The prospect of revitalizing domestic manufacturing after decades of deindustrialization and outsourcing generates plenty of excitement. As some industrial work returns to the United States and Great Britain, workers are finding that the quality of these jobs severely lacking. In this week’s Working-Class Perspective, James Pattison demonstrates this phenomenon through the case of Shirebrook and Sports Direct, and argues that workers need to build an inclusive solidarity to achieve better working conditions.
Sports Direct’s employment practices have become a poster child for much that is wrong with contemporary work in the UK, with the company facing intense scrutiny from the Unite trade union and the Guardian newspaper, leading to a Parliamentary Select Committee investigation. Of the staff employed at the Shirebrook headquarters, only 200 are directly employed by Sports Direct with permanent contracts, leaving 3000 employed through employment agencies. Workers must agree to highly restrictive conditions, such as long periods where no work is available and the obligation to accept work when it is available. Workers are guaranteed just 336 hours per year, equating to a little more than 8 weeks’ work. Agency workers are effectively on zero-hour contracts for the rest of the year, with no guaranteed income, both Sports Direct and the employment agencies legitimise this practice as offering both the worker and the client ‘flexibility’. This flexibility only works in one direction. The agencies gain flexibility by contracts that don’t obligate them to offer any assignments beyond the 336 hours, but if workers refuse any assignments offered to them, they can be sacked. This leaves the agency workers in a precarious position, which is compounded by the fact that most are Polish migrants who have limited networks of support available to them.
Sports Direct also uses a ‘six strikes and you’re out policy’, where agency workers could be disciplined for minor offences, such as excessive toilet breaks, chatting, or being off work because of illness. Workers had no chance to defend themselves if they have been wrongly accused of a misdemeanour because challenging supervisors’ decisions ran the risk of reducing their hours as a punishment. So the employer has yet more power over the agency workers, enabling them to discipline or dismiss workers and control how many hours they work. The investigation also uncovered accusations of sexual harassment, dubious health and safety records, and stringent security measures that required employees to spend excessive amounts of time at work – unpaid — to be searched after clocking-out and before they were allowed to leave. As a result, they earned less than minimum wage.
The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-16 academic year, John Russo, and Georgetown University English professor, Sherry Linkon. It features several regular and guest contributors.