Long-forgotten 19th-century odious work practices are making a comeback through unscrupulous bosses. SOLOMON HUGHES calls for union action
The Guardian ran a strong investigation this week into how couriers working for Hermes — which delivers for John Lewis and many other brands — are being exploited.
The couriers are nominally “self-employed,” they get paid per parcel delivery not per hour. Which means they are often earning below the “living wage” and even the “minimum wage.”
Plus they don’t get sick pay and have to bear the cost of wear and tear on their cars. Hermes also doesn’t take responsibility for their safety on the road. It was great journalism by the Guardian.
Other journalists can — and have — found similar abuses at other delivery firms like Yodel or Deliveroo. W
hat’s happening is at one level we have formal laws covering employees — minimum wage and safety laws. But at another, nasty work practices are creeping back.
And when I say back, I mean back from the 19th century. Under the “sweating system” or “piecework,” 19th-century home workers were paid by, for example, each shirt they stitched. “Sweated work” shocked even middle-class Victorians when they became aware how hard people had to work for so little. It inspired big reform movements.
But the “payper-parcel” delivery jobs are just modern “piecework,” a new kind of “sweated labour” where phony self employment pushes people below the minimum wage.
But “sweating” isn’t the only unwelcome “blast from the past.” In the 19th century many workers had to buy from overpriced “company stores,” the practice lasted longer in the US — that’s why the miner in the song “16 tons” says: “I owe my soul to the company store.”
Pressure from workers and reformers led to the Truck Acts which outlawed the “company stores.”
The Truck Acts were repealed in the 20th century because nobody thought it worth keeping them — employers would never be such cheats again.
But Sports Direct staff had to use overpriced cash cards and terminals from the firm to get their wages — for a fee — a modern “company store.”
Many retail staff also have to buy clothes each season from their own shop — sometimes without an allowance — which is another modern company store.
Another system that was reformed away was called “the pen” or “the call-on system.” In the 19th and early 20th centuries jobless people would gather in a pen for possible hiring — notably at the docks but also other factory gates.
Zero-hours contracts, with hire-by-day-by-text, wait-by-the-phone-for-work are a modern “pen” for day-hiring at the gate.
Under the “travelling-time” trick, 19th-century miners only got paid when they got to the coalface, not when they crawled to it through tunnels. They had to “travel” underground without pay on their own time. This trick hasn’t stayed in the past. Under the modern “travelling-time” trick, homecare staff often not paid for time travelling from care visit to care visit.
In a similar “travelling-time” trick, many retail staff are not paid for prework briefings. They are only paid when they arrive to serve on the shop floor.
The Guardian also found many Sports Direct warehouse staff didn’t get paid while they waited for ages in the warehouse queue for security checks. The queues were a big part of their working day, but largely unpaid, The minimum wage can make some of these scams illegal but only if they push pay below minimum rates.
And — more importantly — only if they are caught. There is also a middle-class 19th century labour practice on the way back.
In the 1880s teachers were “paid by results,” with wages set by class exam results. When I was at school, we learned a lot about this historical fact — I think because our history teacher was appalled that her profession could be treated like this.
Now, under the increasingly fragmented education system where each school competes with another over exam results, teacher “payment by results” creeps back, even though the 19th-century system was abolished as it caused cheating, encouraged ignoring weaker pupils and narrowed education.
It can seem daunting to see big employers squeeze their employees in this rotten way. It sends individual employees into debt, or unhappiness, or frustration, or anger, or drink. But all those 19th-century abuses stopped. Not by magic. Not by the goodwill of employers.
First, workers organised themselves into trade unions — membership grew from under a million to over six million over a couple of decades — and fought, ultimately completely successfully, to end abuses. They also campaigned politically — alongside middle-class campaigners or by themselves. And created laws and social institutions that shaped our century.
The really huge changes, in unionising, in laws, in campaigns, happened quite quickly, in the first decades of the last century. It’s always a pain having to do a job again, but at least we know what tools we need.
But there are barriers. It’s much cheaper for unions to service existing members than organise the unorganised. Where unions are recognised, stewards recruit members who do it either — where agreed — on company time or on their own time. Union drives are typically led by more expensive union staff.
Some unions have pushed into organising drives — the RMT, BFAWU, GMB, Unite and others. But they haven’t all been consistent. We need a full-scale union drive like the 1900s in Britain or 1930s in the US — one that mobilises volunteer organisers.
Second, we could badly do with what we didn’t get from the last Labour government — a push for a shift in the law on unions. Third, we absolutely must avoid anti-migrant slogans.
Any organising drive will recruit in workplaces where British and Polish and Spanish and many other nationalities work together.
Any hint of anti-migrant feeling in unions — or the Labour Party — is poison. This is not new. The “new unionism” that changed the 20th century ran against powerful anti-migrant feeling to recruit, in particular, Irish and British workers together. The US union boom of the 1930s was militantly pro- “migrant” worker. A pro-migrant stand by the labour movement isn’t about being “right on,” it is a key to growth.