were unreasonable. They were forced to work up to 13 hours a day and also over weekends. Mohammed says, 'Most of us are new to this country-we did not know the language, let alone what our rights were. We were desperate to keep our jobs-we have families to support. We were frightened that if we did not give in to their demands that we would be sacked. What would we do then?'
Workers at Euro Packaging only receive 12 days leave a year in addition to eight bank holidays. One worker was sacked after he called in to tell the employer that there had been a death in his family and he was unable to attend work on that day.
When he returned to work the following day he was told to leave. Ibrar Raja says, 'I only arrived in this country ten months ago and I started work at Euro Packaging straight away. As immigrants, they know we are desperate as we need to obtain a national insurance number, and we have no recourse to public funds. I have been made redundant and now I am struggling. I need to find work because in a few months I find out if I have permanent leave to remain in the UK. The immigration officials require payslips and proof of work. The fact that I am not working makes me look bad. If I do not get my leave to remain this is very serious, because my wife lives in England and she was born and raised here. We could not relocate to Pakistan to live there as a couple-it would be very difficult for her.'
Another worker says, 'When I was living in Pakistan I could not wait to come and live in Britain. With the military controlling most things in Pakistan, we thought Britain was a place where there was prosperity, which ordinary people and not the rich few benefited from. I thought this was a land where there was social justice and people were treated with respect. I was very wrong.'
Workers were expected to use machinery without adequate training and also lift heavy weights by themselves. Many workers develop severe back pain due to this. Mohammed Saleem says, 'After long and hard-working days we would go home and to bed. We did not have time to question what our rights were. That is one of the reasons we put up with it for so long.'
They were regularly subjected to verbal abuse from the management, often being referred to as 'gadhay' (donkeys) and being told that immigrants were so uncivilised that they did not know how to use the toilets.
This is despite the fact that the company owners are from the same background. One worker says, 'We thought we might experience some racial abuse from white people-we did not expect it from people who probably started off in the same situation to ourselves.'
Workers were discouraged from joining a union but the workers started to organise anyway. Mr Hussain says, 'My brother in law works for Land Rover and he is a member of a union. When I told him about our working conditions he was surprised to hear that we at Euro Packaging were not union members. We did a bit of research and found out about the GPMU print and media union. At first it was difficult to persuade people, but we started having regular meetings telling people what unions are, and explaining the benefits of joining one. People became more interested and the majority of the workforce joined. We have not looked back since.'
News of the Euro Packaging dispute has spread throughout Birmingham with workers in other factories gaining inspiration from the Euro Packaging workers and also becoming unionised.
Throughout their dispute, workers have been supported by Respect, with many election candidates visiting the picket line over the last few weeks. Candidate Salma Yaqoob says, 'The main issue here is that there is no decent minimum wage in this country. Respect stands for a minimum living wage of £7.40 an hour in line with the rest of Europe. These are very loyal workers who have stuck with the company for many years. Because they are so poor, workers have not questioned their situation. But things have now got to the point where they cannot take any more. These people are going out on strike at a great personal cost and sacrifice. Their demands are not unreasonable. This company is making huge profits. It is an unjust system where poor people suffer while the rich few get richer.'
Send messages of support to GPMU, Union House, 9 William Street North, Birmingham.
Workers vote to go all out
THE DEPTH of anger at Euro Packaging was absolutely clear last Saturday as workers met to consider their next move. The union mass meeting was packed, with well over 100 workers.
So far workers have been taking two or three day strikes. At their meeting they announced that, following a ballot of all union members, they would be taking all-out action. They were set to start their indefinite strike action on Tuesday of this week.
The strike action so far has been very successful, and has involved large numbers of ordinary workers. Now the Euro Packaging workers want to turn up the heat on their bullying bosses.
So workers overwhelmingly backed the move, with only a tiny minority expressing doubts about the escalation.