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Christmas in 2019 illuminates the huge problem of insecure work

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The holiday season is here. Kids bouncing with excitement, parties and Christmas shopping in full swing. A time for family, friends and to look ahead to a new year refreshed after a well earned break.

Yet, as well as illuminating our Christmas trees, this time of year also highlights a huge problem facing society - insecure work.

The rise of online shopping has been revolutionary – who doesn’t like the ability to click on your phone and have a toaster arrive in time for breakfast the next morning?

But, behind convenience lies the reality of 21st century work. Online shopping relies on huge mass distribution sheds, workplaces that have many parallels with the dark satanic mills of a different era;

  • Exploitation
  • Dangerous and precarious working conditions
  • Employers hostile to trade unions.

Amazon’s warehouses are named ‘fulfilment centres’. The irony. It is hardly fulfilling for the hundreds of Amazon workers who have required medical attention, with the GMB documenting over 600 hundred ambulance call-outs to Amazon warehouses over a three year period.

In the Midlands, Amazon’s Rugeley site had 115 ambulance call-outs during this period for incidents that include major trauma, maternity concerns, electrocution, unconsciousness and chest pains.

As a point of comparison, at a similar sized supermarket distribution warehouse a few miles away, there were just eight call outs during the same period.

The difference? The supermarket distribution centre is unionised.

Fancy buying some sports clothing as a prezzie? Rather than Amazon you click on Sports Direct, its quick, cheap and convenient. But, like Amazon, the same story exists.

The Sports Direct central distribution centre is an 800,000 Square foot warehouse in Shirebrook, on the very site of the Shirebrook Colliery that closed in 1993. Irony. Again.

Coal mining was hard work. It was dangerous. Families didn’t want their kids to go down the mine. Let’s not romanticise the past. But what did exist was decently paid jobs, secure work and the ability to build a life for you and your family. And pride. Pride in the work, pride in the community. People walked tall.

The contrast with the today is staggering. 2016 figures identified a workforce of just 500 permanent staff with around 3,500 agency workers. Unite described the site as a “gulag" and as a "workhouse, not a warehouse." The union have done fantastic work in exposing the "culture of fear" that exists with workers scared to speak up as they know they could lose their employment at any moment, with one worker giving birth in the toilets as they were too scared not to be at work.

Pride v Fear. Secure v Agency work. Unionised v non-unionised. The story of Shirebrook is one that we should all know.

But then insecure work moves from the warehouses and onto the road with the parcel delivery business. According to the GMB around 3/4 of all delivery drivers are now “self-employed”, working for a host of differing delivery companies, a world away from 10-15 years ago when the vast majority of drivers were directly employed.

And this industry gives the lie to this form of ‘self-employment’. Drivers wear uniforms, are pushed to the limit by bosses eager to squeeze yet more 'productivity'.  And, of course, bogus ‘self-employment’ means drivers use their own vehicles, cover their fuel costs and don't have rights to sick or holiday pay or protection against unfair dismissal.

In this world flexibility is a one way street. Pay is eroded, security is taken away and working people suffer.

This is exploitation. This is wrong, This must change.

The thing is, we’ve been here before.

The rampant exploitation of the 19th Century was eventually tamed by union organising and campaigning. A significant milestone was reached with the establishment in 1909 of trade boards that set a floor in the most exploited industries.

The politician who introduced the legislation, a man named Winston Churchill.

“It is a serious national evil that any class of His Majesty’s subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions.”

Churchill, went on:

It was formerly supposed that the working of the laws of supply and demand would naturally regulate or eliminate that evil and ultimately produce a fair price …"

But where you have what we call sweated trades, you have no organisation, no
parity of bargaining, the good employer is undercut by the bad, and the bad employer is undercut by the worst . Where those conditions prevail you have not a condition of progress, but a condition of progressive degeneration."

The race to the bottom so eloquently identified by Churchill is back with a vengeance. Our campaigning and insistence that things can – and must – be better has to return with equal gusto.

We need modern trade boards – sectoral collective bargaining – to turn the tide against one-way flexibility. To support workers and the best employers and to cut away the exploitation that enables the worst to thrive.

We’ve done it before, we can do it again. Insecurity, inequality and exploitation isn’t a given. It’s a political choice. As we move into the 2020’s it’s time to learn the lessons of the past.

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