Blue-collar casuals and the spread of precarity

Union organiser Ewa Jasiewicz looks at the increasing precarity of migrant and agency workers – and how they are fighting back

December 1, 2012 · 12 min read

Thanet Earth, the biggest greenhouse in the country, where hundreds of migrant workers are employed. Photo: Immo Klink Studio

I’ve worked for Unite the Union on and off since 2005. I have organised in transport, logistics, aviation, meat processing, contract cleaning, local councils, warehouse, factory, horticulture and catering services in the north west and south east of England. I started out translating for Polish meat packers working for an agency based in Wrexham. Their labour was part of a supply chain that ended in the aisles of Asda. They were sleeping 10 to a house and hot-bedding on flea-ridden mattresses. Agency heavies would make them work weeks without a day off. Coercion, unpaid wages and intimidation were the norm. When a group of Polish workers got unionised their agency found out and sacked them. Because their accommodation was tied to their job, they were turfed out onto the street the same day.

And they were the lucky ones. They were ‘legal’. Ghanaian and Nigerian workers in a tray-wash and haulage site for a major supermarket in Milton Keynes had been employed despite having no papers. When they started getting organised, one by one they were brought into management’s office and asked for their passports and papers, some after years of working there. Those without papers were turned over to the police.

These stories are repeated up and down the country in construction, services, contract cleaning and retail logistics, and are symptomatic of a growing trend in the British labour market.

Casualisation normalised

The migrants and agency workers I have met over seven years of organising can be found in the invisible side of retail, out of sight far behind the shelves, in fields, farms, greenhouses, factories, warehouses and industrial fridges. They’re picking fruits and vegetables, weighing, packing, stacking, shifting, hauling and responding to ‘just in time’ production – where companies save on storage and labour costs by delivering products as the market demands them, with lead-in times of just days rather than weeks or months.

This requires maximum flexibility as workers respond to the demands and whims of the market. Warehouse workers (pickers) will often wear watches and clickers – electronic devices fitted to the arm and forefinger which record the exact number of products stacked in real time and how many more are needed to replenish shelves.

The last major inquiry into agency work by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in 2008 identified approximately 1.5 million agency workers in the UK, but acknowledged that the real number was likely to be much higher.

One of these agency workers can work for years in the same workplace – usually with unstable hours and hence an unstable income – and keep getting turned down for a permanent contract. Very often they work alongside British workers who are on better terms, conditions and pay. However, in my experience, there are a growing number of British workers getting the ‘migrant’ treatment, also working through these agencies.

Taking ‘our’ jobs

The causes of this widespread and increasing precarity and exploitation are complex, but have a lot to do with the fact that a large, mobile cheap pool of casualised migrant labour has been available to UK employers for most of the past decade. This, coupled with anti-union legislation, no-strike deals with employers and powers to strike for many workers dependent on the say-so of a union general secretary, has resulted in a driving down of rights and protections over working conditions and allowed for a proliferation of poorly protected agency work.

On the surplus labour side, the Office for National Statistics reported that youth unemployment in the UK increased from 575,000 in the first quarter of 2004 to 1,016,000 in the third quarter of 2011 – a rise of 450,000. Over the same period, the number of registered workers (the actual number is much higher) from the ‘A8’ – the countries that joined the EU in 2004 – grew by 600,000.

Anti-immigration groups such as Migration Watch and the right-wing press seize on these figures to further nationalist and conservative doctrine. But it is possible to reject the arguments of such groups and still acknowledge that thousands of foreigners have come to the UK to work and are ‘taking the jobs’. In some areas local people have been turned down or found themselves unable to get work. The left has largely been in denial and branded anyone recognising this fact as a racist, while the mainstream media and policy makers remain blind to questions over who is profiting from this situation, or, to put it another way: who has got the power to ‘give’ and deny jobs and why?

Everybody’s getting the migrant treatment

Sustained exploitation of casualised migrant labour by businesses, supported by government, has been pushing rights and unions out of workplaces at an alarming rate. This has lead to an easier imposition of agency and ‘migrant’ conditions on domestic workers.

Employers will use multiple agencies to stop unions getting organised and gaining a recognition agreement – the right for a union to represent workers, have elected representatives and negotiation rights – in any given one. This has lead to two, three and four-tier workplaces in which workers are competing with one another between and within the same agencies for sustained work. Discipline is achieved through work ‘granted’ as a reward for acquiescence. Work is taken away if workers start to demand rights. The struggle over the terms and conditions of that work becomes incredibly risky if the agency can simply get rid of you under the guise of having ‘no more work at the moment’.

The big four supermarkets are the largest private sector employers in the UK and among the biggest profiteers from this precarity. Exploitative agencies are hired by exploitative food processing, packaging, manufacturing and logistics companies, supplying major supermarket chains that know about the exploitation but refuse to take responsibility.

This was the case in Thanet Earth, the biggest greenhouse in the country in Kent, supplying tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers to supermarkets. The company had promised hundreds of local jobs in an area of massive unemployment but the workforce was primarily migrant. By not providing permanent jobs paying decent wages, companies are also exploiting the local community.

When one warm and courageous Latvian worker, Vanda Sefer, started organising, despite three years of ‘temporary’ work there, she was suddenly told ‘there’s no more work for you’. An employment tribunal found her agency, Kent Staff Services, liable for unfair dismissal for penalising trade union activity. The agency ignored the judgment and went into liquidation, never paying the £6,000 compensation they owed her. A new agency has since emerged with some of the same staff, the same landline, the same office and the same clients but under a new name. Shafting workers, shutting up shop and then re-opening has never been so easy, especially when high street clients look the other way.

Legislation aimed at ameliorating the extreme precarity of agency workers came into force at the end of 2011. The long lobbied-for agency worker regulations were supposed to equalise pay, overtime and entitlements such as holidays and sick pay for temporary workers after 12 weeks on the job. However, the ‘Swedish derogation’ – a get-out clause against the intent of the law and formulated by business in the famously ‘socially democratic’ Sweden – was accepted, allowing agencies a loophole to simply change workers’ employment status so they become employees of the agency rather than temps. All the agencies have to do is to guarantee a set number of hours per week – currently averaging just seven hours or one day per week.

Precarious unions

The intensification of agency work risks creating vicious cycles of disorganisation. Most agencies don’t recognise unions; many do not even recognise grievance and disciplinary procedures. If you can be sacked at the drop of a hat and there’s no rep to fight your corner, only an officer tucked away in a regional office whose response may be variable to say the least, depending on workload or commitment, then why join?

Yet if people don’t join, then the union stays weak and activists are vulnerable to being singled out. And if they are sacked, there’s no collective strength to resist by stopping work or walking out, meaning the union gets a reputation as ‘not being able to do anything’. Getting organised, often in total secrecy, is still the way forward, but the threat of instant dismissal is forever lurking, meaning organisation is as precarious as the work.

Winning the battles but never the war

So why is it not mainstream news that workers for high street brands are systematically exploited here in this country? Charities and NGOs often focus on the overseas victims. Why is it easier to show solidarity with people earning 50p a day in Bangladesh making Adidas trainers than with English workers from the Thamesmead estate on the minimum wage at a mega-warehouse? Can the British public be moved by the plight of someone working through an agency that ‘flexes them up’ (forced overtime), ‘flexes them down’ (sent home early without pay) and ‘switches them off’ (sent home with no work that day), and who barely get to see their children?

The fact that the precarity of blue-collar Britain is not seen as a major issue is in part due to the class make up of the mainstream media. However, it is also a consequence of the approach adopted by some unions. Too often the focus is on guerrilla warfare tactics – claiming, winning or defending a particular territory – winning the fight but never the war, pushing abusive employers down only for them to pop back up in a different part of the supply chain.

The union response to precarity has often been to gather evidence and threaten an employer with public exposure of their abusive practices and violations of employment law or voluntary codes of conduct like the Ethical Trading Initiative – an initiative created by unions, charities and NGOs a decade ago with the aim of guaranteeing workers’ rights through the whole supply chain, from Bangladesh to Bolton.

The theory goes that the employer, afraid of losing their reputation, will correct violations and conditions for all workers will improve. The story doesn’t make the papers but the union delivers materially for its members, and that’s what they pay their subs for. However, what is lost in this process is the exposure of a systematic culture of abuse, an understanding of how endemic these exploitations are, which if known could lead to a more generalised resistance involving people outside the workplace.

Fighting back

On the upside, migrant and agency workers do still get organised and fight back. There is a new responsive, inclusive and more radical union culture emerging that is challenging accepted practices and old political networks, incorporating civil disobedience and street actions into its toolbox. Recent Unite tactics have included exerting continuous pressure on every part of a company’s supply chain, including present and future clients and investors, through support from international unions, local branches and daily protests and pickets. Recent victories include the rank and file-led defeat of the Building and Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA), which would have seen electricians de-skilled and their pay cut by 30 per cent, a bonus for London bus drivers, and major payouts for locked-out Mayr Melnhof Packaging workers.

Casualised workers need support from outside when they’re fighting on the inside, sometimes through layers of collusion and repression. Too often the message from their employers and sometimes other trade unionists is ‘you’re on your own’. We need to show that they are not. Using social media to amplify what’s happening plus building links with civil disobedience activists to co-create strategic direct actions at key moments is needed. Many unions are already doing this.

Autonomy for members is also vital. Some union officers will protect the companies they have agreements with and try to stop action against them rather than admit to the company that they do not have control over hundreds of thousands of union members. If members feel afraid to take action as union activists, visible resistance will remain choreographed by a minority.

Big unions can feel inaccessible and alienating with their Labour Party affiliations, massive offices, hierarchical structures, unappealing branch meetings and invisible organising. Many activists want to ‘make links’ but don’t know how.

Reaching out is the way to bring people in. Demonstrations like the TUC’s 20 October march can be outreach actions. As well as the anti-austerity message, anti-union busting and solidarity with migrant and casualised workers is key.

Ewa Jasiewicz is a union organiser and writer. The views expressed here are her own


Seven years ago Unite embarked on a culture-changing programme of organising through grassroots collective action, a return to shop stewards and sectoral national networks of elected representatives who meet regularly to plan strategy and action. Unite’s organising model is based on the US union SEIU’s model of issue-based organising. There are around 88 full-time organisers working for Unite’s national organising unit today. Most are from industrial backgrounds.

Issue-based organising works. It can start with standing outside workplaces stopping workers, getting their details, meeting them in their homes or cafes, and having longer conversations about identifying common concerns. A problem that affects a wide number of people and where action can be won is selected, and a collective action to resolve it is launched.

In the beginning this is usually a collective grievance – a mass workplace petition. As union membership and confidence grows, the actions can become more confrontational, leading up to strike action. Identifying ‘leaders’ – co-ordinators, people who care, stand up to management and are well respected – is essential to carry core organisation forward. Once union membership reaches over 50 per cent, by law the employer must sign a recognition agreement, which allows for the election and recognition of workplace representatives, time off for union duties and negotiations on pay and conditions. It is at this point that organisers withdraw, having helped to create sustainable organisation and a shift in the balance of power.

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