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Exploitation is just the job in a bosses’ recovery of low pay and zero hours

This article is over 7 years, 9 months old
Issue 2521
The number of people in work is going up but the proportion of them with full-time jobs is going down

A fast food worker protesting in Glasgow (Source: ONS, Pic: Duncan Brown)

Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley fished £1,000 in £50 notes out of his pocket in front of a crowd of low-paid workers on Tuesday of last week.

He joked that he’d “just come from the casino”, showing contempt for the people who create his wealth.

Conditions at his Sports Direct warehouse are appalling. Workers’ toilet breaks are monitored and they are effectively paid below the minimum wage due to time spent queueing for security checks.

Conditions at work are becoming worse for millions of people in Britain.

The number of people in employment is now higher than it has ever been. It increased by 606,000 in the year to June—about 1.9 percentage points—according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

After Theresa May vowed to “build an economy that works for everyone”, the Tories have seized on these figures to boast of the economy’s strength.


But they’ve been less quick to talk about the types of new job created. Of the 606,000 jobs only 209,000—less than a third—are people employed on full time contracts.

Almost a quarter—145,000—are on part time contracts. That’s a 2.1 percent increase, twice the one percent growth rate of full time contracts. These figures include people doing temporary or agency work.

The biggest increase was 256,000 more people counted as self-employed—often a bogus category used by bosses (see below).

Although almost 70 percent of women of working age now work, they are disproportionately in part time and low paid jobs.

The Tories claim to be getting people jobs. Behind the boasting is their brutal system of benefit cuts and “sanctions” for unemployed workers.

And for those entering work it means low pay and poor conditions.

Many of the industries that have grown over the last year have low union density, which helps bosses push through attacks. So workers and trade unions in these industries need to organise and fight back.

Cafe clashes are food for thought

Over 50,000 more people started working in the “accommodation and food services” industry over the last year.

This follows several years of sustained growth for the sector, both in terms of the number of firms and share of the economy.

But it has the worst wages of any industry in Britain, averaging at £246 a week and workers have seen little improvement in their pay and conditions.

Wages have remained stagnant, with changes of just a few pounds every month over the last year.

Zero hours contracts are rife. Those workers “lucky” enough to have a salary are often bullied into working over their contracted hours—in effect earning below the hourly minimum wage.

Restaurants, cafes and bars can pay workers below the minimum wage and then use tips to “top-up” the difference.

But food and catering bosses can be beaten.

Because of tight profit margins and the perishable nature of food, any stoppage can have a massive impact on bosses’ profits. That means that food workers in particular can win their demands quickly.

Recent strikes at Deliveroo show that workers can win big gains.

By walking out—unofficially—they stopped a big pay cut and won a promise of no victimisations for striking.

McDonalds backed down over zero hours contracts earlier this year because of “feedback” from workers. It followed protests by the Fast Food Rights campaign in Glasgow.

Anger is building at the high rise of the umbrella scam

The number of people working in construction went up by almost 120,000 in the year to June.

At £606 a week, average pay in the industry is relatively high. But workers can lose almost a third of this through employment agency scams.

The agencies employ workers through “umbrella companies”—effectively making them formally self-employed.

Many workers are forced into accepting these contracts, and as a result their rates of pay can be recorded in a different way.

Their real employer is no longer under any legal obligation to prove they are paying above the minimum wage. They also wriggle out of paying sick pay or holidays.

The same construction firms that used the blacklist of union activists are now cashing in on this scam at workers’ expense.

Ucatt construction union activist Julie Phipps told Socialist Worker, “There’s massive bogus self-employment going on. They’re using umbrella companies.”

The use of umbrella companies by employment agencies has been growing since 2014, eroding pay and conditions.

“I couldn’t make head nor tail of it,” said construction worker Andrew McClean, describing his payslip.

“I was on the same job doing the same thing, but my money had gone down by £60 or £70 per week.”

Workers can see some 25 percent of their wages being taken for their National Insurance contributions.

Some people are being paid minimum wage and then “topped up” through performance-related pay and expenses.

It pays to wage war

The most recent figure for the average wage is £27,600 a year. But this is skewed by the obscene salaries of the highest-paid.

The average wage in the City of London was £92,669, or £1,782 a week, in February, the Financial Times newspaper found—up 9 percent in a year.

But the average wage in “retail trade and repairs” rose by just 2 percent to £307 a week, according to the ONS.

The Equality Trust found in 2012 that excluding the pay of the top 10 percent pushed the average wage down from to £26,500 a year to just £13,000 a year, or £250 a week.

Since then the gap between the rich and the rest has only got wider.

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