By Max J Freeman
My father’s father, Jack Wall, I am told, was a short man. Not skinny, but not a big man either. A sinewy man not hewn from rock, but hewn from hard work and relative poverty. He and his wife Katherine had six boys, only three of whom survived to adulthood. A Liverpool man from Irish stock, with gentle but blistered hands, unskilled but not without intelligence, and a hard-worker.
Jack was a Coal-heaver, a Tobacco-turner, and a Docker. He would, like many other men of the time, walk before sunrise to the Liverpool docks, together with his fellow workers. They would cluster in what was known as a pen (a telling term for the way employers saw the workers of the day) and hope to be picked by the foreman and be given work for that one day. If he was unsuccessful, he would scramble up and down the seven and a half miles of docks to the other pens, hoping that another foreman would not have enough men that day. Often, Jack would return home at lunchtime having found no work that day and have to hope that tomorrow would be different and that things would be better for his surviving children and their children after them.
My father remembers on the occasional Saturday going to a strange part of town with his father Jack and watching perplexed as his Dad slowly sipped a pint, whilst buying whisky with the other men, for the same foreman at the docks. Paying for work that was never guaranteed.
For the past couple of weeks I have been working in, and blogging from, one of Britain’s factories. I am paid £6.40 an hour by an agency. The same agency that is paid by the Factory over £10 per hour for my labour. In a sense you could say I am paying, like the men who bought the whisky, for a job that is not guaranteed. Conversely it could be argued that the agency is paid by the employer to find us. But we were always there, we were always ready, always looking for work.
I arrive for my first shift with ten other agency workers. Ten more arrive the next day, and ten the next, and for the time I am there, new agency workers turn up every day, replacing those who have not made the cut, or those who have chosen not to work in such conditions.
The company mooted last year in the local paper that swingeing cuts would have to be made, as the factory just wasn’t competitive enough, and the work was being lost to Europe. Many of the staff, tired of having their working hours cut and conditions of employment renegotiated took voluntary redundancy, glad to have something in their pockets before the closure of the factory and allowing them time to find other work. Those who had been turned down for voluntary redundancy, or those who stayed for other reasons, soon saw that the work was drying up, that the factory was indeed quieter. In order to save their jobs, another renegotiation of their contracts was required. Their working week would be cut from 47.5 hours to 37.5 hours. There would be no overtime as there wasn’t the work, but any overtime would be held in a bank, to be taken when the factory closes.
Those workers have yet to work less than a 47.5 hour week since the renegotiation last September. The ten hours per week they work over-time, at a flat rate, (hours which they used to be paid for), is now sitting in the bank of the employer, gaining interest. Worse than that, they noticed something else.
People like me, in agency shirts began to arrive. Just a few at first, but soon more and more. Pretty quickly, the factory began to fill up and was as busy as it was before the redundancies. An application to the European Union had been made to circumnavigate the employment laws and now agency workers were being drafted in to fill the work that had suddenly been found.
But here is what the local paper and the factory workers themselves were never told. The company that owns the factory actually competes with itself. Its factories around Europe fighting to bring in bids for work lower than the others. Cutting corners, cutting standards, cutting workers’ rights. As labour laws around Europe are relaxed, with governments fighting with each-other to see who can win the race to the bottom, multinational companies are fuelling this fire by threatening job losses, factory closures, relocation to more “competitive” countries.
Single working mothers are told that they must work night shifts, even though they have never been expected to work them before. One mother is told that her concerns are misplaced, the company has checked, and it is perfectly legal to leave a twelve year old girl alone overnight. Another man who cares for his frail and elderly father is told he must work nights, only to return the next morning to find his sick father on the floor, covered in his own urine. Agency workers are docked 15 minutes pay if their train arrives late and makes them even one minute late for work. The walls are bare, music is banned, and the work-stations are set up in such a way that eye contact, let alone conversation, is all but impossible.
You can read the full story in my three-parter at www.maxjfreeman.com. But next time you are told that there are more new jobs being created this year than ever before, hope, pray that you never have to take one, because the way we are going, it may not be long before we are all sitting in that pub, in a strange part of town, buying whisky for the foreman, for jobs which we may not have a tomorrow.