by Martin Smith
STEPHEN BYERS, the trade and industry secretary, called it a historic day. But for some workers the introduction of the minimum wage on 1 April is already looking more like a practical joke. Bosses all over the country are doing everything they can to avoid paying the minimum wage of £3.60 an hour to their workers.
The GMB and TGWU unions, which represent thousands of low paid workers, have set up help lines. One GMB official told Socialist Worker, "We've been inundated with calls. We've had calls from cleaners who have had their hours cut. One 57 year old man told us he was laid off and a 17 year old who is not entitled to the minimum wage has taken his job. Factory workers in Kent were told they would all be laid off if they asked for the minimum wage. When I approached one shop owner who still pays his staff less than £3 an hour, he told me to fuck off because he didn't care about the new law. These greedy bosses must be stopped."
Mike Warburton, senior tax partner at accountancy firm Grant Thornton, told the Financial Times newspaper, "Bosses are pretending that workers are self employed, using ghost workers paid in cash and lying about the number of hours worked."
Small businesses who do not recognise unions are the most common breakers of the law. Barry Morris, Leicester based district secretary of the Knitwear, Footwear and Allied Trades union (KFAT), says small "sweatshop" textile manufacturers are some of the worst offenders. Barry says, "We have had one employer who called in his workforce and told them that from next week they will have £3.60 a hour on their wage packet but they will actually get £3."
At Daniel Illingworth, a Bradford based textile firm, staff are being paid the minimum wagebut only if they work harder! Dorothy Khan, a KFAT steward, said, "They have put everyone on performance related pay. We all have to produce more to get the wage." Supercuts is a chain of hair salons in London. The TGWU and the Observer report that the company told their staff they will not be getting the minimum wage.
The Low Pay Commission believes that nearly a quarter of a million people who are legally entitled to the minimum wage will not be paid it. Bosses are able to get away with this because the government has done next to nothing to ensure the new minimum wage is properly enforced. There are just 115 inspectors for the whole country. GMB union leader John Edmonds says, "There are two million workplaces. We reckon each one will be inspected once every 30 years." Companies found breaking the law can be fined just £5,000. A company employing 100 workers at £2.60 an hour will save that amount in just one week.
Bosses are not just breaking the law, they are also finding other ways to get round the financial impact of the minimum wage. Bill Chard, GMB regional organiser for Yorkshire and North Derbyshire, says, "Some manufacturing employers are telling their workers they must pay for their own overalls, or pay for them to be cleaned. So they are paying for the minimum wage but they are pushing other costs onto employees."
A steward at a Leeds working men's club has been told he will be paid the minimum wage but will lose his free accommodation, which will leave him no better off. It's time to put the greedy bosses in the dock. But it is clear that we can't rely on the Labour government to take on the bosses. Trade unionists need to take the initiative. The magnificent march demanding a decent minimum wage in Newcastle two weeks ago could be the start of a campaign to force New Labour to enforce the minimum wage rate. Everyone can play their part.
If your boss doesn't pay the minimum wage, telephone 0845 6000 678.
Fight for union recognition. Get your union to campaign for a decent minimum wage.
Tell us about bosses who are trying to get around the minimum wage. Telephone 0171 538 0828.
WORKERS AT the Pricecheck supermarket chain in central London last April earned between £2.50 and £3.50 an hour. One Pricecheck worker told Socialist Worker, "There is no night shift allowance. Sometimes we have to work 20 hour shifts. Our boss treats us like dogs."
UNION RECOGNITION AT PRICECHECK NOW
Tuesday 4 May, picket 1-2pm
Pricecheck, 150-254 Kentish Town Road, London NW5 (Kentish Town tube)
Bring union banners
The owner of Pricecheck, Manzoor Chaudhary, is now worth an estimated £7 million. He has made his millions ripping his workforce off. Last December workers decided they had had enough. A group of workers approached the TGWU union and asked to set up a branch. Within weeks over 50 percent of the workforce joined the union. As soon as Chaudhary found out about the union drive he agreed to pay bonuses for unsociable working and to implement the minimum wage. But he also set about witch hunting union activists. He dismissed union members and demoted and harassed others. Nine workers are taking Chaudhary to an industrial tribunal.
Former branch manager Iftikhar Ul-Haq is a victim of Chaudhary's anti-union campaign. He told Socialist Worker, "I used to be in charge of the Euston branch, earning £200 per week for a 60 hour week. When I joined the union I was forced to go to another branch and work as a shelf stacker." Another former Pricecheck manager, Jalal Uddin, added, "I worked for Pricecheck for four years. Chaudhary asked me if I had joined the union. When I said yes he took the store keys off me and put me on cleaning duty."
Workers claim Chaudhary has threatened staff by withholding their wages if they refuse to sign his employment contract that rejects union membership. He told Eastern Eye newspaper, "I will not recognise any union at Pricecheck. If the staff don't like it they don't have to work here."
The workers at Pricecheck don't like it, but they are not going to leave. They are launching a campaign for union recognition, supported by the TGWU. They plan to hold a picket of the main Pricecheck store. "We are calling on all trade unionists to join our picket for recognition," says Iftikhar. "We want to be treated with respect. The union is the only way."
|Picture: JESS HURD
JUST ONE of the workers being robbed of the minimum wage
IT'S NOT just small companies that are finding ways round the minimum wage. Food giant Pizza Hut was one of the companies that led the campaign against Labour's minimum wage. The company's annual turnover is £300 million. It now claims it can only afford to pay the minimum wage if it scraps free late night taxis for its staff who work at night.
Workers at Pizza Hut are accusing their managers of putting staff safety at risk. Over half of Pizza Hut staff are aged between 16 and 20 and most of them are young women. Most staff will walk home, putting themselves at risk, rather than pay a taxi fare. The scrapping of the taxi service will save Pizza Hut management £1.3 million. The cost of implementing the minimum wage will cost the company just £1 million. Pizza Hut management also boasted that the £300,000 saving would be ploughed back into the company.