On Wednesday GMB union will march to Asda headquarters in Leeds to demand a better deal for workers who are being threatened with dismissal unless they sign a punishing new contract. Asda bosses are forcing workers to choose between caring for their families or losing their jobs in the run up to Christmas.
They have been told they must sign the so-called ‘flexible’ Contract 6 which means no longer being paid for any breaks and being forced to work bank holidays and weekends. If they don’t, Asda says, they will be sacked on Saturday 2nd November.
On the surface this campaign may read like any traditional industrial dispute – but it’s about so much more than that. It’s a campaign about how we recognise and respect thousands of low-paid workers, predominantly women, and where we are going not just as an economy but as a society.
It’s a campaign which has erupted from the turbulence of the last decade. Three years since Theresa May’s attempts to reassure the JAMS (“just about managings”), nine years since David Cameron claimed “we’re all in it together” and over ten years since the British public bailed-out the avarice of the bankers. It’s a reminder that things have got worse for working people, not better.
Asda workers know what just about managing actually feels like. With austerity now in its second decade, income inequality is at its highest level for the past half century. The economic and social uncertainty which has been allowed to spread unchallenged by the political elite and government is being ruthlessly exploited by multi-national employers to great effect, including Asda.
‘Contract 6’ is a case in point. The devil is in the detail of this so-called flexible contract. It’s a largely self-funded increase on the basic rate of pay to £9.00 an hour, one that actually puts more money into the pockets of the employer and away from the worker (as much as £500 a year in some cases). The gains are made by the employer on the removal of bank holiday and night shift premiums, paid breaks and the demand for “more flexibility” over working arrangements.
Many Asda workers have come forward to GMB to tell us how this contract will impact their lives. Colleagues who need time to look after older or disabled relatives, single parents who can’t work until late in the evening and many staff who just need to be able to go to work that month knowing where their place of work will be.
One Asda worker told us about how he works days and his wife works nights in the same store to look after their 16-month-old baby. They hardly see each other and have now received their termination notice from Asda – because the only way they can make ends meet simply isn’t enough for their employer. Asda wants to sweep away working arrangements which allow colleagues the dignity of being able to work and being able to care for loved ones.
Instead of showing respect to these workers who cannot sign this punishing contract, Asda have refused to get back around the table to negotiate with their union, while local managers have sent heartless leaflets to workers containing ‘top tips’ on finding a new job.
This doesn’t need to happen. Despite the recent failed merger with Sainsbury’s, Asda is in rude health. The retail giant is generating revenues of nearly £23 billion, operating profits are up to over £800 million and directors’ remuneration has risen from £7.3 million to £9.1 million.
This isn’t a business struggling on the margins of the UK’s retail sector; Asda is part of the sector’s elite and can more than afford to ensure its workers have some stability and security while meeting the challenges of the future.
The great Kiwi Labour politician Norman Kirk once said that all people wanted in life was “someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for.” Asda’s well-paid executives would do well to learn from that. The company can keep the latter half of that bargain to its colleagues, and in the process allow them the breathing space they need to take care of the former half.
We can start to find a balance between the needs of the business and the needs of its workers tomorrow, but only if Asda’s executives do the decent thing and get back to talks with trade union representatives. GMB, as always, remains open to constructive and meaningful dialogue.
But while Asda workers are being threatened with the sack within weeks we will not sit quietly by hoping for a last minute intervention. We will continue to fight for our members and we will be brutally honest about Asda’s actions, and clear that this contractual imposition is an attack on mainly low-paid working women motivated by corporate greed.
This injustice shouldn’t just provoke anger within the labour movement; it should resonate with anyone and everyone who wants something better for working people and their families across the UK. If you’re tired of corporate giants pushing workers around, get behind us on Wednesday.