Sacked for fighting poverty pay

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no 138 - August/September 1997

In FRFI 137, NIGEL COOK described the barbaric conditions of employment and slave wages forced upon him and other workers at M&S Packaging in Blackburn, who package CDs for PolyGram, through the implementation of the Jobseeker's Allowance. In this issue, he reports on developments in the campaign against poverty pay.

Within hours of seeing the last issue of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, the management of M&S Packaging suspended me from work and two days later sacked me.

Production manager Richard Ware contacted me at home and said 'You are suspended and we want you to come in on Wednesday because Mr Munn [the administrator] wants to have a word with you.' When I asked why, he simply replied 'Mr Pye [a manager of the multinational PolyGram] does not want you on his soil'.

I contacted the administrator's office immediately and asked if I could have my Union officer present at the meeting, only to be told by a Mrs Coardingly that: 'it was not fair on Mr Munn to spring it on him at such short notice, that you want to have your legal representative present', as he 'did not have enough time to arrange his legal team'.

I reminded Mrs Coardingly that I had been woken, having just worked a 12-hour night shift, and without any notice told I was suspended from work and that Mr Munn wanted to speak to me. She would not tell me why he wanted this meeting.

The next day I reported my suspension to my union. Jim Bowie, District Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, faxed Mr Munn a letter asking why I had been suspended and, if there had been any allegations or complaints of bad conduct against me, could he tell us what they were. Jim Bowie also asked if he could be present at the meeting.

The next morning, the day of the meeting, Mr Munn phoned Jim Bowie. He did not offer any reasons why I had been suspended, told him that the meeting was just an 'amicable chat' and after some persuasion grudgingly told Jim he could come.

Present at the 'amicable chat' were Mr Munn, Mr McCarthy (M&S director), Jim Bowie and me. Mr Munn started by arrogantly saying that there was nothing to compel him to allow my union officer to be present and that I should be grateful for him being so good-natured. Mr Munn then outlined his role as administrator: describing PolyGram as the 'sole customer', he emphasised that he did not want his lob made more difficult' by someone 'stirring up trouble'.

Mr McCarthy, clutching his copy of FRFI, then started quoting from highlighted parts of my article. He said that my article was not 'wholly accurate' because whilst it correctly mentioned the closed circuit cameras in the works and canteen areas 'it did not mention the cameras outside' and the fact that 'employees need permission to go to the toilet is for health and safety reasons'!

It was at this point that Mr Munn politely interrupted McCarthy, probably to spare us all this embarrassingly pathetic sight, and said that it was his intention that during the course of this meeting he would sack me. I asked him for the reason for my sacking, to which he proudly boasted that 'current legislation is such that I do not have to give any reason for dismissal'. He refused to give any reasons when asked again by my union representative.

The following day the union faxed a letter to both Munn and McCarthy asking for the reason for my sacking. To date neither of them has replied. This did not stop Munn informing the dole I had been 'dismissed for misconduct', in an effort to get my benefit stopped. However, when I told them that Munn had refused to give me a reason for my dismissal and I had been sacked for union activity, they let my claim go through.

My union submitted an application to the Industrial Tribunal on the grounds that I had clearly been sacked for my union activities. The day before my hearing, we received notification from the tribunal that the hearing could not progress because of a legal technicality. Apparently, under Section 11(3) of the Insolvency Act 1986, during the period for which an Administration Order is in force (as is the present situation with M&S) ‘... (d) No other proceedings and no execution or other legal process may be commenced or continued, and no distress may be levied, against the Company or its property except with the consent of the Administrator or the leave of the Court and subject (where the Court gives leave) to such terms as aforesaid.'

The union's legal advisers were unaware of this fact, and it was the solicitors acting for McCarthy and Munn who brought it to the attention of the chairman of the Industrial Tribunals. The chairman then 'stayed' my hearing for four weeks.

The union's national legal department, having assessed my case, have now appointed a local firm of solicitors, at the cost of £2,000, to seek 'leave of the Court'. My case is to be heard on 25 July.

The solicitors have said that the case could well end up in the House of Lords as there is, to their knowledge, no legal precedent. As it stands, this legal loophole effectively allows employers to sack workers without reasons, regardless of length of service, and the same sacked workers have no immediate redress to an Industrial Tribunal.

How PolyGram conducts business - ssh!

In the preparation of my case the union have now obtained a copy of a letter from a PolyGram manager, dated the same day as my suspension, that clearly instructs M&S to keep me off ‘PolyGram's premises'. The letter, referring to the FRFI article, attempts to distance PolyGram from the appalling conditions at M&S when it reminds McCarthy that ‘terms and conditions you offer to employees are your responsibility'. It goes on to state their concerns about people's 'impression of how we conduct business'.

The campaign

I contacted the GMB union convenor at PolyGram, Barry Eatough, and told him of my sacking; he agreed to meet with me and other M&S workers at the union offices to discuss ways in which PolyGram workers could help improve conditions at M&S. He never showed up and has refused to answer our telephone messages and letters. It became obvious that any effective campaigning against the increasing tide of sweatshop firms paying crap wages would have to be built by those directly affected. It cannot depend on those workers who enjoy relatively good working conditions and wages.

So I, along with members of my union, local supporters of the Revolutionary Communist Group and other progressives have formed a campaign calling for my reinstatement. Other demands of the campaign are Fight Poverty Pay!, No to Slave Labour! and End Casualisation! The campaign has two priorities to win support: writing to union branches and other organisations and individuals and campaigning on the streets and in the communities.

The response from organisations so far has been good, with many union branches, trades councils and other groups affiliating to the campaign, sending donations and inviting speakers to their meetings. And our street work has been very well received by the thousands of people forced to work in lousy jobs. At our weekly street stall in Blackburn town centre we regularly meet people telling us of their experiences. One woman, a care assistant, was being paid £2.50 per hour and another guy was being paid £1.50 per hour. We have been told of a cleaning firm in Preston paying just £1.00 per hour. There are over 50 job agencies servicing Blackburn and the surrounding area. We also leaflet outside the JobCentre, highlighting the role of the Employment Service in forcing JSA claimants into appalling jobs.

We hold regular campaign meetings in the central library, where we encourage everyone who supports the aims of the campaign to get involved. Unfortunately, the local Socialist Workers Party and New Communist Party have not attended any of our events. We held a very successful picket outside PolyGram, to publicise their use of sweatshop firm M&S Packaging. More than 30 people attended, including representatives of Bury Unemployed Workers Centre, Preston Radical, trades councils and various union branches. The picket received good coverage in the local press.

The campaign has agreed that we should use any means necessary to publicise the scandalous work conditions that are now becoming the norm in this country. So I raised the issue of my sacking and the growth of racketeering job agencies with the local MP, Jack Straw. I met with him at a recent surgery and explained my situation; when I mentioned PolyGram, he expressed familiarity with the name. Perhaps he was already aware of the recent appointment of PolyGram Chief Executive Stuart Till as a co-chair of the government's Film Working Group. Film workers beware — zero hour contracts and poverty pay, coming your way soon!

Straw did say that he would write letters to M&S and PolyGram about my sacking, and that he believed a minimum wage would go some way towards curing the problem of the job agency racket. He also promised to contact Ian McCartney (Labour Minister for the Labour Market) and inform me of Labour's plans to combat casualisation. We wait to see if he keeps his word.