One of the Boycott Workfare campaign’s slogans is ‘It Could be You’. And with workfare still spreading, don’t discount the possibility.
Some firms pulled out of the programme after the public outcry—but many are still in, including Asda and Argos. Both sent staff home at Christmas last year and replaced them with workfare labour.
A staff member at Holland and Barratt—Boycott Workfare’s target for a week of action starting July 7—has reported that overtime is no longer available, as workfare has replaced it.
Meanwhile the government is introducing the Universal Credit system, which could mean that if you’re not working ‘enough’ for the government you could still be put on mandatory workfare schemes.
Then there’s prison labour. The Ministry of Justice has established One3One, an ‘enterprise with a difference’. That difference being that their workers are prisoners in all 131 prisons in the UK—and are paid as little as 55p per hour.
In this context, poverty pay jobs could be made to look almost aspirational. Pay Up is intervening to show that low pay is also a key part of this spectrum of exploitation. You are not ‘lucky to have a job’ that pays poverty wages.
The past 30 years has seen the bottom 50 per cent of workers take home less and less of national income. In 1979 it was £17 out of every £100—now it’s just £10. Wages have been stagnating for decades, topped up with a debt bubble that has now burst for many.
That is why campaigners have been fighting for a Living Wage. It is £7.20 an hour, and £8.30 in London, compared to the current minimum wage of £6.08. They have won on London Underground, at cleaning contractors and local councils, to name but a few. But there are still only 100 employers accredited as paying the Living Wage in the UK.
Pay Up has chosen to target one of the biggest employers in the UK—Big Four supermarket Sainsbury’s, with its 150,000 workers and 10,000 stores. Sainsbury’s is a poverty payer—thousands of staff are reliant on tax credits, an effective public subsidy to private profit, as the supermarket pays just £6.21 per hour.
Sainsbury’s major brand ploy has been simply that it’s not Tesco—even though Tesco in fact pays between 50p and 80p more per hour than Sainsbury’s. The supermarket has also claimed to be the biggest fair trade retailer in the world. It projects an image of family-friendliness, with Gok Wan and previously Jamie Oliver making its brand ‘smart’ and ‘caring’.
But behind the façade, Sainsbury’s has been paying rampant bonuses to its executives—a 245 per cent rise for the board over seven years, including £2.2 million for CEO Justin King alone. Meanwhile staff have had a real-terms pay cut of 2.5 per cent over the same period.
Sainsbury’s can afford to pay a Living Wage. If it supports fair trade, why not fair pay?
Capitalism’s colonisation of the high street means that campaigns like Pay Up and Boycott Workfare have targets everywhere. Reproducible confrontation is one way of targeting both workfare and poverty payer companies all over the country.
Inside the workplace, organisation is the major lever. Outside, it is solidarity with workers and public exposure of and protests against companies.
Unionisation in Sainsbury’s is split between two unions. Pay Up is autonomous, but supportive of the existing Living Wage campaigns targeting supermarkets.
Whichever forms of organisation or unions Sainsbury’s workers choose to be part of or not, the goal is to make a major UK high street company take responsibility for their own wage bill and pay a Living Wage.
We can also show the Tories that their attacks on trade union reps and attempts to cut benefits for workers who strike will not work, as we have external leverage too.
Instead of normalising poverty pay and a race to the bottom, we need to be normalising a Living Wage as a minimum. This is a small step towards a much larger struggle of reversing inequality and achieving economic democracy and worker-run co-operative work.
Austerity is an old and permanent reality for millions in the Global South and North. So where does it end? It ends when we end it, collectively.
We have to not just fight cuts but fight for gains—an economy for the 99 per cent, not just Living Wages but control over our own labour and lives.
Getting organised at work and getting out into the streets to confront poverty payers and workfare profiteers are ways to make these arguments more visible and widespread.