Increasingly in Britain, with the mushrooming of warehousing, call centre and service industry work, the workplace has been turned into a virtual slave plantation, asserts JOHN GREEN
When Britain’s last deep pit at Kellingley closed just before Christmas the men told journalists that what they would miss most would be the comradeship of their workmates. Without that, few would chose to work deep underground as a coal miner; the work is arduous, dangerous and unhealthy. What made it tolerable was the work atmosphere, the sense of belonging to a close-knit community, of solidarity and friendship.
Work, particularly the carrying out of repetitive and boring tasks, is rarely rewarding. The redeeming factor for those who undertake such work can only be a pleasant workplace atmosphere, the opportunity for interaction with colleagues and for developing workplace relationships.
Increasingly in Britain, with the demise of the old manufacturing industries and the mushrooming of warehousing, call centre and service industry work, the workplace has been turned into a virtual slave plantation.
Surveillance and computer technology have replaced the whip and leg-irons to give added refinement to the bosses’ total control over employees lives.
The recent revelations of how Sports Direct and Amazon treat their workforces underline this situation. Not only have people’s lives at work been transformed into a daily nightmare, but with zero hours and minimum wages their pay does nothing to compensate.
Many big companies like Sports Direct use zero-hours contracts as a matter of course. This saves them paying sick or holiday pay, offering maternity leave, making pensions contributions etc for their 27,000 — strong workforce. Monitoring of toilet breaks and sickness absence are used to pressurise workers to work non-stop and to turn up for work when they are not fit. The final indignity is humiliating strip searches at the end of each shift. This is how Sports Direct upped its half-yearly pre-tax profits by 25 per cent to £187.3m in the six months to October 25.
For Amazon workers life is no better according to a devastating, 5,900-word exposé of its working practices in the US by The New York Times on August 15 2015. Working four days in a row without sleep; a woman with breast cancer being put on “performance-improvement plans” together with another who had just had a stillborn child; staff routinely bursting into tears; continual monitoring; workers encouraged to turn on each other to keep their jobs. The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions, the article says.
Things aren’t much better Britain. The global internet retailer founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos paid only £11.9m tax in Britain last year despite sales of £5.3bn. The company treats its warehouse staff like cattle as they are driven to work harder. However, their counterparts in the US face even tougher conditions.
Staff in a Pennsylvania warehouse allegedly worked in temperatures in the high 30s°C, as ambulances waited outside to take them away when they collapsed — and air conditioning was only fitted after newspaper reports publicised the issue.
Former office staff at the company’s headquarters in Seattle also spoke of working 80-hour weeks, getting emails from the office while on holiday or late at night, oppressive scrutiny of performance and callous disregard for personal crises.
These companies are not exceptions. Working practice in many others is being driven relentlessly in this direction, egged on by a Tory government determined to destroy any remnant of union organisation or the possibility of workers uniting to take effective action to counter such practices.
And it is not just in manual jobs. White collar, care and professional workers are suffering equally. Teachers and higher education academics are now routinely being given only short-term contracts and are overloaded with administrative work and longer teaching hours. Because the jobs are temporary, there is no sense of security and no long term planning can be undertaken.
All this enormous stress in the workplace is having repercussions throughout society. The Health and Safety Executive says that stress at work is one of the leading causes of working people being off sick. The majority, it says, experience stress at some point during their working life.
In 2014/15, it says, stress accounted for 35 per cent of all work-related ill health cases and 43 per cent of all working days lost.
Such stress is carried over into home and family life, destroying relationships and affecting children’s performance at school. It also becomes a burden on the NHS as long-term stress can lead to a whole number of chronic physical and mental illnesses.
Above all such jobs offer workers no hope — there is often little opportunity of breaking out into a different form of employment; in many areas of the country these are the only jobs available.
The trade unions particularly, but also all progressive organisations, need to campaign actively not simply for higher wages, but for government regulation of all workplaces to ensure they are humane and provide job security.
Rapacious exploitation should be banned just as slavery and the death penalty are banned. A civilised society can only be based on the creation of civilised jobs.