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REAL LIVES Agency workers

When was it ok to treat workers like robots? We investigate the latest ‘addiction’ to agencies

The final straw came when they tried to turn a Rocket into a robot.

Rebecca Rocket had put up with the rock bottom wages, authoritarian management and the minimal employment rights.

But then Penguin Random House decided there was a more ‘efficient’ way of packing books at its warehouse and sending them to customers.

They would equip the warehouse workers with voice-activated headsets, electronic wristbands and scanners for their fingers.

Apart from making Rebecca feel as if she was simply a piece of human software; a kind of organic add-on to a computer system, it meant that she wasn’t going to be able to talk to her colleagues. “One of the few things that made the job bearable was the banter,” she says.

Clearly the electronic equipment could also monitor the workers’ ‘pick rate’. “That meant the elderly and the slower workers wouldn’t be given shifts,” she says.

That was when Rebecca told the company – in the politest possible terms – where to put their job.

Rebecca and her colleagues had been sent to the warehouse by

an employment agency. They were meant to get at least one shift a week, but had to be available for five. They were given a day’s notice when they were needed, which could be cancelled on the morning at the whim of management. They could also be sent away if there was no more work to do. Inevitably they were not paid to the end of the shift.

On one occasion Rebecca was told to go home when she turned up at the warehouse. The firm had forgotten to send a message canceling her shift. Despite making arrangements so she could spend the whole eight hours at work, she was given just £6.25 in compensation, an hour’s pay.

Scrooge To add a touch of the Scrooge to the whole business the agency workers were meant to be at the warehouse for eight hours for each stint, but were only paid for seven and a half. There was a compulsory meal break for which they received nothing.

And to add insult to injury in 2015 the company announced at a meeting at the warehouse that it had received 3.3bn euros in revenue during the course of the year. Inevitably its agency workers were unimpressed by the company’s financial success.

At one stage Rebecca started a blog to vent her frustrations with Penguin.

Through the blog she began a campaign to win union recognition. Her slogan – and message to disgruntled colleagues – was ‘shut up and join the union’.

They finally won recognition in spring 2016. Ironically they couldn’t organise their first meeting because no-one knew from one day to the next when they would be in.

Looking back on her experiences at the warehouse, she says, “It was so unjust, but people were too afraid to speak out. The job was just a death sentence. I quit to save myself.”

Unfortunately her experiences are not unique. Analysis by the TUC shows that up to 3.2m UK workers are in ‘insecure’ employment which involves zero-hours contracts, temporary or agency work, and low pay. Employment rights are either minimal or ignored.

A Unite submission to the Taylor inquiry, a government survey of modern working practices, quoted TUC research estimating that 1.7m workers were now in low-paid self-

employment, the fastest growing sector.


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