PFI + EU = poverty pay for migrant workers

From the Guardian, a story which demonstrates the terrible effect of the expansion of the EU and New Labour’s Private Finance Initiatives on the living standards of construction workers.

This case was uncovered because of the strength of the union and the fact it’s happening on a government project (albeit outsourced & subcontracted) – many similar cases go unreported.

Eastern European migrants working on the construction of a £600m NHS hospital have been taking home as little as £8.80 for a 39-hour week, the Guardian has learned, in what has been described by union bosses as one of the worst instances of employee abuse in the building sector since EU enlargement.

The group of around 12 men, most of whom are Lithuanian, are construction workers on the government-backed PFI project in Nottinghamshire. Though allegations of abuse of migrants’ rights on construction sites are widespread across the country the scale in this instance has shocked unions and politicians.

Michael Clapham, MP for Barnsley West and Penistone, who is due to raise the matter in parliament today, said: “This happened on a government project where there are good rules and a strong union – who knows what is happening on the hundreds of smaller sites around the UK?”

According to industry guidelines and an agreement between unions and the building firm Skanska, which is overseeing the project, workers on the site should have been earning more than £7 an hour. But after deductions for rent, tool hire and utility bills, some of the Lithuanian employees were receiving so little observers say it left them virtually destitute.

Payslips seen by the Guardian show that one man worked a 39-hour week and took home just £8.80 after his entire monthly rent was deducted in one week, in breach of the law. A second worker was paid £79.20 for a 63-hour week and a third worked 70 hours a week for just £66. As they were registered as self-employed they did not receive holiday or sick pay. One man had £228 taken from his pay in one week for tools. The men each had a further £76.80 deducted weekly as their payment to the “construction industry scheme”, which technically registers them as self-employed, meaning their employers have no requirement to pay national insurance.

Employers are allowed to make deductions from their staff’s pay for accommodation, but the amount is limited by law to a maximum of £30.10 a week, or £4.30 a day. According to Ucatt, the building union, this means that an employee working 37 hours at £6 an hour should take home a minimum of £174.14 a week unless they have agreed to any other deductions. The men refused to talk about their experiences when approached by the Guardian. However, a colleague said at least seven of them were sharing a three-bedroom flat and they cycled to work to save money. “We are worried about how they are managing to survive,” he added.

Alan Ritchie, general secretary of Ucatt, said: “This case is the worst we have seen. These workers were virtually destitute.”

The men have been working on the Kings Mill hospital site in Mansfield. They are not employed directly by Skanska, which has subcontracted another firm, which in turn subcontracted a third, responsible for supplying the men. A number of other subcontractors are operating on the site and have no complaints against them.

Last night Skanska, the main contractor on the site, said it had been made aware of the allegations two weeks ago and took “such issues very seriously”. It has since held meetings with the subcontractors and the union. “On June 24 matters were resolved with the parties involved. Skanska understands that all back pay will be paid to the relevant workers on or around July 2.” The Guardian attempted to contact the subcontractor that had directly employed the men at an address it had registered with Companies House but there was no response. Last night Ucatt’s regional secretary, Steve Murphy, said he was confident the men would receive back pay for deductions and missing overtime in the next few days. “We will be able to eventually get a fair resolution for these workers. What is truly frightening is to think what happens on the many unorganised sites in our country.”

The men were building internal walls and some were working up to 70 hours a week without receiving overtime. Clapham said: “Working that long on a building site is hard work. How can we expect to improve safety standards in this industry when employers carry on like this?”

Philip Hyland, partner at the employment law firm PJH Law, based in Stamford, Lincolnshire, said that in his experience excessive deductions from migrant workers’ payslips were widespread, and cited an experiment in which his firm invited local Poles to contact it. Of 80-100 people who got in touch over a month, he said, only one was getting the correct pay.

Ucatt is campaigning to have the Gangmasters Licensing Act extended to cover the construction industry, which would mean that employment agencies and subcontractors have to pass minimum standards before they can supply labour.

A spokesman for the department for business said that the construction industry was covered by the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate. “The reason we have not extended the GLA into construction is because there has been no consensus to do so and we have felt there are more effective ways to tackle abuses in the sector.”

Case studies
After a 39-hour week, one man took home £8.80 when his monthly rent of £155 was deducted in one week. Another man worked a 70-hour week, earning £420, but was not paid overtime and after having £228 deducted for repayment on tools was left with £66. A third man worked a 40-hour week but was left with £13 after paying £155 for a month’s rent. As self-employed workers they received no holiday pay.

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Safety crime – a forgotten killer

Respect MP George Galloway has an Early Day Motion on safety crime, and the following appeared in his Morning Star column:

AMID the acres of column inches about violence on Britain’s streets, a greater cause of death and injury takes its toll with scarcely a mention.

You are in fact more likely to be killed by working than you are through some act of interpersonal violence.

I had the author of a shocking new report into the collapse of workplace safety standards on my radio show the other week.

Professor Steve Tombs outlined how there has been a staggering 49 per cent fall in enforcement notices brought by the Health and Safety Executive. The cause is twofold.

First, the HSE is facing year-on-year cuts, which are affecting the number of inspectors that it deploys, as well as other vital staff. Second, there is a doctrinal shift, under the Establishment mania for deregulation, from enforcement to advice.

In other words, voracious corporations are to be advised on how to improve health and safety, but are not to feel the discipline of inspections and enforcement to make sure that that advice has been heeded. It is a staggering retreat for a Labour government.

For it was a Labour government, freshly elected in 1974, which brought in the Health and Safety at Work Act. That was the fruit of the preceding years of labour militancy. Now, it is being whittled away and the body meant to oversee it is being left to wither.

In conjunction with Tombs and the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London, I’ve tabled an early day motion (number 1855) calling for the recommendations of the Commons select committee which oversees the HSE to be implemented.

They include giving workplace safety reps the legal right to stop the job if a hazard is identified and publicising the sentences for safety breaches imposed on directors. I hope that you’ll encourage your MP to sign it.

Over the years, much of the media has reduced health and safety matters to bogus stories about “banning conkers” in playgrounds – something that was never true, by the way.

In fact, it is about the legitimate expectation of workers that they will clock off in one piece and that they won’t be worked into an early grave.

Next month will bring the fourth anniversary of the deaths of two firefighters in my constituency – Adam Meere and Bill Faust – who were killed while attending a fire at a shop on Bethnal Green Road.

It’s time that the minds of parliamentarians, most of whom wouldn’t plunge into a darkened room for a firefighter’s pay cheque, were concentrated.

Bliar wanted short war in Afghanistan?

Seems the ruling classes of Britain and America were so eager to get into Iraq, they thought there’d be no trouble occupying Afghanistan

(And notice how Ashdown confuses the Taliban with Al Qaeda – accidental or what?)

Tony Blair said privately that he wanted the UK to get out of Afghanistan “very quickly” after the 2001 invasion, ex-Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown claims.

Lord Ashdown said the then prime minister was anxious not to become entangled in a lengthy conflict.

Britain deployed troops to Afghanistan shortly after the 11 September attacks.

Since then 108 British troops have been killed in fierce fighting as part of Nato’s International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF).

The government has not officially said how long it believes British troops will have to stay in Afghanistan.

But in confidential government papers leaked to The Daily Telegraph earlier this month, Foreign Secretary David Miliband warns cabinet colleagues of a “long hard struggle” against the Taleban and opium trade that could last many years.

[…]

“I just happened to be looking through – actually this morning – the notes of a meeting I had with the prime minister on the 6th December 2001, and what he says to me is, ‘Paddy, we are going to have to go in and do this’. And I said of course he’d have our support.”

Lord Ashdown says Mr Blair went on: “But it’s going to be in and out very quickly. We’re going to go into Kabul, we’ll take Kabul and then we’ll leave straight away.”

The peer, who was recently blocked from being UN envoy to Afghanistan by President Hamid Karzai, recalls telling Mr Blair that avoiding becoming entangled in a conflict there was a “good idea”.

He goes on: “There’s no doubt that we started off actually wanting to go in, remove Al-Qaeda and get out quickly, and that plan changed.

“I guess it changed because somebody said, if you get out, Al-Qaeda will take over again. But there’s no doubt that it has become bigger than we thought it was.”

More local govt workers vote to strike against low pay

They will Unite with Unison, so to speak…

Unite members in local government vote 3 to 1 for strike action

26 June 2008

Thousands of workers working in local government have voted by three to one in favour of strike action, rejecting the employer’s below inflation pay offer.

Workers voted to reject an offer of 2.45 percent, which with inflation now at 4.3 percent represents a real terms pay cut.

Nearly 40,000 council workers providing services in school catering, social care, refuse and environmental services in England, Northern Ireland and Wales will now strike on Wednesday 16th and Thursday 17th July, 2008.

Peter Allenson, Unite National Secretary for the Public Sector, said: “Our members work very hard providing essential public services and they will not carry the can for inflation by taking pay cuts. They have voted for sustained action to defend their living standards which should send a clear message to employers: get round the negotiating table as soon as possible and make an offer that will not result in a serious cut in living standards to our members.

“It is simply unfair and untrue to accuse public sector workers of stimulating price rises. Low paid local government workers are more likely to be the victims, rather than the cause of, rising inflation.

“The recent rise in living costs has meant that the average household has had to find an extra £1537 from the family budget in 2008, compared to 2007, to cover basic costs such as food and petrol.”

Dave Mathieson, a Unite member and council worker from Humberside, said: “I will be out on strike with my workmates on the 16th and 17th. The people making these decisions over our pay do not realise that for us it is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul when our bills come in. We are getting further and further into debt each month. I don’t think what we are asking for is unreasonable. Our bosses should try living on what we earn – they’d soon find it doesn’t go very far.”

Unite will have members out on picket lines across the country on both Wednesday 16th and Thursday 17th July.

More die in unwinnable Afghan war

Two UK soldiers have died within the space of twenty-four hours. God knows how many Afghans have been died in the same period due to the occupation of their country.

From this week’s Socialist Worker:

Afghanistan: a war that won’t be won by Nato’s occupation
by Simon Assaf

According to recent pronouncements by British ministers, US officials and Nato generals, the war in Afghanistan is almost over. All that is required is one final surge of troops and the Taliban will surrender, they say.

They brush aside all the bad news about the rise in the number of casualties, roadside ambushes, suicide bombings and fighting spilling over into Pakistan. These, according to them, are all signs that the insurgency is “failing”.

Yet all the indicators point in the opposite direction – towards that fact that it is the Nato-led occupation of the country that is in serious trouble.

Last year the Afghan resistance targeted Nato convoys with 1,469 roadside bombs, almost five times as many as in 2004.

They launched 8,950 attacks on troops, ten times higher than three years ago. And while there were three suicide attacks in 2004, last year this reached 130. The Afghan resistance now regularly fires rockets and mortars into US and Nato bases.

Meanwhile the United Nations (UN) has admitted that the resistance seized 40 convoys of food aid this year, while the US military regularly “loses” arms shipments on their way to their headquarters at Bagram air base. In the latest incident three helicopter engines “went missing” on route from a port in Pakistan.

According to Nato it would need over 400,000 troops to pacify Afghanistan in the “long term”. This has sent George Bush and his defence secretary Robert Gates scuttling around Europe begging for more troops and equipment.

Gordon Brown promised Bush another 230 soldiers, Germany a further 1,000, while Italy, Poland and France pledged to strengthen their presence on the ground. Each announcement was matched by promises of victory.

Conscripts

Nato currently has 60,000 troops in the country. Even if you add in the conscript army of poorly paid Afghan soldiers, the alliance still has a shortfall of a quarter of a million soldiers.

Now more soldiers are dying in Afghanistan than in Iraq. Here in Britain, the images of flag-draped coffins being unloaded from transport planes is feeding a growing popular dissatisfaction with the war.

A recent poll found that 54 percent of the British people want the troops home from Afghanistan now. Only 34 percent think that British troops should battle on.

Meanwhile Britain’s ministry of defence announced this week that 10,000 troops were not fit for frontline duty.

The problems of the occupation reaches into the heart of the puppet Afghan government. Two weeks ago the Afghan president Hamid Karzai narrowly escaped an assassination attempt as he reviewed his troops. It transpired that Afghan military commanders helped smuggle weapons for the attack.

Karzai’s writ does not extend beyond the walls of his palace in the capital Kabul. Corruption has wrecked his government, while warlords control ministries as if they were personal fiefdoms.

The country he is supposed to rule now produces 95 percent of the world’s heroin. And all these problems have led the occupation to sideline the man they once paraded as the country’s saviour.

Shrill

But the deeper Afghanistan sinks into crisis, the more shrill the statements become. One Nato general recently told German radio that the only way to pull out of the country is for Nato to send in more troops.

Then British foreign secretary David Miliband sunk to a new low when he declared that “to defend Britain we have got to be in the toughest areas of the world like Afghanistan”.

The gung-ho messages of victory gloss over an important principle of guerilla war – never confront the enemy head on.

An example of this principle was revealed by the recent deployment of British paratroopers in the south of the country.

A journalist with Germany’s Der Spiegel news magazine reported that when 500 British paratroopers marched into Hutal district the resistance fighters simply went to ground.

The soldiers marched around, peered at the desert and cursed the “invisible enemy”. Meanwhile one in four of the soldiers contracted severe stomach problems from drinking polluted water.

Their only Afghan casualties were two young boys on a motorbike gunned down by accident.

Frustrated, the paratrooper’s commander marched into nearby villages in an attempt to goad insurgents into a battle. But they did not appear.

The paratroopers declared victory instead and marched out. The Taliban then reappeared.

This pattern is repeating itself across the country. The Taliban recently launched a bold attack on Kandahar prison, freeing thousands of captives. They then took control of nearby villages.

Nato rushed in troops, bombed the area, counted the dead and declared victory. But there were no battles – the resistance simply melted away, taking the freed prisoners with them.

Kandahar was suppose to have been “pacified” a year ago, and the villages were to be used as an example of progress in a “hearts and minds” campaign by Canadian troops.

This war is now spilling over into Pakistan. In the latest incident Nato troops fired volleys of artillery shells over the border. Last week warplanes mistakenly bombed a Pakistani military outpost, killing 11 soldiers.

For Pakistanis, the Afghan war is quickly turning into the “Pakistan war” in the same way that the US war in Vietnam became a US war in neighbouring Cambodia and Laos.

Those who will pay are the thousands of young soldiers sent to kill and die for Bush and Blair’s lies – and the war’s tens of thousands of Afghan and Pakistani victims.

Support the striking Tube cleaners!

From The News Line:

700 TUBE CLEANERS TAKE STRIKE ACTION
SOME 700 London Underground cleaners scheduled to strike for a living wage and basic working conditions from 6pm today have received a welcome boost from London MPs supporting their campaign.

An early-day motion, tabled by John McDonnell and already signed by eight others, calls on the employers to negotiate a just settlement, condemns intimidation of union members and urges the Mayor of London to ensure that the London living wage, currently £7.20 per hour, is paid to all Tube cleaners.

After voting to strike by a landslide 125-one margin, RMT cleaners working for ISS, ITS, ICS and GBM will not book on for shifts that commence during the 24 hours between 18:50 tonight and 18:49 tomorrow night, Friday June 27.

A second, 48-hour, strike is also scheduled for all shifts commencing between 18:50 on Tuesday July 1 and 18:49 on Thursday July 3.

The cleaners’ demands also include 28 days’ holiday, sick pay, decent pensions and travel facilities, and an end to the barbaric practice of ‘third-party sackings’ in which cleaners can be dismissed, with no disciplinary hearing or right of appeal, at the behest of parties other than the employer – a device used to get rid of union activists.

RMT general secretary Bob Crow said yesterday: ‘The cleaning company bosses are making huge sums at the expense of our members and it is time they were paid a living wage and given the decent basic working conditions that they should be able to take for granted.

‘The 99%-plus vote for action should tell these employers everything they need to know, and they should now get around the table with us to thrash out an honourable settlement.’

Separately, the RMT accused Stagecoach of putting its profits ahead of service and safety.

RMT said: ‘As the rail, bus and tram giant posted a leap in profits to £59.1 million, a 7.6% return, it is also aiming to slash ticket office opening times and up to 140 jobs on South West Trains.’

General secretary Crow said this ‘undermines service and safety for staff and passengers alike and it is unacceptable.’

The RMT launched a Safer Journeys campaign at its conference in Nottingham yesterday to get staff back on stations.

The RMT pointed out that just 10% of the £300 million profits made by the big six rail companies would fund the return of 1,000 staff to stations around Britain’s railways.

It said that the cost-cutting removal of staff from railway stations by profit-hungry privateers is undermining safety for passengers and rail workers and must be reversed.

New Labour’s welfare state – helping out needy US companies

From the FT:

UK seeks private bids on welfare delivery
By George Parker and Alex Barker in London

Britain’s entire welfare system is to be opened to offers from the private and voluntary sectors, in a far-reaching drive to shrink the role of the state and improve service delivery.

James Purnell, work and pensions secretary, will on Wednesday announce a “radical” initiative in which private companies will be encouraged to come up with innovative business models to deliver welfare.

The move opens up a potential multi-billion pound market for private companies and voluntary groups, which could bid to run everything from welfare-to-work schemes to projects to rehabilitate former prisoners.

Mr Purnell, regarded as one of the ruling Labour party’s leading modernisers and sometimes tipped as a potential future leader, told the Financial Times the move represented a “big step” in transforming Britain’s welfare system.

Current rules, under which Mr Purnell’s department decides which services to put out to tender, have seen the value of services run by the private and voluntary sectors rise to £1.8bn ($3.5bn, €2.3bn) from £600m in 2001.

On Wednesday he will announce “a complete reversal” of that approach, so that outside contractors will be encouraged to come up with proposals for the services they want to run under a so-called “right to bid”.

“This is us saying very clearly the only limit is the quality of service and the imagination of the provider,” Mr Purnell said. He said all services would potentially be up for grabs, with his department reserving only a few policy functions for itself.

He said Job Centre Plus, a government agency, provided “world-class” services in helping people back to work, but even that operation could be transferred to outside contractors if they had a better business model.

The test of Mr Purnell’s ambition will be the extent to which business proposals turn into contracts, but the secretary of state said every offer would be properly evaluated by a commissioning team reporting to him and his top civil servant.

He said British companies exploiting this new market would be able to expand into world markets for welfare delivery. He said only Japan operated a similar “right to bid” philosophy.

The “open invitation” to new ideas extends across welfare provision, including proposing welfare to work schemes that would pay private and voluntary sector service providers from the government savings made from finding jobs for the unemployed. “I’m not ruling anything out,” said Mr Purnell.

The measure is a further sign that Britain is willing to open up the “multi-billion pound” welfare-to-work market for private and voluntary providers envisaged in the Freud report, an independent examination of welfare reform.

Several international welfare-to-work companies – including Maximus and Rescare, two big US providers, and Igneus, the Australian owner of Work Directions, the UK-based group – have already begun targeting Britain as a potential growth market. They are joining domestic providers of existing programmes including A4e and Reed-in-Partnership.

Several big government decisions over systems of funding for welfare-to-work schemes and programmes to tackle the 2.6m people on incapacity benefit are expected in coming weeks. [Emphasis added.]