“The Company doesn’t care if you are getting rubbish money. As long as you get the work done, you are out of sight, out of mind.”
The National Group on Homeworking (NGH) estimates that there are around one million industrial homeworkers in the UK. The products they pack, assemble or manufacture are diverse, ranging from clothing and footwear, electrical components through to car components and medical products.
Pay is sometimes as low as 15 pence per hour. And most homeworkers have few automatic employment rights, such as the right to redundancy pay or sick pay, or the right to contest unfair dismissal.
Thousands of UK homeworkers pack, label and assemble many of the Christmas products we buy from major highstreet retailers and supermarkets. Many are not paid the National Minimum Wage, others are denied basic health and safety protection and employment rights, some work late into the night or go for weeks with no income at all.
In the run up to Christmas the National Group on Homeworking (NGH) are launching a campaign to place pressure on the Big Four supermarkets — Asda, Tesco, Safeway and Sainsbury’s — and on the Government, to improve the employment rights of thousands of UK homeworkers.
Sally: Packing Stockings for Tesco
In April 2004 Sally responded to an advertisement in her local paper for a homeworking job. She was offered the job and a few days later 32 dozen pairs of tights were delivered to her home by her agent who also explained carefully how they should be packed. The processes involved were:
• Sticking a sticker identifying her as the worker on a piece of card;
• Wrapping a pair of stockings around the piece of card;
• Assembling the box;
• Putting the tights in the box;
• Putting a sticker on the box;
• Putting a barcode on the box;
• In some cases, attaching a plastic hook to the box.
At this point Sally had no idea where her work came from, although she did know that the tights were being packed as Tesco’s own brand stockings and Cosmopolitan tights.
Sally worked for six days on the stockings. Her rate of pay was 7p per dozen. As she had never packed stockings before she could only pack around three dozen per hour (21p an hour).
After six days Sally phoned the agent to ask her to take the work back. She was not prepared to work for such a low wage. The agent became abusive and said “When Legs Eleven find out about this, they will fine you”. That was how Sally discovered that she was working indirectly for that company.
When the agent called round to collect the tights from Sally’s home, she again was verbally abusive and refused to pay her for the work that she had completed.
Sally contacted NGH, the National Minimum Wage Compliance Unit and Tesco’s head office to complain. NGH contacted the trade union official at Legs Eleven distribution Centre, and discovered that the piece rate Sally was offered was 3p lower than the lowest rate paid to on-site workers for packing tights.
When Sally phoned Tesco she said “Do you realise how much people are getting paid to pack your tights?” The person who answered the phone asked her to repeat this and then replied “What’s that got to do with us?”
Sally said, “It’s your name on the label”.
She was put on hold for 15 minutes and then cut off. She rang back and spoke to a different person, who put her through to someone else. Again she was put on hold and then cut off.
Parveen: packing greetings cards
Parveen packs greetings cards and gift wrapping goods for a local card company in Bradford. She is aged 35 and married with four children aged between 8 and 13. She is a Muslim and came to the UK from Pakistan 20 years ago. Her parents and some of her extended family still live there.
The packing work varies from week to week. Sometimes she packs small cards into individual packs and then boxes. Sometimes she folds wrapping paper and packs it into bags. She gets £6 for packing a thousand cards and estimates she receives about £1 per hour.
Parveen has to be well organised to fit work in with her family commitments. She does two hours’ card packing in the morning, after getting the children to school. She then cooks and cleans, picks her children up from school, prepares the evening meal, clears up and puts the children to bed. She then does another 2 or 3 hours of card packing in the evening. She additionally works through the night or weekends to get the work finished, as there is no more time in the day.
Parveen is happy with her homework supplier. “They are good. I do think the wages are low but I’ve never said anything.” She says she would never consider making a complaint about her pay. “I wouldn’t want any comeback on my family. I am grateful for whatever income I can get.
“Apart from child benefit I get no other income for myself and the children. I don’t look at the amount per hour, I just look at the end result — £30 per week is better than nothing. My husband has no claim to this money.”
Her husband earns too much money to claim any benefits but he has two families to support so money is tight.
She explained the importance of homeworking for some Muslim women. “We are not allowed to work outside, nor would I consider this. I have been brought up this way, even though my husband has lived in the UK most of his life. It is our culture; our community is very strict. Besides, how would I look after four children and manage my house duties with a 9 till 5 job?”
The name of this homeworker has been changed.
Julie: making Christmas crackers
Julie Davies worked for a cracker manufacturer in South Wales, and has made crackers for Tesco, Somerfield and Safeway among others. She worked a 48 hour week and earned around £55. Her fair estimate agreement stated that the work could be completed in 16 hours. She did not receive holiday pay, and was told by her employer that she was self employed.
After complaining to the Compliance Unit (Inland Revenue) that she was unable to earn at least the level of the national minimum wage, she received some back pay but she did not receive any more work.
She subsequently made an application to an employment tribunal for detriment suffered for asserting her right to be paid the national minimum wage and holiday pay. She settled out of court.
Julie said: “We have to stand up to these employers who don’t pay us what we are entitled to. We have to stand up for our rights and better conditions. Employers have to pay us what’s rightfully ours. I know we are afraid to lose our wages and jobs, but if we were paid the minimum wage in the first place we may very well be entitled to other rights such as holiday pay and sick pay in the same way as other employees.”
By Mark osborn
Stop exploitation this Christmas!
London protest in defence of homeworkers’ rights
6-7pm Wednesday 8 Dec
Tesco Metro store (opposite John Lewis), Oxford Street, London (Oxford Circus tube)
For a campaign pack and ideas to use locally contact the National Group on Homeworking
30-38 Dock Street
Leeds LS10 1JF
Advice line: 0800 174 095