THERE IS a hidden army of workers in Britain today. They travel to work very early in the morning or very late at night, out of sight of opinion formers and politicians. Their lives do not feature in the glossy colour supplements or TV lifestyle programmes.
Many of them are women, but they have nothing in common with high flying City ‘superwomen’ whose dilemmas about juggling careers and children are regularly aired in the media. They are caterers, porters, cleaners, care assistants, transport workers and classroom assistants. Without them our hospitals, schools and councils would fall apart, but they are some of the lowest paid workers in Britain. They are bearing the brunt of Tony Blair’s flexible working, free market Britain.
They are being sold off to private companies, losing their pay, pension and holiday rights. Some of these workers met in Scarborough last week at a conference of the GMB general workers’ union. Worker after worker denounced New Labour’s privatisations. Many described how workers are suffering Third World conditions in British towns and cities.
What do the New Labour spin doctors know about the lives of caretakers who live in tied houses? They are supposed to be offered accommodation ‘comparable’ to their workplace when they retire. Instead they are offered caravans, and bed and breakfast accommodation. What do Blair and Brown know about the lives of women struggling on the minimum wage, like Joanne Tyrell?
Joanne works with around 200 other workers at the Aquascutum factory in Corby in Northamptonshire.
The firm has a posh shop in central London, but its workforce endure conditions that belong to the 19th century rather than the 21st. Joanne told Socialist Worker, ‘For three years we did not get a pay rise. ‘For three years we let it ride because we wanted to keep our jobs. Then we held a strike ballot and voted for a strike-so they agreed to pay us. We should have got our pay rise in January, but by March nothing was sorted out. We held a ballot, and a large majority voted for strike action. We have had three one-day strikes. Management are patronising and treat us like we are stupid. They hire heavies to drive minibuses and intimidate our picket lines. We are not asking for much-only a 1.2 percent rise. Our people are on the minimum wage. Many of them are under 18 so they don’t even get that. We are black and white, and men as well as women. We make coats that they sell for £1,500. That’s more than we earn in months. We are sick of being ignored and hidden away, so this Thursday we are going to take our fight to the employers’ doorsteps and picket their shop on Regent Street.’
LABOUR minister Charles Clarke was given a roasting when he addressed the conference. Delegates wore ‘Proud to be wreckers’ T-shirts. They heckled Clarke when he preached to them about the need for ‘reform’.
Every question directed at Clarke was an attack on privatisation, the destruction of public sector workers’ pay and conditions, and the huge amounts of money handed over to private consultancies. Les White told the conference, ‘In 1997 I had a little red pocket guide to campaigning on the doorstep. I cheered when Frank Dobson announced that the sell-off of public services would end on the first day of a Labour government. We wanted honesty from you, and I think we should get honesty from Labour. Two years ago I tore up my Labour Party card.’
Another delegate told Clarke, ‘It’s not the case of public versus private. It is the public against the government.’
The general secretary of the GMB, John Edmonds, also laid into Clarke: ‘Everyone has a breaking point. I was criss-crossing the country campaigning for Labour when they announced their new ‘big idea’. It wasn’t stopping child poverty or better pensions-it was more privatisations. That was my breaking point. We didn’t work so hard in 1997 and 2001 to elect a Labour government to privatise our services and run them for private profit. They have no mandate for that.’
KAREN Constantine spoke about the plight of women workers:
‘The majority of public sector workers are women, and it is mostly women workers who suffer from PFI. We are treated like second class citizens. We have the Equal Pay Act, but women still earn 18 percent less than men, and part time women workers earn less than 58 percent of men’s wages. A woman who has two children will lose some £241,000 in wages during her lifetime. Women’s wages are key to improving the lives of the three million children officially living in poverty. But the pay gap is actually widening as more jobs are sold off.’
PUBLIC SECTOR workers at the conference expressed fury about the poverty and privatisation in New Labour’s Britain. ‘Tony Blair promised to end poverty for children and the elderly,’ said Jude Brimble. ‘But today some 2.5 million old people live in poverty. Some 48,000 are homeless, with many living in hostels.’
Peter Turner talked about the Lakefield elderly care home in west London: ‘After a fire, residents were put out into the private sector, where some homes didn’t give basic care. They deteriorated visibly. Seven residents died. ‘We have to campaign to keep Lakefield open. Thousands of people need specialised care and trained staff. We should lobby parliament and invite pensioners groups to join us.’
A care worker from Merseyside told the story of a hospital assistant who got ill with the same disease as the troops in Afghanistan: ‘The ward was closed. Nurses and doctors went sick, but they got sick pay. But the care assistant had been sold off to Sodexho. So she got nothing while she lay ill in the very hospital where she works.’
Brenda Powell from Southend described what happened when the council leisure services were sold off to the Glendales private company: ‘New workers were brought in on the minimum wage. But they don’t really want a two-tier workforce. They want the whole workforce on slave wages. They demoralised and harassed the staff until now 80 percent of the original workforce have left. Now workers have little training and experience. They can’t afford to stay on long enough. Would you let your child play in swimming pools run like that?’
One speaker talked about the manual and clerical workers in higher education: ‘The pay of cleaners, caterers, technicians and security staff is falling further and further behind. Some £2.5 billion is needed just for our members to stay still. When will the government realise that insults like offering 1.5 percent send the wrong message? Blair said ‘education, education, education’. We say ‘spend, spend, spend’.’
A local government worker from Liverpool said, ‘I believed that 1997 would be the dawning of a new era. Now I am proud to say I am not a member of the Labour Party any more. PFI is a scam. It’s just about profits. We should stop the gravy train now- and fight for funding for public services’.
Thousands of local government workers, including many manual workers who are in the GMB, are being balloted for strike action over a 3 percent pay claim. Henry Rajch from Barnsley talked about the need to stand together with other public sector unions:
‘Unity is strength-solidarity can win. We should be campaigning to make 17 July a day of joint action when all the local government unions fight for decent pay.’
Reballots have opened the way to bigger struggle