On Tuesday Mike Ashley the owner of Sports Direct, purveyor of cut price sporting clothing to middle aged men with beer guts who insist on dressing like they were really Olympic athletes, appeared before a committee of MPs in the Commons to address concerns about working conditions in his company’s warehouses. Workers for a company selling clothing made in Asian sweatshops have been paid less than the minimum wage, have endured humiliating and degrading working conditions, and have intimidated into turning up for work even though they were seriously ill.
Welcome to the working life of Britain’s low paid, the so called strivers and hard working families that politicians like to pontificate about. While the workers suffer and get ripped off, those politicians give titles and rewards to the bosses whose businesses only function because they rip off their workers. Welcome to a culture of fear created by those who can afford yachts and mansions while a decent standard of living is increasingly beyond most of the population.
When an employer docks 15 minutes of a worker’s pay because the worker was one minute late, that’s theft and bullying. A worker doesn’t have the same clout as a company to ensure that there is equality of treatment. The worker can’t insist that if she or he has had to work one minute longer than their normal shift in order to complete a vital order that the company reimburse them with fifteen minutes of pay to compensate them for the extra minute. In fact what is more likely to happen is if the worker knocks off at the exact second their shift ends leaving the order unfulfilled, they’re likely to find that their contract won’t be renewed. The company profits, the workers are penalised. That’s how business in Britain works.
When a company insists that its workers endure a humiliating and degrading security clearance which can take as long as 45 minutes, and doesn’t count that as work time, that’s the company stealing from the workers. It’s stealing their time, time which it isn’t paying for. It’s increasing an already arduous working day without recompense, and it is treating all its staff like thieves while it itself is thieving from them. It’s workers being subjected to the presumption of guilt from bosses who are guilty of the same crime that they’ve condemned their workers for. That’s the combination of theft with hypocrisy, it’s theftocrisy.
Workers for Sports Direct who accumulated six negative reports in six months found themselves out of work. You could get a negative report for chatting too much, for being ill, or for wanting to go to the toilet. Inmates of Victorian poor houses endured less, at least they could go to the toilet when they wanted. Staff at the company peed into bottles, turned up for work when their pregnancies were almost full term, when their doctors had told them they had serious health conditions.
According to the union Unite, some workers for the company received their wages through an electronic card. They were charged £10 to get the card, another £10 a month for ‘administration costs’ and 75p every time they used it in an ATM machine to get their own money out. That’s not unlike the truck system which was once used to pay miners. They had to spend their wages in the company store, using tokens issued to them in lieu of cash, where they paid rip off prices and so ended up paying the bosses for the privilege of being employed on a wage which didn’t allow them to live in dignity. It was outlawed in 1887 because it was seen as a form of slavery. And here we are in 2016 with its modern electronic equivalent. It ought to be illegal for a company to charge its staff to receive their own wages. The administration costs of paying a wage should be borne by the company, not the workers. This is how much basic workers’ rights have gone backwards in this UK. And if we leave the EU, it will only get worse. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove aren’t campaigning for a Brexit so that they can protect the rights of workers.
Too many companies in the UK earn vast profits for their overpaid bosses by dint of exploiting and oppressing the low paid staff who actually do the hard work. The business models of these companies depends upon exploitation, that means they depend upon theft. They don’t just rob employees of their wages, that would be bad enough, but they also rob their workers of their dignity, their self-respect, and their morale. And by paying their workers such miserable wages that the workers have to rely on tax credits and benefits top ups, those businesses rip off the state as well, they rip off everyone. The real benefits fraud is committed by the directors who cream off millions while their workers’ low wages are subsidised by the taxpayer.
If your business depends on paying your workers so poorly that they’re not even making the minimum wage, a wage which is below the amount required to achieve a decent standard of living, you have no business being in business. If your business depends on depriving workers of their basic human dignity, of humiliating and bullying them into submission, you belong in jail not in the Chamber of Commerce.
And then the man who was responsible for creating these working conditions appears before a committee of MPs, and they praise him for his honesty and candour. Tony Blair knighted Philip Green, who made off with millions from BHS before it had to close, and he knighted Fred Goodwin, who likewise made off with millions before the Royal Bank of Scotland had to be bailed out by the public. And it was all perfectly legal.
In Britain if you steal a few pounds you go to jail. If you tell a few lies to get extra social security, you go to jail. But steal an entire bank, exploit the labour of thousands so that they are forced to rely on benefits while you enrich yourself, and you’re lauded as a wealth creator and you get a seat in the House of Lords. That’s how the United Kingdom works. That’s why we need to get out of it. I want to live in a land where all of us have an equal right to dignity and equal access to it. Indyref2 can’t come soon enough.
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