At the same time as Gordon Brown’s microphone slip created a media whirlwind, 300 sacked workers were protesting at the Network Rail company.
Unlike Brown or Gillian Duffy they were ignored by the press. In the latest chapter in the privatisation scam on the railways, over 1,200 Jarvis maintenance workers were sacked and replaced by agency workers on half the rate of pay.
The recession isn’t over for those workers sacked by the PFI company. In March the auditors Deloitte – who have been appointed as administrators – held a conference call with staff to tell them that Jarvis had gone bust and they no longer had jobs.
Workers not on shift found out from the media.
If workers had occupied the depots then they would have been in a strong position.
Unfortunately that didn’t happen – but workers are continuing their fight for justice.
The 1,200 people have not been paid for weeks and have had no redundancy money. The majority are owed for a least a month’s work.
Joe Sheridan from Liverpool had worked on the railways for 26 years. The 53 year old echoed many others when he told Socialist Worker that Network Rail was to blame for a lack of funding. He added that it had “starved” Jarvis of new contracts.
It would have cost £19 million for the government to rescue Jarvis.
Joe said, “I’ve come through the privatisation from when we were British Rail and, all the way through, we’ve followed our work.
“Now we’re totally reliant on contracts given by Network Rail. We are at their whim when they put long-term contracts up for rebidding.
“My work has been divvied up to other firms like Babcock Rail. What grieves me is that for 18 months the government has bailed out the banks, yet we’ve been allowed to go under for the sake of £19 million.
“There are blokes with up to 37 years experience who have lost jobs at my depot. There’s a lot of anger and disappointment.”
The collapse of Jarvis is an opportunity for some to make money. Deloitte are still paying senior managers. It is different for the workers.
One told Socialist Worker, “We’ve heard nothing. You phone the administrators but they won’t talk to us. How can you sack those that have been here for years? I’ve worked for 32 years.”
Phil Dobson, another sacked worker, said, “After a lifetime on the railway I have to look for another job.”
He has had to start selling some of his belongings to stay afloat. He said, “They’ve squeezed us by not paying us any redundancy.
“They’re trying to get us to just put up with it by starving us of pay.”
Another worker, John, said, “I am worried about what is going to happen next – to my house and family.
“It seems crazy that there is work there but I’m not allowed to do it. You don’t expect justice from the bosses but I sort of expected them to be fair. I was wrong.”
The workers’ anger was fuelled because the government had raised their hopes. Unions say that transport secretary Lord Adonis gave them assurances last month that the Jarvis workers would be given jobs with contractor Babcock Rail within days.
According to one Jarvis worker, “The Daily Mirror said, ‘1,200 jobs saved as Adonis steps in’. The Evening Standard had it too. They said we would have Tupe protection [the transfer of all terms and conditions to the new company] too. We all thought we had got our jobs back.”
As with most New Labour promises it came to nothing. The unions have heard nothing more from Adonis.
Instead, Babcock Rail is only being re-allocated work that would provide 300 jobs at most on the London North East renewals contract sometime this month. That work is going through agencies, as are all the other contracts that were Jarvis.
And vultures are circling to take advantage. Some agencies are hiring former Jarvis workers at half their former pay and putting them to work on projects that should have been completed by the bust company.
Workers are furious that agencies have been brought in to complete jobs. According to Steve, “The agencies are not only paying ridiculous rates, but also expecting people to work dangerously long hours on top of several hours travelling time.”
Some workers are travelling for four to five hours from north east England before working 12 hour shifts for Specialist Engineering Services (SES) on a project in Hitchin, Hertfordshire.
SES was paying £6 an hour, against a normal weekend rate of £12. Other workers are travelling from Wales to do the job.
Bill Rawcliffe is the York and district branch secretary of the RMT union and stood this week for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition in Doncaster North. He said that the former Jarvis workers were skilled enough to ensure the work would be safe.
But he is concerned that Network Rail had employed a company that needed to look outside itself for those skills.
He said, “Network Rail is playing fast and loose with the travelling public. It is experimenting with driving down the cost of contracts. Cost-cutting and safety don’t mix.”
He said he had seen Jarvis vehicles and equipment being used on the project: “Agencies have recruited some of our men. They have become part-time agency workers doing the work they should have been doing as full-time employees.
“They have swallowed their pride because they had to. Some haven’t been paid for seven weeks.
“They are embarrassed but who can blame them? They have children and mortgages.”
Mohammed Arif from Newcastle pointed out that the agencies cut costs in other ways than just lower pay. He added, “There’s no pay for training at SES. If you are on a course for three days, then you get no pay for three days.”
A Network Rail spokesperson called the criticism over contractors “complete rubbish”. He added “I am sure they would rather be doing the work than sitting at home watching Tricia.”
Asked how the terms and conditions compared with Jarvis, he said, “This has nothing to do with Network Rail.”
In response to such arrogance, workers’ bitterness turns to anger. The workers have protested around the country against Jarvis, Deloitte and Network Rail. They are determined to keep doing so.
Around 300 met outside their RMT union’s headquarters in London on Wednesday of last week. They then marched to Network Rail headquarters, wearing T-shirts saying “Jobs not Dole” and “Justice for Jarvis Workers”. They chanted, “Sack the bankers not the workers”.
They were calling for Network Rail to reallocate former Jarvis contracts to other companies and re-hire Jarvis workers on existing terms and conditions.
The demand is simple. As one worker put it, “We want to be Tupe’d across and have a job doing the work that is there.”
The scandal of what has happened to the Jarvis workers has been virtually ignored by the media.
Bill Rawcliffe said, “We need to keep highlighting this issue, we are not going to let it become old news.
“It’s been eight or nine weeks now for these guys without pay. Some of them couldn’t even afford to come down here to this protest.”
As another worker put it, “If nowt happens, then the union should call a national strike and shut down the rail. We’ll see how long they last then.”
Jarvis workers will be protesting at The Deloitte offices in Leeds on Friday 7 May
Railway maintenance staff do crucial work keeping the network safe for passengers in dangerous circumstances.
For instance, the death of a rail engineer last month is prompting questions about safety.
A 47 year old man fell from a cherry picker after it toppled over during an inspection of the Stewarton viaduct in East Ayrshire, Scotland.
Jarvis had been in charge of works at the viaduct before it went bust. The man had worked for SW Global, a separate sub-contractor which Jarvis had previously hired.
There is no direct connection between the death and Jarvis going bust, but many workers believe it highlights the risks involved in their job.
In January 2009, a bridge at Peacock Bank Farm, which is also in East Ayrshire, partially collapsed leading to a major derailment. Heavy corrosion, whose faults had escaped the attention of inspectors for years, was to blame.
The move to privatise whole sections of the state is most associated with Margaret Thatcher. In fact the first privatisation – the BP share sale – took place under James Callaghan’s Labour government in the 1970s.
Privatisation was a stick that was used to attack the supposed “dinosaurs” of the nationalised industries and their outdated practices.
Most importantly, it was a stick with which to attack the working class and trade unions.
Whereas the Tories went for the public sell-off of large sections of the British economy, Labour has chosen to extend private financing into health and education.
This means the outsourcing of services and handing billions to private companies.
The Private Finance Initiative (PFI) allows private companies to make millions out of the building of new hospitals and schools.
But the government then has to pay to lease back the building over several years, pushing up government debt.
It already has a £200 billion liability from PFI but it does not appear on the government’s balance sheet – a key advantage for those in power.
The costs involved in PFI are massively greater than if the government publicly funded services itself. For instance, the first 12 PFI hospitals cost an extra £60 million a year than publicly built ones. This would be enough to pay the capital costs for three large hospitals a year.
Although the form of privatisation may differ, the purpose is the same – to let market forces rip, cut back on staff, attack the unions and allow the bosses to cream off the profits.
Profit rules with PFI. And public need, safety and jobs come far down the list of priorities.
Jarvis first made money building student accommodation in the 1980s as Margaret Thatcher’s government opened the public sector up to private sector adventurers.
Railway privatisation was in full swing in the mid-1990s.
By 1997 Jarvis had bought up the old British Rail track maintenance companies, giving it a vast and lucrative share of the network.
The privatised Railtrack company oversaw this. After it collapsed the government created Network Rail to replace it.
New Labour opened up schools and hospitals to PFI privatisation, and again Jarvis stepped in to take full advantage.
There were questions about how Jarvis won its business – its rivals made accusations of unsustainably low bids.
But it had become a £1 billion company and for a short period the biggest construction business listed on the stock market.
The derailment of a train at Potters Bar, where seven people died in May 2002, was the lowest point for a rail industry that had been starved of proper investment.
It was a tragic symbol of the failure of privatisation.
Jarvis was the contractor for the track on which the train had been travelling.
Two years later it finally accepted the “legally justified claims” that it was liable for the deaths.
By then Jarvis had lost contracts. The growing financial crisis at the company had led to the sale of a range of PFI investments and its stake in the TubeLines London Underground maintenance company.
Jarvis rose in the boom of New Labour privatisation – and so it withered in the New Labour bust.
A litany of farce and failures