Terms and conditions for workers at major supermarket chain ASDA are under threat, as the bosses look to boost their profits on the backs of their staff. The trade union supposed to be representing ASDA workers, however, is remaining “neutral” in this struggle. GMB leaders need to show the way forward with a call for fighting action.
Standing in the queue for the checkout at ASDA, I overheard a female worker on the checkout talking to another member of staff who had just clocked off and was picking up a bit of shopping. Both women had just been “invited” to meet with their manager to discuss a new “flexible” contract. A very flexible contract, in fact, which meant for a slightly higher hourly rate (an extra £1 an hour) they wouldn’t have guaranteed hours; instead, they would be expected to turn up at the start of the shift and could be sent home if the store was “quiet”.
I asked the women if they were in the union; it turns out they were GMB members. What is the union doing? “Nothing, they are in the pockets of the company.”
After reading up on ASDA management’s plans it turns out that the new contracts are supposedly “voluntary”, but it is evident that a lot of pressure will be brought to bear on the part-time – overwhelming female – workforce to sign up.
The new contracts will be more than self-financing, with loss of breaks, compulsory working on bank holidays, and the inevitable stand down time without pay when the stores are not busy. Incidentally, ASDA – which is owned by Walmart – turned over £23 billion in 2015, with an operating profit of over £1 billion.
The GMB position, explained in a letter from union general secretary, Tim Roache, is that the GMB is neither for or against the proposals. After all, he argues, the acceptance of the “flexible” contracts is entirely voluntary. For part-time workers, many of whom will already be facing difficult circumstances, the loss of guaranteed hours means that they will struggle to make ends meet, without any security – day-to-day or week-to-week – of knowing how much money they will take home.
Tim Roache’s feeble response will not solve the problems facing his members. In fact, the GMB’s position simply opens the door for ASDA management to erode conditions further, potentially leading to the scandal of zero-hours contracts.
The union also recently dropped an equal pay case that would have given store-based female workers pay parity with predominantly male workers in ASDA depots.
For those women facing an uncertain future at ASDA, and many thousands of others in similar circumstances, it is high time the union was transformed from top to bottom. There’s no point in being “neutral” when faced with employers intent on pushing workers into a race to the bottom. What is needed is a democratic and fighting union, with the election of all officials and genuine accountability to the membership.