Migrant workers fight back

Submitted by Anon on 4 May, 2007 - 5:46

World Flowers imports cut flowers from around the world, Spain, Morocco, especially Kenya. The company has a annual turnover of over £100 million, delivering 1.5 billion flowers a year, trading with Tesco, Sainsbury and Waitrose. This fast-growing company recently switched to employing migrant workers. Is this — or rather paying minimum wages to workers vulnerable to exploitation — the secret of their success?

The company is based near Southampton, one of many other companies in the area who employ migrant workers. There are estimated to be 30,000 Polish people in Southampton.

World Flowers is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, a “Fair Trade” company. It needs to have that status in order to trade with the UK’s largest supermarkets. On their website, World Flowers boasts about how they are helping provide education for farmworkers in East Africa and how Fair Trade farms pay above average wages. We hope that is true, because here in the UK we know that ETI company World Flowers pay their (mostly) migrant worker workforce the minimum wage, to work in damp and cold conditions, with limited health and safety systems.

Being part of the Ethical Trade Initiative should mean the company has to adhere to a Code of Conduct. Its labour standards should be in line with the basic minimum set out the International Labour Organisation. However, as with so many companies that trade internationally, codes of conduct are worth little, if the workers themselves are not organised and prepared to fight for their rights.

Around 400 people work for World Flowers in the UK; the migrant workers, typically, are mostly recruited through an agency (which will take a cut of their wages as well as routinely employing people on low wages). It is mainly Polish (but many other nationalities too) who work as flower packers at the Hampshire factory. Some workers work there for a while — migrant workers have limited options — others do not. English workers — who have little to do with the packers — are employed in clerical and other jobs.

After a six month campaign by the GMB — involving direct action — the union won access to the workplace and the workforce. At the end of last year the GMB set up a migrant workers’ branch in the Southampton area. The branch organises the World Flower workers and other migrant workers too. The union has got the company to agree to negotiate a procedure to handle grievances and disciplinary cases by July 2007. Their aim now must be to “level up”, to get, in the first place, the same wages for migrant workers as British workers. If the union was recognised and Polish workers earned the same as British workers they would get around £8 an hour. And the union would be stronger as a result.

Language barriers are also a big issue. In many ways British employers rely on workers not speaking English. All the better for workers not to know their rights. Six months ago the GMB offered World Flowers free language courses. They did not take it up.

Cathy Nugent spoke to Polish migrant workers from World Flowers who are GMB members. Jolanta P has been in the UK for three years. Jolanta and Stanislaw S have been here two and a half years. Jolanta P is here with her family (including her five children) and wants to stay here. Stanislaw and Jolanta S’s children live in Poland with their grandmother. They plan to return to Poland soon.

The three have worked at World Flowers for all or most of the time that they have been here, finding the work through an English agency. Why and how did this group of migrant workers win their first step towards improving their working lives?

CN: what have your experiences of the UK been like?

JP: That is a very hard question. Poland and the UK are very different. If I had the same money in Poland as I have here I would prefer to stay there. English people say Poland is going backwards but they do not know what it is like.

CN: What are conditions like in the factory?

JP/SS: We work 37 and a half hours, five days a week, for the minimum wage. There are no increases in the wages for working there longer, this is not fair. We don’t know what the English workers are paid. When a man or woman work for themselves alone, the wage is okay, they can manage. But when you have to have the money for a family, for a house and bills, it is hard.

SS/JS: It is really cold and dirty in the factory and when you come home you are wet. Some people have allergies from the flowers.

JS: There is a lot of sickness. Sometimes when people get sick they call the sick line, and then when they go back to work they are told they aren’t allowed to work. It is like they are being punished for being sick. No one has been dismissed for being sick, but some people are coming close to that.

JP: Most people try to work hard because they need the job.

SS: You get a bonus if you don’t call the sick line.

CN: What are the bosses and supervisors like?

JP: The supervisors are Polish and don’t really have much to do. They are pushed by the managers, who are in charge. Many of the managers do their work but do not see the factory workers. Or they treat us like we are animals in a zoo. They go up to their office and look down on us.

SS: Sometimes they call downstairs to say that we have to go faster, but they don’t speak to us like we are human beings.

JP: Nobody speaks Polish.

SS: We would like to be treated with respect. If someone works for three or five years they should have a wage increase.

CN: How did the union get going?

JP: We put posters up in the factory, to advertise a meeting at a pub. Many people came. We had follow up meetings. After a while we decided to do something, to fight. I realised that we could not go to the police or someone like that with our problems, I knew we needed a union. I knew how unions — Solidarity — worked in Poland… We wanted higher wages, cheaper wages, the equipment we needed, things that should be given to us (the workers had to buy their own company jumpers).

CN: What did you do then?

JP: The managers saw me put up the poster and asked me what I was doing. I spoke to Jim Floor about what was wrong. He said this was the first time he had heard people were unhappy. The GMB organised flyers, a place to meet and helped with the law. Demonstrations with other GMB members were organised at the factory.

JS: I was fired because I was seen with GMB flyers. The GMB rang my boss and got my job back. And the company paid me for the two days I wasn’t at work.

When the GMB constituted their migrant workers branch of the union in October 2006, company Managing Director Jim Floor came to the meeting to try and “talk” to the workers. For a long time Jim Floor stalled on the issue of recognising the union. In February 2007 the union decided to put in a large number of grievances on health and safety issues. 55 grievances were collected.

CN: How well organised is the union?

JP, JS, SS: Some people don’t join the union because they are scared. But we have recruited and many changes have been made. We have been given equipment. There is a medical room. We have time at the end of the job to “clean up”. We haven’t yet got to the issue of wages. We first needed to deal with health and safety issues.

JS, SS: The union has proved to be essential. I would have lost my job if it wasn’t for the union. Polish workers are told by the managers that if the union is recognised in the factory they will lose their jobs. And this is what happened to some people in Poland.

SS: Before Poland joined the European Union Polish people had to stay quiet, because they were working illegally. Their bosses got used to this.

CN: It is mainly women that are running this campaign. Why is that?

JP: Maybe that is because women are interested in making a home and getting a better life here and now; men think they can always move on, go somewhere else to find work. A woman knows that after she has finished fighting she will have a calm life.

The union has given us the opportunity to learn English, which many people are doing. Of course young people find it easier! And we don’t know a lot of English people [at work the Polish and English workers do not work alongside each other].

CN: You have to convince them that the union is strong enough to save their jobs and stop the factory from closing?

JS, SS: Yes. We have approached a lot of people, and some people have joined.

JP: Immigrant workers really have to have someone looking out for them. We understand that we have to work hard but it is not us that decided we should be paid low wages. And we pay our taxes. We just ask that we are treated like human beings.

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