Sunday, 16 November 2014

Sandwich man, stand up and call on us to stand with you

One story yesterday seemed to sum up the problem of lack of political focus in Britain today, and in the West more generally.

The story concerned the company Greencore and its operation in Northampton, in the English Midlands. Greencore make sandwiches for several of the major supermarkets, including Marks and Spencer. They’re growing strongly. Recently it emerged that they’d been recruiting unskilled workers in Hungary, much to the anger of many in the local population: Northampton, like a lot of Britain, indeed of Europe, is suffering high unemployment.

Greencore in Northampton
from the Guardian
Inevitably, this engaged what is now the common debate about immigration.

Is it true that the company simply couldn’t find enough staff locally prepared to take on this low-paid, difficult work (days can last twelve hours and, according to an employee, managers may pressurise workers to stay even longer)?

Locals say they never saw the jobs advertised and would apply at once if they had the chance, if only to get off the unemployment queue at last. But, some argue, the company prefers to employ Hungarians who are prepared to work for lower wages.

Nonsense, say the company. They are an equal opportunities employer. Everyone is paid the same. There is no advantage to the company to use Hungarians rather than Brits; it just can’t find enough Brits.

I have no idea who’s right and who’s wrong here. Nor, it seems, does the Guardian journalist, who simply presents both sets of arguments and leaves it to the reader to decide. What I do know, is that this is only tangentially a problem of immigration; that the tangential problem is easily resolved, without leaving the European Union or imposing tighter border controls; that meanwhile, there is far more serious problem raised by the case, which no one seems prepared to take on. Indeed, UKIP and their allies in the Conservative Party seem only concerned with diverting attention from it, while Labour is having trouble plucking up the courage even to raise it.

First, the easy problem. To ensure that the company is playing straight, all we need is legislation to impose on such operations that all staff should be paid equal rates for equal work. We could keep the companies honest, making them live by the standards Greencore says it applies already: to pay immigrants the same as locals so there’s no financial incentive to recruit abroad.

Will UKIP pick up this call, for equal wages for immigrants? Don’t hold your breath.

UKIP won’t pick up the demand even though it would solve the problem. Indeed, it would solve some other problems too: it would ensure that women or people from ethnic minorities are not discriminated against either. You make sandwiches, you get paid the same as any other sandwich-maker.

Now let's turn to the far more serious problem. Its nature emerges from the detail of the article.

The unskilled staff in Greencore are on minimum wage, £6.50 an hour. After they complete their three-month probation period, they qualify for additional payments to compensate them for working in the cold environment sandwich production requires. Where conditions are a little colder, the employee receives 24p extra an hour; if conditions are officially “cold”, they get 48p an hour more; if they work in a freezer, they get 68p an hour more.

The maximum such a worker could earn, therefore, would be £7.18 an hour. That’s for working in a freezer for up to twelve hours a day.

Meanwhile, last year Patrick Coveney, Greencore’s Chief Executive took £1.3m. That works out at a cool (pun intended) £788 an hour.

Putting it another way, assuming an average of 220 working days a year, a worker doing 12-hour days at Greencore would have to work for 69 years to earn what Mr Coveney took for a single year.

Putting it more simply still, Mr Coveney believes he is worth the equivalent of 109 of his unskilled employees.

That he contributes more than any one of those unskilled workers, I can accept. Even perhaps that he contributes more than ten of them – many have long suggested that no one in a company should be paid more that ten times what the lowest paid receive. But that he contributes more than 100 of these workers? I’m afraid that simply defies belief.

He takes as much as 10-12 General Practitioners, 20-25 experienced nurses. He may run the world
’s best sandwich-making operation, but does that make him worth 10 GPs? Seriously?

Now, that’s the real problem today. We live in a society dominated by, moulded by, people who believe they are worth as much tens, dozens, perhaps in some cases hundreds of the rest of us. They will do all they can to preserve that position. Over the last four years, a new report has shown, that has caused the least well paid 5% of the British population to lose 3% of its earnings, while the top 1% has increased its disposable income by between 1.2% and 2%.

Every moment we spend debating immigration is a moment we take our focus off that primordial question of our time. UKIP exists to keep our focus elsewhere; the Conservatives will do nothing to highlight the issue; the big question is, does Labour have the guts to wrench the debate on to that ground?

Because if it did, it could win the next election. And do something about the most shameful distortion of our economies today. Which isn't immigration, but inequality.


Anonymous said...

You should read the reviews for Greencore on

"This year I have seen this company bring grown men and women to the brink of tears at the festive period by telling them that they have to work Christmas Eve, Boxing day, New years eve - Nightshift so they can wish each other a happy 2014 across a lasagne, and New years Day - all with hours of notice after they had made plans with their families. Mostly immigrants though so what does it matter?

I've seen people bullied into working 12 hours a day - 7 days a week - mostly immigrants though so hey.

I've seen people refused holidays that are due to them so that at the end of the year they lose them and are left unpaid for holidays they are due. Hey Ho.

I've seen people work 8 hours without a break and yet be chastised for NOT being into work 10 minutes EARLY!!!!"

David Beeson said...

The company's a disgrace. And the behaviour of its executives is shameful. And should be illegal.