A Tale of Two Workforces

It is widely argued that in Britain today we are seeing a huge and growing gap between richSD and poor. Between those bankers with their huge bonuses for doing….er, what? – and those, including disabled people, who were already struggling to make ends meet and are now having their benefits cut. Or those whose already meagre wages have fallen by over 10% in the last five years and are having to resort to dubious payday loan companies, such as Wonga.  It now seems that this huge gap is also prevalent in the world of those employed by our very own Mike Ashley.

At the time of writing it looks as though Newcastle United are going to make their fist signing of the close season. If Bafetembi Gomis does sign, and you will no probably know if he has by the time you read this, then he will no dubt be earning ‘megabucks’. According to trophy4toon.co.uk, in the 2010/11 season Newcastle United paid out £53.6m in wages for a squad that finished12th in the Premier League.  According to the same website, the annual salary paid to Xisco has been a staggering £2.8 million.  Yes, that’s right, £2.8 million. Per year.

Meanwhile at another Mike Ashley run business, Sports Direct, bosses have recently been trumpeting what a model business they are, as £2 million profit is to be shared out in bonuses to staff. That sounds very fair….until you take into account that only 2 000 of the Sports Direct staff will share this bonus, those with full-time jobs. The story of what is happening to the other 20 000  part-time staff at Sports Direct, is rather different….

It turns out that they are not in line for any of the bonus at all. Indeed they are on what are known as zero-hour contracts. This means that they have no entitlement to holiday or sick pay and don’t have any guaranteed hours from one week to another.

Now, of course there are other jobs which have similar working practices, Supply teaching comes to mind as one. In the case of supply teaching there are very good reasons why there cannot be a guarantee of work.  However, that surely cannot be the case with staff at such a successful company as Sports Direct. Or……..is that the reason why it is ‘successful’? – for the owners and management. Because most of the staff are on such dubious contracts?

One of the part-time workers, Jayne Walt recently shared her experiences with readers of The Guardian. Among those things she mentioned was that, “during my first few months at the job, before the news of the bonuses, long-term part-timers expressed animosity towards those with full-time contracts. Compared to them, we “casual assistants”, or “cast members” as we’re referred to, get next to no benefits; “the company won’t even fund a Christmas party”, I’ve been told” (guardian.com.uk 29thJuly 2013)

Perhaps even more tellingly, Walt related that, “a colleague also told me that Sports Direct will use the figures from what us shopfloor staff have sold to determine how much they should put towards the managers’ annual ski trip.” (ibid.) Walt also claimed that most of the part-time staff were on the minimum wage, with little chance of a pay rise or of being made full-time. (ibid.)  This at a time when the founder of the minmum wage, Professor Sir George Bain is claimimg that even the minimu wage is not helping those on it as its value, pegged to wages, has fallen over the last five years as it has not kept pace with inflation. Clearly the vast majority of staff at Sports Direct are not having the great experience of working at a model company for workers’ rights.

Sports Direct are not the only business, seemingly rolling in money, who have turned to zero-hour contracts. Amidst the tabloid  frenzy of the roal baby being born this summer, many people might have missed the fact that 350 part-time employees at Buckingham Palace are also on zero-hours contracts to keep costs down.  This at a time when the head of the incredibly wealthy Windsor family has been given another huge rise in her income, paid for by the taxes of ordinary working people.  Not only that, but while they have no guarantee of work, those who have signed up to work at Buckingham Palace, have to get signed agreement from the palace. What next; the return of the feudal system?

A carer who is on a zero-hour contract recently stated that,
”Where I work 80% of the carers are on zero hour contracts. It is common practice for staff to be sent home with no warning after either driving or catching a bus to work if the manager decides they are not required or if a client decides on another activity.

Carers with children cannot plan childcare as they have no idea when they will be required or for how long. They are lucky if a duty rota is issued for a week ahead.

Management totally abuse the fact that people need work and are prepared to put up with being treated abysmally.

If you fall out of favour with managers your hours will be reduced to nil for a few weeks while others find themselves loaded down with 40-50 hour weeks, all the time with no sick pay or holiday requirement”.

Another worker on a zero-hour contract commented that, “by working on Zero contract hours you are incapable of organising a functioning family life. Your ability to keep your promise to be at your children’s school production or watch your 9 year old sons first football game becomes secondary to your employers whims.”

These are just two of many examples of personal experiences of zero-hour contracts found on the Work blog at guardian.com.uk.  What they clearly show is a lack of compasssion on the part of the employees who allow these contracts to exist, wherever that may be.

Meanwhile, back at Sports Direct, it transpires that not even all of the 2 000 full-time staff have been given a share of the bonus. Those who have been described as “unsatisfactory performers” have been excluded. Again at first sight this sounds fair enough, but Direct Sports have neglected to explain exactly what this term means. It could mean having a terrible attendance record or just being generally lazy – but it could also mean speaking out and not putting up with bullying or other dodgy management practices. We simply don’t know.

If this sounds melodramatic, it shouldn’t do. There is increasing evidence of the use of blacklists by employers. It has been noted that thousands of workers in Britain’s construction industry have been sacked and prevented from ever working in the industry again, due to their insistence on voicing concerns about not being paid properly or even more seriously raising issues of health and safety in what can be a very dangerous working environment.

After 18 years of Thatcher and Major, 13 years of New Labour, and three dismal years of the present coalition, is this what our society has now been reduced to? A small number of ridiculously wealthy people and the rest of struggling along, trying to make ends meet? Do we all just have a price and is exploitation of the many by a few O.K.? Should we just accept this – is it all we can expect?  Should we just forget 200 years of impressive social progress from the late 18th century until late 20th century?

In 1971,  the playwright John McGrath (NOT the Newcastle United centre-half from 1961-8 of the same name) set up the excellent left-wing agit prop theatre group 7:84.  Famously, the name was taken from a statistic published in 1966 in The Economist. Back in the swinging, egalitarian sixties, The Economist, not noted for its left-wing bias, stated that 7% of the population of Britain owned 84% of the wealth. The gap between rich and poor did close somewhat until 1979.  Now who won the election that year?  Since 1979 the gap has widened considerably again.

It was reported by the BBC back in 2008 that, “the top 0.1% get 4.3% of all income – the highest figure in the UK since the 1930s, and three times as much as they received as a share of income in 1979. Overall, inequality rose sharply between 1979 and 1990, and then levelled off before increasing more slowly to reach a record high by 2001, and return to that level in 2006. The report (by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), an independent think tank) says that “income inequality is at its highest level since the late 1940s”. (bbc.co.uk/news Friday, 18 January 2008)

1979 was of course also the year that the attack on trade unions by the Tory government began. It was also the year that trade unions in the UK had their record highest membership. You don’t think that there could be a connection between the decline in the membership of trade unions and the growing inequality in our country …..

Whatever the history of the last 34 years, Saturday 13th July in Durham did show that there could be another future. The huge turnout again, estimated at 100 000, nearly 20 years after the last coal mine in County Durham closed, was a demonstration that here in the Northeast we can both remember our traditions of solidarity, fairness and tolerance and look to a better future for all. It was an excellent expressiion of the desire of so many people in our region to live in a fairer world were working people would be given the wages and conditions of work they deserve and, yes, an expression of the internationalism of our region. If you look at our history we have never been the backward, parochial people some people like to portray us as.

One of the speakers at the Durham Gala who spoke eleqouently of these hopes for the future was Owen Jones. Owen will be speaking at the North East People’s Assembly will take place at Northern Stage, Newcastle, on Saturday 14 September, starting at 10 a.m. It is advertised as bringing together, “opponents of austerity from a wide range of organisations and backgrounds across north-east England. It is a day for speeches, discussions and planning, with a mix of rallies, workshop sessions and cultural activites.”  For registration details see below.

Trade unions are at the heart of the revival of social justice in this country. Recently released cabinet papers for 1983 lay bare Thatcher’s determination to crush the trade union movement. The road from that policy 30 years ago leads directly to the zero-hour contracts used by unscrupulous employers today. The unions are fighting back. The trade union Unite has decided to take a stand against Sports Direct’s zero-hour contracts. It has written to Mike Ashley, asking for urgent talks because the union is “seriously concerned that a culture of low pay and poor treatment has embedded itself in at Sport Direct”. Clearly we are now living in a hugely unfair society, of which wages at Mike Ashley’s enterprises, are just one example. There is a better way.

It is surely unfair that one employee of Mike Ashley, who has done very little to earn anything should have been on an annual wage of £2.8 million, whilst the vast majority of workers at Sports Direct are not even on proper contracts. There are those  who will argue that it is fair, that it is merely the exercising of ‘market forces’. If so, it is a market heavily rigged in the favour of the few against the many. This situation however, is set to copntinue as long as ordinary working people, like you and me, allow it to happen. The more people who get involved in resisting this government’s austerity policies and the whole philosophy which underpins it, that we can run a society which has huge inbalances between rich and poor, the more pressure can be built up for real change. This surely must happen, as a society as patently unfair as our own is unsustainable in the long-term.  There must be change and you can be part of it.


© Peter Sagar August 2013.



Your invitation to join Owen Jones at North East People’s Assembly 2013

Registration is now open here: http://nepeoplesassembly.eventbrite.co.uk/
It will bring together opponents of austerity from a wide range of organisations and backgrounds across north-east England. It is a day for speeches, discussions and planning, with a mix of rallies, workshop sessions and cultural activites.



If you want to send a quick and easy message to Sports Direct asking them tochange their zero hour policy you can do that by writing to the bosses of Sports Direct and demand answers now: