At last night’s match, Newcastle United fans, in protest against the club’s billionaire owner, Mike Ashley, unfurled a giant banner emblazened with the slogan #SportsDirectShame. The recent revelations about the alleged working practices at high street retailer Sports Direct have shone a light on how big business is exploiting workers in Tory Britain.
At last night’s match against Manchester United, Newcastle fans, as part of their latest protest against the club’s billionaire owner, Mike Ashley unfurled a giant banner emblazened with the slogan #SportsDirectShame. This follows the news that Ashley’s business, Sports Direct, has been employing thousands of workers on below minimum wage rates.
The recent newspaper revelations about the alleged working practices at high street retailer Sports Direct have shone a light on just how big business is seeking to get every last penny they can from the workers in Tory Britain.
Journalists operating undercover at a Sports Direct warehouse revealed cases of staff being docked pay if even a minute late for work; unpaid and forced overtime; being subject to lengthy searches before being allowed to go home; being shamed by management over the loudspeaker system if they felt staff were not working hard enough, and so on. Many staff said they were too frightened to take time off for being sick, such was the pressure on them. No wonder, with such constant surveillance, the workforce called the warehouse “the gulag”. Many Sports Direct workers are paid just the minimum wage and are employed via agencies.
The reports of these oppressive conditions, like something out of a grim novel by Dickens, have even led the Institute of Directors no less to call Sports Direct a “scar on British business”. A government minister was forced under pressure to come to the House of Commons to answer emergency questions from members over this, such was the anger being generated by the scandal. The Tories clearly do not like to see the rottenness of their system exposed for all to see.
However, this case is not a one-off by any means. Workers reading about the scandal in the tabloids must have felt similar feelings about their own workplaces. Trade unions are uncovering similar cases across the whole of industry and even in the public sector. Work for low pay – or even no pay – is becoming the norm. Zero hour contracts – legal slavery – is increasingly being used by employers; 2,000 of the 5,000 Sports Direct staff are on such contracts. Even the venerable Daily Telegraph newspaper has been exposed as having monitored staff at their desks in case they were spending too much time away from their stations.
The capitalists are desperately trying to extort the absolute maximum they can from the workers they employ, claiming that they should just be thankful for having a job at all. This is how big business is able to generate rising profits, whereas the rest of us are seeing a fall in living standards year on year.
No wonder a Guardian newspaper letter writer felt moved to write saying that Sports Direct was “a metaphor for the modern British economy”. What we see here is the ugly face of an ugly system.
The Tories like to claim that things are getting better. They are not. The Resolution Foundation has warned that “real-time” pay rises in 2016 are likely to fall to zero due to concerns over low productivity. Many workers have seen little or no pay rises for years now.
Far from becoming healthier, UK big business is just as weak and under-invested in as ever. The bosses organisation, the CBI, has also confirmed that firms are now being “cautious” over giving pay rises and will remain so over the coming year. For the ruling class it is a case of profits first, profits second and profits last. The class which actually produces this wealth – the working class – is not to be allowed to benefit at all.
In October 2014, the TUC organised union demonstrations on the issue of pay. Over a hundred thousand people marched to show anger over the issue. Yet in 2016 things are set to get worse, not better. The unions need to ramp up action over this. The continuing programme of austerity cuts will just add to the problem as benefits and services (the social wage) are slashed. Capitalism and austerity are intertwined; in this period of systematic crisis, you cannot have one without the other.
The time has come to fight back, starting with a one-day general strike to focus the fight in every city and town, workplace and university. Labour must commit itself to a clear programme of socialist policies to tackle the pay scandal by nationalising the banks and top monopolies under workers control and management as part of a socialist plan of production.