The remarkable social solidarity of the Spanish people overcame the fear that motivates people to surrender their rights in favour of what presents itself as firm leadership. They exercised their democratic rights both to condemn violence and to kick out the government that exacerbated the threat of terror by allying with Bush and Blair.
There is one group of people living in Britain today who will find it especially easy to appreciate the value of solidarity in a climate of fear: people working in the underground economy; people like the developing world nurses who have come to Britain to work for a pittance in our hospitals and care homes (see “Modern heroes, modern slaves‘); people like the cocklers at Morecambe Bay; people like the unskilled labourers working unsupervised on construction sites around the country (see “Contractor killers“). Their fear is not whipped up by government: it is based on the reality that government has denied them any rights through which they could protect themselves.
What these people have to deal with is now routine in Bush’s America, where society depends on the poverty-level lifestyles of millions of insecure workers lacking all rights to organise, and where the minimum wage is a bad joke.
Surely, the same can’t be happening in Britain, too? After all, the minimum wage is one of the few reasons for remaining loyal for many people at the end of their tether with New Labour.
But the truth is the government’s asylum and immigration policies are making the minimum wage meaningless. They are creating a secondary labour market of workers with no rights, who cannot stand up to the gang-masters and agencies that prey on them.
The minimum wage depends on individual complaints, its inspectorate is scandalously under-resourced and it is not backed up by a framework of law that requires inspections of the other rights – holiday entitlements, working hours, and so on – on which meaningful employment contracts depend.
The other government policy that works to undermine protection at work is privatisation, including the Private Finance Initiative. In theory, public bodies, be they local councils or the Health and Safety Executive, still have some powers to enforce social clauses in their contracts with the private sector. But they don’t have either the political will, resources or know-how to police the chain of sub-contractors involved in any major contract. The cowboys get away with it.
Another reason that the cowboys all too often go unpoliced is that the trade unions are too slow to respond to threats to workers’ wages and conditions. In the case of migrant nurses and particularly vulnerable groups like the Morecambe Bay cocklers, support has been mainly provided by community and faith organisations. The trade unions are now being dragged in the wake of these groups.
But the unions can play a vital role, not only by providing organising resources on the ground, but also by speaking out against the government’s immigration and asylum policies and the divisions they create. Unions have a vested interest in doing this: in the US the growth of a secondary illegal or insecure labour force has brought down the wage level of workers across the economy.
Similarly, along the sub-contracting chain it has not been the unions that have fought for health and safety, proper training and decent wages, but isolated groups of rank-and-file workers. In the face of employers who refuse to recognise normal procedures of trade-union bargaining, and a government that is treating migrants as a source of disposable labour rather than as welcome citizens, new tactics are needed. In the US the Service Employees International Union has shown the way: it targets individual companies and uses community organising and high-profile publicity to name and shame. This approach has secured some real successes. Similar tactics have paid off in east London’s Docklands for the community-union organisation Telco.
If democracy is to triumph over fear in the workplace, as well as in politics, it will involve all of us taking responsibility for standing up for workers presently denied their rights in law.
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