Gulag conditions are the new norm
Jeremy Corbyn is spreading illusions about the ‘progressive’ nature of the EU bureaucracy, writes Eddie Ford
Recent polls by YouGov and Orb have shown the tide seeming to turn in favour of exit, with the FinancialTimes ‘poll of polls’ instant tracker putting ‘leave’ ahead on 47% to 44% (the rest being ‘don’t knows’).1 Inevitably, these findings increase the pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to discard his semi-detached position - as it is widely regarded - and appear extremely enthusiastic about the European Union over the last few days of the campaign.
Indeed, with an alarmed David Cameron deliberately lowering his profile on the understandable basis that it only alienates Labour supporters, Corbyn is now seen as central to the ‘remain’ cause - especially as the 66 year-old Labour leader is thought to have the ear of under-30s, who are far more likely to vote ‘remain’ than older people. If Cameron wants to keep his job, he needs Corbyn out on the stump batting for the EU.
However, alarmingly for Labour - hence for Cameron and the government - a campaign memo from Britain Stronger In Europe showed that about half of its voters were “uniformly uncertain” about the party’s official position on the EU referendum.2 Perhaps more worrying still, whilst they did not really know what Corbyn thought or believed about the EU or the referendum, they agreed that “his heart isn’t in it”. But, as this paper has pointed out, this is hardly surprising. All his political life, Corbyn has been opposed to the “bosses’ club” of the European Economic Community/EU - meaning that he is now forced to argue for a new position, one that does not fit so comfortably.
The Times maintains:
When the history of the European referendum is written, Jeremy Corbyn will have a controversial walk-on part as the inverse of Forrest Gump. Instead of being omnipresent and endearingly sincere, he will be depicted as largely absent and culpably dishonest (June 13).
In similar vein, Alex Andreou, normally sympathetic to the Labour leader, castigated Corbyn’s “anonymity, lack of passion and refusal to engage meaningfully” in the referendum battle.3
Yet Corbyn’s dilemma is very real. How do you mobilise six million Labour voters to save the skin of a Tory prime minister, and more broadly get left-leaning voters to support the status quo? Trying to sound more upbeat, on June 14 he appeared with the entire shadow cabinet, members of Labour’s national executive committee and trade union leaders at an event in central London, where he stated: “It is the Labour position, the trade union position to vote to remain. We urge our supporters to think carefully and vote to remain”. A few days earlier in Aberdeen, he gave a speech saying he was campaigning to stay in the EU in order to protect the advances made in “workers’ rights”, including maternity and paternity leave, paid holidays, working hours, anti-discrimination legislation, environmental protection, etc.
Of course, he had said the same back in April as part of his long-promised speech finally committing himself to support for continued EU membership, “warts and all”. Though admitting that he was still critical of Brussels’ “shortcomings”, he told us that the EU had helped to underpin “investment, jobs and protections for workers, consumers and the environment”. Apparently, Brexit would be an opportunity to attack workers in a “bonfire of rights” - a carnival of reaction. The obvious implication is that the level of protection and rights that workers enjoy is all down to the EU, so we must vote ‘remain’ on June 23 just to keep what we have.
Step forward, Sir Philip Green, billionaire former owner of BHS, and Mike Ashley, founder of Sports Direct.
Green, the great über-capitalist of yesterday, whose empire includes Top Shop and Dorothy Perkin, is now in disgrace after milking BHS for everything it was worth by taking out £400 million in dividends during his 15-year ownership. He then sold the company for £1 to a dodgy consortium (Retail Acquisitions), led by Dominic Chappell, who has been declared bankrupt at least three times, and has been dubbed by members of Commons select committees a “mythomaniac” and a “Premier League liar”. All 164 BHS stores will close by the end of July and 11,000 will lose their jobs. Even more unfortunately for both current and former employees, who number 20,000 in total, the government-backed pension protection fund does not cover the full value of their pension - so they will get an immediate 10% ‘haircut’. Money gone for ever.
In a Commons debate on BHS, MPs from every party lined up to lambaste Green, describing him as an “unscrupulous chancer”, overseeing “wealth extraction rather than wealth creation”. Conservative MP, David Davis, said his ‘management’ of BHS “can be described as little else than asset stripping”, even though in August 2010 Green was asked by Cameron to carry out a review of government spending and procurement.
Showing his total arrogance and sense of entitlement, Green had originally refused to appear before the select committees conducting a joint inquiry into the demise of BHS. He had even imperiously demanded the resignation of Frank Field, chairman of the work and pensions committee, on the grounds that he was “biased” - he was “not prepared to participate in a process” which “has as its primary objective the destruction of my reputation”.4
Green eventually consented to appear before MPs, saying he was “sad” about the demise of BHS and was working on a solution to “fix this mess” - a new plan, being drawn up by accountancy group Deloitte, would offer BHS pensioners a “better outcome” than compensation available from the pension protection fund. However, when asked if that meant scheme members would receive the pensions due before the collapse, no more details were forthcoming. Showing how “sad” he was about the fate of BHS employees, Green has just bought his third luxury yacht (Lionheart) worth £100 million - maybe just to cheer himself up with a bit of retail therapy.5 Naturally, the yacht - like all his businesses dealings - was formally purchased by his wife, who lives in Monaco and thus does not pay British taxes. An outraged John McDonnell demanded that Green should be stripped of his knighthood, as that would “help restore public faith in the honours system”.
This brings us to Mike Ashley, who also refused to be questioned by the relevant select committee for several months despite receiving a formal parliamentary summons, but finally turned up after the committee hinted it would consider finding him in contempt of parliament. Unsurprisingly, we discover that Ashley had written to the BHS administrators expressing an interest in taking over a number of the stores - but Green rebutted his advances.
Anyhow, Ashley admitted to MPs that at a “specific time” Sports Direct staff were effectively paid less than the national minimum wage because they were held back at the end of their shift and brusquely searched by security guards before leaving the company’s warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire - locally known as “the gulag”. This involved a daily search - all part of SD’s ‘zero tolerance’ of theft - that required workers to obediently line up as if they were prisoners before being ordered to strip to the final layer above the waist and empty their pockets. They were then asked to roll up their trouser legs to reveal the brands of their socks and also expose the brand of their underwear. Occasionally workers are hauled into a side room for a more ‘detailed’ search. This was all unpaid time, of course - even though the search could take 30 minutes or more. However, if workers turned up one minute late, they were docked 15 minutes pay.
All this came to public attention last December, when The Guardian undertook an extensive investigation using undercover reporters, and published an article entitled ‘A day at “the gulag”: what it’s like to work at Sports Direct’s warehouse’ (December 9 2015).6 Some of the other horrors uncovered were that workers are given a list of 802 sports and clothing brands they are prohibited from wearing - not just SD’s own brands, but labels including Nike, Adidas and Reebok. Workers were said to have urinated into bottles because they were afraid of going to the toilet least they be ‘sanctioned’. Some staff were paid through a pre-paid card that cost them £10, plus a £10-a-month ‘management fee’ - nor forgetting the 75p to use it at an ATM machine, and 10p when they got a text message confirming they had used it. Only about 200 warehouse workers were actual SD employees, while more than 3,000 people were supplied by various employment agencies.
Horrifically, there had been 110 ambulance call-outs to the warehouse - 38 when workers had complained of chest pains and five that were connected to birth and miscarriage (one worker actually gave birth in the toilet). Orwellian-style, workers could occasionally get harangued by name via the tannoy system if they were deemed not to be moving quickly enough. As for behaviour the company considered punishable offences (called “strikes”), these included “excessive/long toilet breaks”, “excessive chatting”, “horseplay”, “wearing branded goods” and “using a mobile phone in the warehouse”. Six “strikes” in six months and you were out.
Ashley’s wretched defence to MPs was that SD had a “hard-working culture” and was a “victim of its own success” - he had the gall to say that he did a “better job” for his employees than Unite the union. True, he said, “I’m not Father Christmas” and “I’m not saying I’ll make the world wonderful” - who could disagree? Yes, he shrugged, the company had “outgrown” his ability to manage it, “probably a long time ago”. But hey, a “hard-working” billionaire could not be expected to keep on top of everything - be reasonable. Unfazed, Ashley accepted that SD engaged in practices that were immoral and even criminal - like employees on illegally low wages and temporary workers offered permanent jobs in return for sexual favours. But apparently, Ashley led us to believe, similar things happen at Sainsbury’s and Tesco - so what’s all the fuss about?
So what was that about the “workers’ rights” supposedly given to us by EU membership? Green and Ashley may be among the worst offenders, but companies such as Amazon or McDonalds are hardly paragons of virtue. Indeed the ‘gulag’ is becoming the new norm in workplaces across Britain. So Jeremy Corbyn is being incredibly complacent in defending the existing situation, basically arguing that things could get worse with a Brexit.
Obviously things can get worse, but this is not the right attitude. Rights are something you win, not get handed down to you from on high. The gains we have made, limited and inadequate as they are, did not result from the beneficence of either the EU or Westminster, let alone of the bourgeoisie - but from the class struggle, through the struggle of power against power.
That is what Corbyn should be saying, not spreading illusions in the progressive nature of the EU bureaucracy - remember Greece? Instead, he should be demanding the scrapping of all anti-trade union laws - one guaranteed way to help protect and extend workers’ rights in Britain, inside or outside the EU. When do we hear him saying this? Corbyn, however, seems to be concentrating only on the very worst offenders - the ‘rogue’ capitalists and those who insist on zero-hours contracts. A bold programme of change, or vagaries? Alas, with Corbyn, it seems more the latter than the former.