There’s a wealth of rights in workers’ hands that remain unutilised; the problem being that workers don’t know what these rights are. It appears that employers are still willing to ignore and abuse these unknown rights; but this is changing. Trade unions within the workplace and campaigning groups are putting pressure on businesses to shape up and follow the law.
The Glasgow Guardian spoke with Better Than Zero, a worker rights activist group within the Scottish Trade Union Congress, based on Woodlands Roads, to discuss this. With over 3,000 members online and the support of trade unions, they are a formidable force operating in all the major cities in Scotland. Through their past experience in flash mobs, funeral marches, and even in donning hazmat suits to highlight the poor treatment of workers, they take a direct proactive approach in raising awareness of the practices of some of Scotland’s biggest employers. We sat down with one of their lead members, Bryan Simpson, to discuss this further.
Glasgow Guardian: How did your campaigning group originate?
Bryan Simpson: We launched 15 months ago in response to what we had been hearing from mostly G1 staff, or former employers of G1 staff [G1 is a hospitality business group that owns, amongst others, Ashton Lane, the Grosvenor and the Corinthian]. We were also getting stories that managers and supervisors were using staff tips to top up the wages for management. G1 was consequently fined by HMRC for failing to pay 2,800 of their staff the minimum wage - not even the living wage - so they were breaking the law basically. We don't know how long it was going on for, but at least throughout 2014 for not paying the minimum wage. Another company we noticed early on was Las Iguanas; they have about 44 restaurants across the UK. We realised they were taking not only 100% of the employee tips, but were also making waiters and waitresses give 3% back of total takings at the end of the night. So, if you made £2000, you had to give back £60 at the end of the night. When we had our launch in July last year, around 80 people turned up, and we organised a strategy for the next year. Up until [the summer of 2016], we agreed that we would take direct action against the worst employers in order to raise awareness of what was going on, to put pressure on the company itself and also to give confidence to those in the workplace.
GG: Tell us more about the type of campaigning you take part in.
Simpson: We started off as a group of current and former hospitality workers that were not organised within the trade union movement. We had to take external actions against the companies themselves, whether that was campaigning outside the units themselves to raise awareness to customers or taking action against the managers themselves, so we had a lobby outside Stefan King’s [the manager of G1 Group] house. On Halloween last year we had about 40 “zombie workers” picketing his home, and we think this struck a chord as he sent out a memo to all staff that our group was breaking the law, when we weren’t, as we were only protesting outside his gates. We take a lot of action and activism (known as “hacktivism”) online. We launch alternative websites; we took action against Sports Direct by re-branding a website to show how bad their practices were. We also organise in the traditional trade union sense; we have members organised inside firms providing support. We have a two-pronged approach. We take action outside the company - direct action - but also go into the workplaces themselves and provide support and advice to workers by representing them if they have been dismissed.
GG: Young workers in particular seem to end up with poor, insecure jobs, why do you think this is?
Simpson: The Tories, in terms of how they have treated young people by removing benefits, introducing tuition fees and making it very hard to enter tertiary education. They have created a climate in which employers feel they can treat young workers in such a way. I disagree with the concept that young people are not as political; I think young people are more involved in social justice issues. In terms of getting out to vote, I think a lot of people have been disillusioned, and therefore there is no incentive for politicians to look after young people.
GG: Only 8.6% of trade union members are under 24, why do you think this is?
Simpson: I think because young people have not been as exposed to trade unions as in previous generations. I think this would have died out had we not experienced as renaissance in trade union education. Unite and STUC are working to deliver trade union membership in schools. Since 2010, unions have been going into schools speaking to 16 and 17 year olds about trade unions and how they can help. I think that has had a massive effect in educating future generations. In 2015, Unite recruited 31,000 individuals members. This is a net increase of 22,000. Without being complacent, I think we should continue to organise in various industries such as hospitality, call centres and retail, and continue to educate in schools.
GG: How would you like to see the world of work for young people in 10 years time?
Simpson: I would like to see a complete end to zero hour contracts. Despite the rhetoric of politicians about how zero hours present flexibility, you are still at the mercy of the employer. On zero hours you don’t have any understanding as to what hours you will be working from one week to the next. If you have a mortgage, if you have kids, you don’t know whether you will be working 4 hours or 40 hours. We want that prohibited with set hours. Although we don’t dispute students wanting to work 12 hours a week to fit in their studies, with Sports Direct we asked that everyone is entitled to a minimum-hour contract that the employee is free to opt out of if they want to. If they want to work only 8 hours they can, but 12-16 hours is what most people need if they want to earn a living. We need a living wage, and a commitment to a living wage within the hospitality industry. The ultimate goal for BetterThanZero is to build the framework for that. A living wage of £10 an hour is the minimum income standard for people to live above the breadline - £10 an hour for people to afford the essentials. I think there needs to be a concerted effort for the hospitality sector to stamp out harassment. Protection of women for example; female workers in bars and casinos have experienced customers and staff being verbally and physically harassed with no policy to protect them. We are beginning to campaign for paid travel home should you work past 12am. Although there is legislation, the managers and staff don’t know what this is. We have cases of staff being sexually assaulted and managers have said not to take it any further or to whistle-blow.
GG: For many people leaving university, they will be entering the world of work for the first time; what advice do you offer them?
Simpson: A two-barrelled approach is needed. A lot of people will expect to go into the profession they trained for: law students becoming solicitors; computing science degrees going into IT. The simple, disheartening fact is that most people won’t, because the skilled jobs aren't there and they will find themselves in precarious occupations. Get involved, learn your rights and join a union. If you do enter a skilled job, still do the above. Just because you are a graduate and in internships doesn’t mean you won’t get exploited. In science, business and law, people are treated like dirt as soon as they graduate; if they are paid at all in internships, they are paid in expenses. Companies take them on as cheap labour. In all circumstances, it is important to join a trade union for the representation, the legal advice and support that you would not get for the price of it. Two hours’ minimum wage a month lets you have the individual representation of a trade union but also the collective representation of bargaining rights for conditions.
To find out more about the work that Better Than Zero do, visit their website: www.betterthanzero.org.