Right. Low pay.
This crap got my attention today: the DWP’s ridiculous notion that the UK’s lowest-paid employees should be classed as “not working enough,” and “be pushed to earn more – or have their benefits cut,” and that people whose earnings are really low “could be mandated to attend jobcentre meetings where their working habits will be examined (my emphasis) as part of the universal credit programme.”
I note, though, that the DWP has omitted to mention plans to examine the working habits and dubious achievements of the people who are responsible for inflicting low pay on others – the wage-crushing habits of employers, if you like. But fear not – I am here to plug that hole. Because it’s Saturday and because these stories can’t be told often enough, I’m going to tell you a story or two about some of the the reasons why people end up on appallingly low pay.
Case study: the story of low-paid careworkers who work in the North London carehomes for elderly people that are run by the Fremantle Trust.
From about 2007 for several years, I spent many Wednesday nights in the Barnet Unison office with a group of low-paid Fremantle Trust careworkers who were organising against the vicious cuts that the voracious private company they’d been outsourced to planned to make to their pay and terms and conditions.
The careworkers met every Wednesday to talk and to organise the next strike action and ballot (they took strike action regularly over the course of about two years). Most of the careworkers were women and most were from black and ethnic minority groups (time and time again, the wage cuts I see are, charmingly, both sexist and racist). Many had worked for Barnet council and then the Fremantle Trust for more than ten years.
Unfortunately, though, that commitment and service didn’t count for a stuff. Nobody at the management end gave a shit about staff commitment, or for the notion that elderly people might just be best served by a reasonably-paid and treated workforce.
Just a few days before Christmas of 2006, horrified careworkers were presented with a reorganisation document and a harsh new employment contract which proposed to reduce their pay and working conditions to rubble. As is always the case with these sorts of attacks on careworkers, the proposed cuts were purportedly “needed” to bring the salaries of people on council wages and conditions “into line” with those of people whose rates were set by the market – ie set in already-privatised workplaces where people were less likely to be unionised and companies more inclined to pay workers as little as possible and return as much of the lolly as they could to themselves.
There was also all the usual guff about a competitive industry and times being tough and tightening belts and getting/keeping the business on track, etc. It’s the good old: “the only way to stay competitive in this line of business is to slaughter the salaries of the people who actually do the work.” This is, inevitably, shorthand for “Fuck you lot working down there on the floor.” Or – “we can’t make money unless the people who work for us get none.” I’m not entirely sure what this business model is called. What I am sure of is that it’s been around from the beginning of time and that I’m sick of seeing it.
Those Fremantle documents were comprised entirely of devastating proposals for careworkers – including a cut to the rate for new starters and (this was crucial) the abolishing of the weekend enhancement payments that many existing careworkers relied on for a wage that they could pay rent and mortgages with. For years, workers had been receiving enhanced payments on Saturdays and Sundays – very important extra money for people who were on a base rate of about £8 an hour. Barnet Unison estimated at the time that the abolition of that enhancement rate would see some careworkers losing 30% of their pay. The weekend enhancement money was particularly important to workers who had children (and plenty of workers did) – by working Saturday and/or Sunday and earning over and above their low standard rate, they could earn reasonable money on days when their partners were at home to look after the kids.
But tough shit for them on that: the weekend enhancement money was to be cut. So was the careworkers’ annual leave allowance (by 11 days) and their sick leave. The Trust introduced a statutory sick leave scheme to cut sick pay and days – a rotten scheme at best and a dangerous one in carehomes for elderly people where flu and colds were likely to spread like the plague if sick workers decided to come into work after all and brought flu and colds in with them (the pursuing of cuts to sick leave and pay for low paid workers is, incidentally, one of the many managerial working habits that I’d like to see the DWP examine).
Needless to say, the employer’s response to complaints about this splendid new world was Kiss It. Anyone who didn’t like the new arrangements was told to piss off. I mean that literally, too – careworkers and unions were informed that anyone who refused to sign the new contract would be sacked. And indeed, one union steward was sacked, on some trumped-up misconduct charge, if memory serves. TUPE was useless, as it often is – particularly, in this case, because some years had passed since staff were transferred to the private sector.
By far the best part of all of this, though – and this is the sort of thing that the DWP should poke through if it ever decides to examine shit board and management working habits, as opposed to the work habits of people who must live with the fallout from management’s shit ones – was Barnet council’s later admission that that the cuts to the careworkers’ salaries and conditions had very likely been for nothing. Which is another way of saying that the cuts hadn’t delivered quite the money that the care companies involved in this shambles wanted and that they refused to leave things there. In a 6 December 2007 cabinet resources committee report, the council admitted that the “high profile” change (the Fremantle careworkers’ industrial dispute over the new contract) had not helped the Fremantle Trust’s sister company Catalyst Housing blunt its own supposed financial losses and that those losses presented “an ongoing and increasing budget risk to the council.” Which was another way of saying “Catalyst wants even more money from us.” Which it did. Catalyst lodged a claim for further funds from the council – and was ultimately awarded £8m in arbitration. Trebles all round, as they say.
Except, of course, for the careworkers.
‘I said [to management] – how do you expect us to be able to cope [with these cuts]? What [management] said is that you have to do extra hours to make up your pay. But what about the quality of our daily life?” one careworker, Lango Gamanga, told me at the time.
Another careworker – a woman called Sandra Jones – said: ”I came here all those years ago and I worked hard and then I got more leave and more wages. I’m 48 now. I don’t want to go back to how I was when I was 30… we’re not asking for a pay rise or anything like that. We’re just asking for what we had.” As for me – I’m asking the DWP to examine the work habits of every councillor and overpaid twat, lawyer and consultant who was involved in that disaster. And every outsourcing disaster. From beginning to end.
And that’s my two cents there.
Although I also have this to say:
The only field of endeavour that is remotely conducive to decent wages is, of course, strong (militant, I mean) grassroots trade union organisation. That’s all that ever really stands between most people and wage oblivion. People who are facing wage oblivion right now are perfectly aware of that, of course. That’s why so many people who are in that category are involved in strike action as we speak (have a look at this list to see the extent of that) . It’s also another reason why the DWP can go fuck itself. People whose earnings are low and/or about to be made lower are never usually thrilled about it, in my experience. They don’t need punishment, or their housing benefits removed, or their work habits examined. They need better wages and they need unions that are committed to fighting for those wages ahead of all else.
Last week, for instance, workers at the One Housing group (a company which provides supported housing and is making surpluses) began another five days of strike action in protest at their employer’s plans to cut pay by £8k a year in some cases. We wrote about that dispute here a few weeks ago when the same group of workers were striking:
“A week before Christmas, 245 letters were sent out. They instructed everyone to sign up to the pay cuts before 21 December. There was a very low union membership at the time, but 70 per cent of the staff didn’t sign – and soon became unionised.
“This triggered endless one-to-one consultations,” said a staff member called Peter. “You would see members of staff in tears, talking about how they’d lose their house – we’d already had our pay frozen for four years previously. It was just an admin exercise, but we got the cuts delayed for 22 months. Now they’ll come in February 2014.””
The really brilliant part of this was that the One Housing Group CEO Mick Sweeney had accepted a pay increase of just over £30,000 – at around about the time when his staff were faced with pay cuts of £8000. There’s a man whose working habits could stand some examination.
Meanwhile, just up the road, workers at Equinox Care, a charity which provides support services for people with drug and alcohol problems and mental health conditions have been fighting a similar attack on their wages. Earlier this year, Equinox workers and unions were given proposals for annual pay cuts of £2,000 – with some people being told to accept reductions of £8,000. Jobs were also be downgraded and downskilled.
Unfortunately, their CE, Bill Puddicombe, just about blew a valve when I rang him to ask why he was wrecking people’s lives in this way. He was furious. As far as he was concerned, I just didn’t get the world in which small charities were forced to operate. That world was cutthroat and that world was competitive and the only chance a place like Equinox had if it was to compete for contracts was to smash wages. The thing is – I do get that world. I get it all too well. I have to operate in a similar world myself. I just refuse to accept it. So, I asked this pissed-off Bill why he didn’t channel his fury/energies into something more constructive – finding new business, for example, or campaigning at council and government level for better contracts. Someone will have to sooner or later: there’ll be nothing left if they don’t. Puddicombe’s staff even told me that they had ideas for areas in which new business could be pursued and had tried to share them to no avail. Wouldn’t pursuing those avenues be a better work habit? Shouldn’t senior management have those skills? Couldn’t CEs pursue national agreements to exclude wages and terms and conditions from tenders for new business? It is genuinely impossible to entertain those ideas? Apparently so. Puddicombe said he couldn’t pursue new business without smashing wages (which was, many suspected, the reason that he’d been put in post in the first place). Only conclusion to draw – that there are a lot of bad working habits at the decision-making level. Ingrained bad work habits. “This is the only show in town” work habits. “Only a wild hippy like you would seriously suggest the race to the bottom for wages isn’t inevitable” work habits. Work habits that the political class refuses to break.