The real face of modern capitalism has been exposed by recent news investigations, who have uncovered brutal and dehumanising conditions in the warehouses of big businesses such as JD Sports and Sports Direct. Rob Sewell looks at the return of Dickensian working conditions in 21st century Britain.
“We are treated worse than prisoners”, explained a worker at the JD Sports warehouse in Rochdale, which employs 1,500 workers and operates around the clock, seven days per week.
Workers face prison-camp treatment, with many effectively earning less than the minimum wage and threatened with the sack if they dare sit down during long shifts. An undercover Channel 4 News investigation exposed the de-humanising intimidation of vulnerable workers, forced to endure punitive discipline, insecurity and intense surveillance.
“You are shouted and barked at like a dog”, said one disgusted MP, who described their treatment like “animals”.
These gulag practices are nothing new. They follow practises in warehouses operated by other large retailers, including Sports Direct, Amazon and Asos. Scandals at Sports Direct were highlighted recently when workers were so terrified of taking time off for fear of the sack that a pregnant woman gave birth to her baby in the toilet.
Welcome to work in 21st century capitalist Britain! This reflects the dictatorship of Capital in the workplace. It marks the return of Victorian workhouse conditions in many places, where the bosses can do what they want. Iain Wright MP, who led the damning inquiry into Sports Direct, said the workers were “exploited” and treated “like cattle” and “like scum”.
Agency workers are forced to queue to enter and leave the site for up to 30 minutes each day unpaid, meaning that they are effectively being paid less than the minimum wage.
This regime of vicious exploitation has worked well for JD Sports’ shareholders. In September, JD Sports was named Britain’s biggest sporting goods retailer, and announced record profits that have surged by 66% in the first six months of last year.
The company operates more than 800 stores in the UK and Europe and claims it is “a great place to work”.
In fact, many are agency workers on “zero hour contracts”, with no guarantee of work, and are paid the minimum wage of £7.20 per hour. Such contracts allow their on-the-spot dismissal. After 12 weeks of work, the agency only guarantees them 7.5 hours of work per week.
But such is the plight of millions of workers in Britain, the capital of agency slave labour. In fact, there are more agency workers here than the rest of Europe put together. These workplaces –growing in number – are nothing but hellholes.
JD Sports operates a high security system with CCTV cameras, electronic fingerprinting, metal detectors and constant searches by security staff. No wonder workers feel like being in prison.
The investigation found workers were routinely abused by supervisors. Undercover footage shows a team leader boasting of sacking workers on the spot, for as little as sitting down through exhaustion. One supervisor reported that workers could be disciplined if they slowed down, despite having met relentless targets set by the company. One security officer is recorded explaining “get three strikes and you’re sacked”. If a supervisor doesn’t like the look of your face you could get a strike.
“I think they are treated like scum,” said Ian Wright.
“As a supervisor I can get rid of you at a moment’s notice. I’m just treating you like cattle; you are a commodity that just helps me make more money and I think that’s disgraceful.”
But under capitalism all workers are treated as commodities, “as so many hands”. Their only role is to produce surplus-value or profit for the boss. These companies are not small backstreet sweatshops. They are giant firms with international connections.
This is not the ugly face of capitalism, as the Channel 4 report suggests; it is the real face of modern capitalism. We must fight to put an end to this system of exploitation. We need to end this dictatorship of Capital and replace it with a planned economy that is run not for profit of the few, but for the needs of the majority.