Working for nothing


12:30 pm - November 8th 2007

by Kate Belgrave    


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This is the first in a run of stories in which this liberal lefter asks: Why are so many people taking strike action?

Where is New Labour at with the low-paid people that the Labour party was established to represent?

Why does the UK still have some of the most vicious anti-union laws in Europe?

In the London Borough of Barnet, a large number of careworkers who work for a grim outfit called the Fremantle Trust are planning another day of strike action this Saturday. Their dispute isn’t a Grunwick yet, but it’s on the road.

Fremantle careworkers Carmel Reynolds, Anne Quinn, Lango Gamanga and Sandra Jones say they knew their working lives were about to take a turn for the perverse when Fremantle management began talking about cutting careworkers’ sick pay and holiday allowances late last year.

It didn’t take long for the talk to evolve into policy. “It went from ‘we’re going to have to take your holidays and your sick pay’ to ‘we’ll do all that and we’ll freeze your pay and cut your weekend enhancements,” Reynolds says.

She and the other careworkers had been worried about their salaries and terms and conditions ever since Barnet Council outsourced its care contracts to Fremantle and transferred staff to the trust’s employ, but the council had fallen over itself to reassure careworkers their new employer would be as great as their old one. God knows those of us on the union circuit have heard that one a million times in the last few years, but unfortunately, there are hundreds of consultants out there who can still make it sound fresh at negotiating meetings, and even more local councillors who are dopey enough to fall for it, so it’ll be a factor until such time as leading members of the New Labour cadre stop privatising public services (fat chance) and/or decide to legislate to consolidate worker protection (ditto).

“Oh yes,” Reynolds says. “They said it was all going to be super-duper and we were going to be fine.”

As you’ve doubtless worked out, the council was talking out of a very wide hole in its proverbial. The Fremantle Trust has attacked its workforce with a fanaticism that has horrified those on the rough end of it. Quinn says that it was about a year ago that Fremantle started talking about ‘something having to go’ if the trust was to stay afloat financially (the trust’s 2005 to 2006 annual report shows a reasonable operating surplus, as does its just-posted 2006 to 2007 one. I will be looking into this in more detail in later posts).

The cuts to sick pay and annual leave were bad enough but, as Gamanga says, it was the attacks on enhancements and weekend pay that really frightened staff. With an hourly rate of just over £8 (Barnet Unison says about £6 an hour for new Fremantle employees), weekend enhancements made up a large part of careworkers’ wages. They got time-and-a-half on Saturday, and double-time on Sunday. The weekend money was the difference between paying the mortgage and not paying it.

“Some people are down three or four hundred (pounds) a month,” Reynolds says. “People organise their families around [that money]. You build up your lifestyle based on the money you’re earning. Then, they suddenly cut your money.” She’d been in the job for 23 years by this stage. The careworkers didn’t have much choice about accepting the new terms and conditions, either. They were told they could either sign up to them, or get lost.

Gamanga says that Fremantle management did have a response for those staff who were worried about the loss of income. “They said we could do more hours to make up the money.” She said that was always going to be a challenge for her – she has children to look after, and works part-time (often on weekends, for the enhancements) to do that.

“I said [to management] – how do you expect us to be able to cope, because as everyone knows in this country, for them [banks] to loan you money, it depends on your status. Everything is on how your earning is going. What they said to us is that you have to do extra hours. But what about the quality of our life – our daily life?”

Indeed. One wonders how well those of us in well-paid, white-collar jobs would respond if management suddenly told us our wages would be cut by £300 a month, especially if senior management remained well-paid.

The money
Distribution of resources is the issue of all issues in the public sector at the moment. When I was a union activist in local government, we spent half our lives trying to get the council’s finance director to explain why she was spending small fortunes (upwards of £200,000) on consultants for ‘change management’ and ‘business process re-engineering’ projects. “What do you want me to say, Kate?” she screamed at me at one meeting.

“That’s just what they’re paid!” Indeed they are. I’ve done work for companies that ‘supply’ the public sector myself and am happy to report that the money is excellent. All of which is a long way of saying that the only way to protect low-paid people from the excesses of capitalism is by legislating in their favour. Relying on benevolence doesn’t pay.

“The whole notion of carework is being derailed,’ Reynolds says. ‘I wouldn’t recommend people going into the care sector now. It’s not just because of the loss of terms and conditions. It’s the whole working ethos. It feels a bit like a warehouse.”

“They [Fremantle] are cheating us,” Gamanga. “They are making us looking after so many people at one time. Most of the homes are short-staffed, which I believe is deliberate (Fremantle’s 2005 to 2006 annual report discusses problems with staff retention).”

Gamanga likes the people she looks after, though. “Yes, you enter the building and you’re unhappy, but the residents, they try to make you feel better. They say ‘can I help you? ‘ They were supportive when we were having the strike. The relatives are very supportive. They’re very aware.”

Reynolds says that all the careworkers want is to get their money, sick pay and annual leave back. “We don’t want any more than that. We just want what we had.”

Quinn sighs. “If I was younger, I would go somewhere else,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t be here. I would go.”

Next: strike updates and discussion on trade union legislation.

Useful links:
Barnet Unison blog (with details of Saturday’s protest)
Unison National Executive committee member Jon Rogers raises Fremantle issues with trust CE Carole Sawyers
LabourStart – campaigning website the Fremantle Trust tried to close.

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About the author
Kate Belgrave is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a New Zealander who moved to the UK eight years ago. She was a columnist and journalist at the New Zealand Herald and is now a web editor. She writes on issues like public sector cuts, workplace disputes and related topics. She is also interested in abortion rights, and finding fault with religion. Also at: Hangbitching.com and @hangbitch
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Story Filed Under: Labour party ,Sex equality ,Trade Unions

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Reader comments


1. Innocent Abroad

£6/hr in outer London? Pampered workers! Westminster has contractors who pay their home helps £5/hr – when the friend of mine who was receiving their help queried this he was asked did he want home helps or didn’t he?

Excellent stuff.

This is exactly the kind of reporting that LC needs.

Why aren’t their union advising them to take legal action rather than strike action. A transferee cannot down grade terms and conditions, following a TUPE transfer. TUPE does what it says on the tin.

Furthermore imposing new ts and cs without agreement amounts to a constructive dismissal. Following a case called Yates you can claim constructive dismissal and remain in employment. Why not go to Employment Tribunal, rather than strike and go without pay?A couple of hundred tribunal claims would wake the employer up!

4. AlisdairCameron

Good piece, and sorely needed on this site. I do wish that NuLab acolytes wouldn’t keep using left or liberal in association with their free-marketeering,management consultoid bullshit. (except they don’t enact free markets, but rigged ones, c.f. the “public sector comparitor”/ PSC, which is not a comparion with the actual public sector but is merely a biased formula that allows at the very least a 2% extra cost on the normal PFI costs, and attributes notional savings to PFIs that have never materialised in fact).

5. silent_observer

Interesting piece. Still working my way around the site but this is the best thing I’ve read so far. Hope to read more of this kind of stuff- real people, real lives, rather than ideological abstractions or vague platitudes. Excellent.

“I do wish that NuLab acolytes wouldn’t keep using left or liberal in association with their free-marketeering,management consultoid bullshit.”

Hear hear.

Great article Kate.

Phil – “A transferee cannot down grade terms and conditions, following a TUPE transfer”

My understanding is that they can. There’s no time limit on when TUPE ends following the transfer, so if an organisation wanted to be really evil they could down grade the terms and conditions the very next day – it’s only really at the point of transfer that TUPE stands.

Yes, that is certainly my experience, Cath.

TUPE was very problematic for my union branch. I remember when leisure services were outsourced to a not-for-profit at the council I worked for then, TUPE’d staff were having to apply for restructured jobs in a matter of months, or having to take redundancy. The company in question must have been quietly working on the new contracts even as they were talking to the union about the TUPE transfer. And if memory serves, there are times when TUPE is negotiated for a fixed term – say a year or so. I will ask Barnet Unison more about this aspect of the Fremantle situation on Saturday.

Certainly, union branches should and do pursue legal redress where possible. The point is that people like the women I talked to in this article don’t necessarily feel they can wait for formal process to play itself out. Their financial problems are immediate. It’s also important to note that they were put in an awful situation by their employer – they either agreed to their new contracts, or faced dismissal. Not much room to negotiate there.

Fremantle has not been kind to critics, either. Andrew Rogers, a Fremantle worker and Unison steward who was involved in the strikes, was sacked this year. I talked to him as part of the above interview session. He isn’t the first union steward I’ve interviewed this year who was sacked after organising industrial action: there are several interviews with JJB Sports depot worker and GMB steward Chris Riley on my hangbitch.com site to that effect. Chris and his colleagues were taking home about £180 a week by way of salary. Anyway, Chris organised strike action and was sacked after it on some trumped-up gross disciplinary charge.

The point is that a lot of people have very little protection in the workplace now, and they’re obviously finding the salaries and conditions they have to accept too awful to be tolerated. I can tell you as a former union organiser that it is generally quite difficult to get people to take strike action. They find the thought of taking on management in that way, and of losing pay, very frightening, and rightly so.

People are desperate to hang onto their jobs. I sympathise with that. I’d quite like to hang onto mine. People would much rather their unions sorted issues out at the negotiating table (the problem being, of course, that there ain’t much negotiating going on at negotiating tables at the moment). You know that things have reached a pretty dire stage when people do start to strike. Matt Wrack said something similar at a recent TU lobby at parliament, and he was absolutely right.

Anyway – more soon. Cheers, Kate

No the House of Lords in the St Helens case is clear that any post transfer changes to Ts and Cs are ineffective if they relate back to the Transfer. Unison brought the case so should know about it.
In my experience tribunals are very sympathetic to employees who are having their wages cut by the employers. There’s a whole raft of case law on the employees’ side.

9. Kate Belgrave

Always good to hear that workers are cleaning up at tribunal.

I’m also quite sure the regional and national officers in Labour-affiliated unions do all they can to help beleaguered branches and members get there.

10. Kate Belgrave

My last comment on this one for now – someone just pointed out to me that I should make clear to you all that my comment about Labour-affiliated unions was meant to be ironic.

Anyway…

Until next time.

As Alisdair Cameron @4 says, this is not the real thing.

in the case of Freemantle, it appears to be a Private Monopoly operating under State mandate (or concession). This is the worst kind of monopoly in my view and I am not surprised things are not looking good. This is of the same DNA as PFI and similar. It is not capitalism or the free market, but, if it is anything, it is corporatism.

Another influence in terms of the rise of strikes, IMHO, is the perception that Gordon Brown will be more fragile than Tony Blair, even as he tries to be rigid.

Hi
First thanks Kate for the article. We have just had our strike, rmarch and rally in Burnt Oak, London.

Diwali Mubarak – Fremantle Care Workers
http://barnetunison.blogspot.com/2007/11/diwali-mubarak-fremantle-care-workers.html

Fremantle Strike, March and Rally – short report
http://barnetunison.blogspot.com/2007/11/fremantle-strike-march-and-rally-short.html

Firstly, in relation to the legal remedy. Clearly the sheer scale of the cuts frightened staff and we quickly pursued advice on a legal remedy. We were told that despite the draconian proposals, Fremantle could get away with it on the grounds of Economic reasons!

It took several months, meetings, newsletters before our members realised that our fight would have to come from the membership with the support of the branch.

Last week, I sought an opportunity to broach the Fremantle campaign to the Minister of Social Care Ivan Lewis. In his speech he conceded that Emplyers who were treating their staff badly should be brought to account. I could go on for ever as to what Fremantle have done but suffice to say it has not been pleasant and it has been a task for our branch to provide as much support as possible.

We are looking to our Union both regionallly and nationally to help bring all parties to the negotiating table.

This was not a fight we would or could not ignore…..we are proud to be involved in this struggle.

Older People Services touch us all sometime and it is time the voices of service users, carers and relatives and staff are heard. Any support, ideas, suggestions from anyone reading this article woudl be most welcome

best wishes
John

13. snapsthoughts

John,

Many many photos of Saturday’s rally here http://photos.snapsthoughts.com/p400096224/

Contact Kate if you want to use any of these

Yep, you’re welcome to photos if I can release them. Last time I got photos done for a protest rally (it was about cuts to voluntary sector funding in Hammersmith and Fulham), the Hammersmith and Fulham Tories used them to illustrate one of their stories about the evils of protest.

The rotters.

They got a fright, though, when we told them to credit us, and in the end had to put a copyright link back to my hangbitch site, which was full of stories about the cuts they were making. Splendid day, that. Really enjoyed it. Google Hangbitch and Councillor Paul Bristow if you want to see the whole thing in all its glory.

15. LiberalHammer

Did you ask Fremantle for any comments?

They’re next.


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