My life at work: "the managers understand what a unionised workplace could mean for their bonuses"

Submitted by Matthew on 10 June, 2010 - 10:40 Author: Abdi-Nasser

Abdi-Nasser is a retail worker for a franchise in a large train station.

Tell us about the work you do.

I work for SPS, Select Service Partner, the catering multinational that runs franchises in thousands of stations from here to Sydney — in Britain, it runs the Burger Kings, Upper Crusts, the bars and pubs at every station and airport.

It’s a minimum wage job, using mostly migrant labour. A lot of workers are here on student visas, with a limit of 20 hours on how long they can work, which means having more than one job under the counter. I know two Afghan workers who do 12 to 14 hour shifts seven days a week. There’s a very high turnover; it’s mostly people between 18 and 35, but with some older workers too. We’re under pressure to work fast because it’s a station with streams of customers.

What are the pay and conditions like?

Most of us get the minimum wage. The chefs at some of the restaurants are on £6.50 to £7.30 an hour, depending on how long they’ve been there — but they’re working eight hour shifts with no break. That’s as high as it gets. Overwhelmingly it’s £5.80.

We have a combination of long hours and not enough hours to get by. Everyone is contracted to do 20 hours; one shift is eight to twelve hours, so in effect they can cut back people’s hours whenever they want. They never ask. If the “take” isn’t high enough they’ll send some people home and the rest of us will be overstretched.

Managers get bonuses for lowering the number of workers relative to take on a shift, so there’s a constant pressure to push down the number of hours people get. You have to keep careful track of what you’ve worked, as they routinely cheat you by “forgetting” hours you’ve done.

A lot of jobs have disappeared and been allocated to other workers on top of their existing role. One example: instead of having kitchen porters to assist the chefs and waiters, they’ll now rely on waiters to do everything. There was a kitchen porter at the bar I was working at last year; in October he was fired and not replaced — and new workers didn’t know any better.

In theory I get a half an hour lunch break, but you can’t take it during peak hours and in practice it’s often squeezed to the point of non-existence. There are all kinds of encroachments on our rights which seem small but are very significant. Workers in the coffee shops were recently told they can’t have drinks while they’re working, though a coffee costs 8p and tea even less. The taps are not drinking water taps! Some people are getting into work at quarter to six so a cup of tea is really pretty essential. The manager responsible for that one got a huge bonus apparently.

What are your bosses like?

In general the managers are getting worse, as the result of a systematic policy. One who’d been working for three years was sacked recently because he was too friendly with the workers. They brought in someone from outside. The people who do move up the ranks are the people who are willing to make the most brutal decisions.

How was the economic crisis affected your job and the way workers see things?

It’s now much more of a regular occurrence that people get sent home because of “overstaffing”. But in fact, the company is not in trouble. The Financial Times publishes a thing called Top Track 100, with the top hundred UK companies, and SPS is in the top 30. Last financial year their pre-tax profits were £235 million! I’d say less than ten percent of sales money on each shift goes to labour costs. If anything, I’d say SPS has benefited from the recession, as it gives them an excuse to do what they want to workers. As a socialist, I’d still oppose attacks on workers even if the company was losing money but in this situation it’s just absurd.

A lot of people have been sacked. One guy had been working at the bar nine years when I started and was sacked for something utterly trivial. I’ve made sure that everyone across the station knows about the company’s profit margins; it’s common knowledge now and there’s massive discontent, but people don’t see what we can do about it. A lot of them just hope to find different jobs.

Is there a union?

The union that covers us is the RMT. But because turnover is so high, membership is very low. They lowered the membership fees from £14 a week to £1, which should make a difference, but people need to see a solid reason why they should join. Unless the union can do something, to a lot of people it seems too abstract.

Some people are joining now. When managers do something outrageous you’ll get a new recruit; one woman joined recently because she broke her arm and, as there’s no sick pay, she had to take time off, without pay. For now, though, there’s only ten RMT members out of 150 retail workers in the station. Sometimes RMT organisers come down and they’ve made some effort to talk to people, but it hasn’t got very far.

We don’t have much contact with the rail workers themselves. In the same way, catering and cleaning staff have relatively little to do with each other, though we obviously work together all the time. I guess forging those links is the key to really getting organised.

Another problem is that several managers have joined the union, some with the deliberate intention of heading off the development of workers’ organisation. On a crude level, they understand what a unionised workforce could mean for their bonuses!

A big problem is that there’s not much downtime when you’re on a shift, so you don’t necessarily get a chance to talk to people. You can talk to workers from other units a bit on breaks, but the main chance to talk to people is outside work. When we have social events, for instance football in the park recently, the conversation does turn to pay and conditions and what’s happening at work, so for me as a socialist it’s about being prepared to give that discussion a steer in the right direction.

What do people talk about on the job? Is it easy to talk politics?

People talk about pay and conditions all the time, and about the way management conduct themselves. That’s pretty much non-stop. In terms of “big” politics, obviously I try to start discussions. People like to discuss the politics of wherever they come from — and in this station it’s literally dozens of countries; Burma, Iraq, Poland... I’ve learn a lot; for example, I recently learnt that in Poland, the time prisoners are meant to spend sleeping doesn’t count as part of their sentence, and that you can go to prison for crossing at a red light!

People didn’t have much to say about the recent election or know what to make of it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re disengaged. One Burmese worker has been involved in democracy protests, for instance, but unfortunately there’s not much experience of trade unionism or class politics from what I can tell.

If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?

If we had the choice we’d allocate jobs and hours between ourselves to make sure everyone had enough work but wasn’t overworked. We’d get a wage that meant you wouldn’t have to go to a loan shark or borrow money off each other at the end of the month. And we’d get lunch breaks that allow you to eat and do what you need to do without getting indigestion!

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