Taming Tesco

Submitted by Anon on 19 November, 2005 - 1:27

Tesco is not a popular company. Not popular with its rivals, who envy its dominance of the grocery trade and are leading a campaign to slow down its expansion and stop its below-cost pricing of certain goods.

Not popular with small farmers, who feel ripped off by the company. Not popular with people who have lost Post Offices and other small shops as Tesco’s supermarket building programme transforms Britain’s high streets.

It is sometimes not even popular with its customers, when they find the promise of cheap food does not hold good beyond a small number of items.

Above all, Tesco is not popular with its workers, who in return for hard work, are abused, bullied and underpaid.

This campaign briefing will tell you everything you need to know about Tesco, and gives voice to the grievances of some Tesco workers.

The facts about Tesco

• Tesco’s annual turnover last year was £37 billion. They control 30.8 per cent of the grocery sector. More than £1 in every £8 spent by UK consumers is at Tesco.

• Tesco pre-tax profits for the year to April 2005 were over £2 billion, five times that of Sainsbury.

• Tesco plan to massively expand their number of Express stores. These are the Tesco version of corner shops.

• 20% of Tesco sales come from non-food goods e.g. their clothing range. The clothing trade is notorious for sweatshop production. Chinese factory girls who make lingerie for top designer brands (including those used by Tesco) earn as little as £1 a day while living in a grim industrial complex…

• Tesco is Europe’s second largest supermarket chain, and the fourth largest in the world.

• Tesco began expanding internationally in the 1990s and now has outlets in, among other places, the Republic of Ireland, Poland, Thailand and Taiwan. When it expands into China and India it will become a truly global business.

• In common with other supermarkets Tesco deals with a small number of large and often mono-cultural farms world wide. Small farmers in less developed countries either have to make radical changes to their production or go out of business.

• In common with other supermarkets Tesco ruthlessly exploits its monopoly status. It gets producers of food to compete with each other and buys only from those offering the lowest prices. People working for food producers worldwide get lower and lower wages.

• Tesco says it works with suppliers to keep pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables to a minimum. Yet Government data shows that the company made no overall reduction in the level of pesticide residues in its food between 1998 and 2002.

• Cheap food comes at a high price. Cleaning up the mess made by industrial agriculture is one hidden “cost”. Paying for the removal and cleaning up the waste produced in food and other packaging is another cost.

• The average household spends £470 per year on packaging.

• In 2004 Tesco employed 326,000 people worldwide, 237,000 in Britain. 110,000 UK Tesco workers were in the USDAW shopworkers’ union.

• Chief Executive of Tesco Sir Terry Leahy was last year paid over £4 million.

• The lowest paid workers at Tesco get little more than the minimum wage. In 2005 the hourly rate was £5.56 outside of London. This is more than other shop workers but only by about 50p. These pay rates are in the bottom 10% of non-manual occupations. Many do not earn enough to pay National Insurance contributions and are thus excluded from pensions and other benefits.

• Over two-thirds of retail workers are part-time, and the majority are women.

• Premium rates for weekend including Sunday working have been cut back.

• The UK’s National Group of Homeworkers ran a campaign last Christmas aimed at stopping the exploitation of homeworkers by supermarkets like Tesco. UK homeworkers are paid as little as 23 pence an hour to make Christmas crackers.

• The industrial farms used by supermarkets often employ massively exploited migrant labour.

Tesco workers speak out

Tesco has a “partnership” deal with USDAW. In return for union recognition and a few benefits (such as distribution of membership forms by the company), Tesco workers have, over the years of the deal, seen their rights eroded.

One of the most disgraceful result of the partnership has been the implementation of a new sickness scheme, in which Tesco workers lost their right to sick pay in the first three days of absence.

One Tesco worker told Solidarity what has happened under partnership.

“At first 70 union reps were involved in negotiating with the company and making decisions. But when we didn’t agree with the management they tried to bully. USDAW officials wanted to go along with the company. The following year when we negotiated the pay deal the group was split up. Again we didn’t agree to the offer. So the following year just five or six worker representatives became responsible for making decisions — on working parties.

“Ordinary union reps have no say in negotiations. The rumour is that Tesco will no longer even collect union dues.

“The erosion of agreements and rights happens everywhere. The bonus system in Express was agreed to three years ago. They changed it without any negotiation. There are lots of abuses that go on, bullying, making us work harder for the same pay, but we are not able to do anything about it.

“When we approach the USDAW officials about this, or any other grievances, they just don’t want to know. They don’t support ordinary members. Grievances mean nothing to the management.

“I do believe it is important to encourage people to join the union, but it is hard work convincing people. People talk about leaving the union, but to leave will be another sign of weakness to the managers.”

other comments

“In our store there was a petition signed by nearly every member of staff to show the feelings that we had over the issue of scrapping Bank Holidays. The personnel manager ripped it up.”

“The sickness scheme is a Tesco and USDAW backed scheme to demoralise the work force and to invade their privacy. It brings a whole new meaning to dignity at work. It may be working for Tesco as far as people throwing sickies, but for genuinely ill people it is downright ‘sick’!”

“I had five weeks off with a slipped disc and got a written warning. I took all my doctors’ notes and physio appointments and letters and had a union rep with me. They didn’t speak and agreed with management. I am under hospital with it and the doctor actually said how he doesn’t know how they get away with it. He said ‘Have Tesco managers been through university and studied medicine? No, I don’t think so.’ The sickness scheme is just another way for managers to show their authority. One of our section managers is a union rep. How does that work?”

“Last Christmas a Tesco store in West Wales decided it would change the bank holidays for Christmas, telling the staff Monday after Christmas is not a holiday and the Monday after New Year is not a holiday etc. They sent a letter out saying that USDAW were in agreement with this. USDAW are in Tesco’s pocket are are not intrested in their members. They just keep the management in Tesco happy so they can make big profits and not worry about their workforce.”

“Tesco are constantly picking out individual staff usually the older established ones and intimidating them with ‘informal’ chats. A woman worker I know, one of the nicest, gentlest people you could meet, was nearly reduced to tears, in front of other staff and customers on the shop floor, by a bullying manager . She is not a militant, not an activist, just an ordinary worker, who wants to do her job .”

“It’s all very well saying a union is only as strong as its membership, but surely it’s not too much to ask the union leadership to do its utmost to represent their members’ interests. Surely if the union had the right sort of leadership the members would gain strength through increased confidence in their representatives.”

“I have worked at Tesco since April. I have just been told about the Christmas hours and how apparently I owe them eight hours! I have asked both of my night managers to explain why this is. Neither can, because they don’t understand it either.”

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