Industry matters: fighting back against declining wages

Proletarian writers

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Glasgow janitors

Unison’s website reports that on 13 August school caretakers working for Glasgow city council won a 20-month battle over provision of janitors to Glasgow’s nursery and primary schools.

In the May elections the Scottish National Party (SNP) won control of the council from Labour. The Labour administration had tried to impose an arrangement where the number of schools exceeded the numbers of permanent janitors, with the shortfall being made up by relief staff. There were also issues over unfilled vacancies and low pay.

Under the agreement with the city’s minority SNP administration each caretaker will be allocated a single school, as had previously been the case (‘one janitor/one school’), and outstanding vacancies will be filled. In addition, the workers have secured a 6 percent pay rise and a decrease in the working week from 41.5 to 40 hours.

This outcome came after protracted industrial action and community protests involving parent groups. The SNP piggybacked on this community revolt, courting the popular vote by including the promise of ‘one janitor/one school’ in its local campaign.

Whilst celebrating their own well-earned victory, hard-headed workers will however know better than to put any more trust in the promises of the tartan Tories than they do in those of Labour. (See Glasgow school janitors win pay rise, [link href=””]Unison[/link], 14 August 2017)

Decline in real wages

An article in The Times cites two recent reports exposing the continuing decline in real wages in Britain. The CIPD/Adecco Group labour market survey suggests that most employers plan to limit wage rises to 1 percent over the next year, outstripped by the 2.6 percent inflation rate. (In fact this masks the full extent of the lag, as this is the figure as measured by the Consumer Price Index [CPI]. Inflation as measured by the Retail Price Index [RPI] is predicted to be about 3.5 percent. The CPI measure conveniently leaves out of account rising rents, mortgage payments and council tax.)

Because of what The Times cheerily calls “a buoyant supply of workers” – ie, a labour reserve army consisting of unemployed, underemployed, bogusly ‘self-employed’ and migrant workers, along with people with health issues pressganged back into service – demand for jobs greatly exceeds availability, thereby exerting a downward pressure on real wages.

According to the survey, this is most striking in the case of low-skilled jobs, where typically every vacancy is being chased by 24 applicants. But the situation is not that much better in the case of medium-skilled vacancies (19 applicants for each job), or even high-skilled vacancies (eight for each job). Whilst the capitalists celebrate this bonanza of cheap labour (or what The Times euphemistically terms a “strong labour supply”), workers’ real pay continues to decline.

The second report cited by The Times arrives care of the RMT. “New figures from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers show that rail fares are rising at twice the increase in wages. In the past eight years fares have risen by 32 percent against a 16 percent growth in average weekly earnings.”

For many workers tied into ever more expensive commutes in order to hold down jobs in workplaces far from where they live, the announcement that they will have to pay an extra £100 on average for annual season tickets in 2018 will feel like the last straw. (See Decline in real wages expected as employers plan for 1 percent rises by Alexandra Frean, [link href=””]The Times[/link], 14 August 2017)

Sweatshop Britain

Back in January, New Look was among the British garment manufacturers exposed by Channel 4’s Dispatches for having its clothes made in sweatshops in Leicester. An undercover reporter was paid £3.50 an hour – less than half the minimum wage – and shot footage of New Look jumpers being made in appalling conditions. The reporter was told that wages had to be set low to compete with China and Bangladesh. (See ‘Sweatshop’ Britain by [link href=””]Jacob Dirnhuber[/link], 23 January 2017)

This sharpening competition, driven by global overproduction and probably aggravated by the reputational fallout from the Dispatches scoop, is now hitting New Look hard. The Times reports: “The private equity owned retailer’s unsecured debt dropped to 47 percent of its face value after it posted a pre-tax loss of £18.2m for the quarter compared with a profit of £2.7m last year. Revenue fell 4.4 percent against last year to £339m and UK like-for-like sales fell 7.5 percent.”

Reeling from the bad publicity and profits haemorrhage, the company’s CEO Anders Kristiansen is now lashing out at all his competitors, claiming that New Look is a paragon of virtue compared with its business rivals. If New Look is going down, it seems, Kristiansen is determined to drag the rest of the industry down with it.

Piously beating his chest, the hapless CEO blurted that the “vast majority” of factories in Britain underpay staff and ignore health and safety regulations. “People just don’t care – they care about standards in Asia but not on their own doorstep. We had 118 UK suppliers just three years ago, now we have 12. I don’t want to be a part of it. Our competitors don’t see it the same way. They know about the problem but don’t want to fix it.” (British factory standards ‘worse than Asia’ by Philip Aldrick, [link href=”″]The Times[/link], 9 August 2017)

Whilst this belated attempt to portray New Look as the injured party in all this will convince nobody, Mr Kristiansen has performed a useful service in dishing the dirt on the entire garment industry.


As in the garment industry, so in the catering industry. Workers at McDonald’s in Cambridge and Crayford voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action, and walked out on 4 September in the first ever strike at a British McDonalds. They are part of a growing movement of precarious and vulnerable workers who have been organising and fighting for better pay and conditions in recent years.

The strike, called by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), was supported by other trade unionists at early morning picket lines. There was also a rally outside parliament and sympathy actions at McDonalds in Oxford and Kings Cross.

The striking workers demanded £10 per hour, more secure working hours, and recognition of the right to form a trade union as employees of the company. Workers in the service sector, such as cleaners, delivery, bar and restaurant staff, endure some of the worst conditions at work: insecure employment, inadequate wages and terrible working conditions, coupled with the threat of being easily replaced should they miss work or stand up for their rights, wreak havoc on their physical and mental health.

Company boss Steve Easterbrook last year was paid £11.82m for his services. By contrast, a burger flipper can earn as little as £7.55 an hour – or just £4.75 if he or she is only 17. (Poverty, illness, homelessness – no wonder McDonald’s UK workers are going on strike by Aditya Chakrabortty, [link href=””]Guardian[/link], 1 September 2017)