The ‘national living wage’, modern slavery reporting and women workers contesting India’s local elections- genuine change or April Fool’s jokes?

Photo: Matt Brown. Creative Commons License.
Photo: Matt Brown. Creative Commons License. * http://bit.ly/1REU7je

April 1st 2016 will herald a number of new beginnings. Are these serious changes for the better or just April’s Fool jokes?

To test it out, let’s create a hypothetical business; let’s call it Ye Olde Tea Shoppe in London, owned by April and employing four workers on minimum wage. Bill (25) and Bob (24) are the waiters. Mary (19) is an apprentice learning to operate the new-fangled tea urn and Tim (17) clears the tables and washes up.

April’s first new beginning: the UK’s ‘national living wage’ comes into effect

April gathers her staff and announces (through gritted teeth) “Great news. From today, I have to pay the ‘national living wage’ to everyone who’s eligible!” “Hoorah!” cry Bill, Bob, Mary and Tim, “at last we’ll have enough to live on! No more debt, no more second and third jobs!” April hands out slips explaining how much each is going to be paid from now on.

Bill (25)’s grin fades; “But its it’s only going up from £6.70 to £7.20 an hour – that’s not the living wage,” he cries. “The Living Wage Foundation has calculated that we need £9.40 – plus benefits – to live on in London!”

“But I never said I’d be paying you a living wage,” says April, “I said ‘national living wage’ which is a completely different beast. It’s set by the government without any consultation with the Living Wage Foundation.”

Bill’s demand to know why it’s called the national living wage in that case, is drowned out by a cry from Bob (24). “£7.20? But Bill and I do exactly the same job and I’m still only getting £6.70 – it’s a mistake, right?”

“No, dear,” says April, “the ‘national living wage’ only applies to people over 25. Sorry!”

“So I suppose that means l’m still going to be paid only £5.30?” grumbles Tim (17).

“And I’ll keep getting £3.30 even though I’m two years older than Tim because it’s the first year of my apprenticeship?” says Mary (19)  glumly.

“That’s right,” says April, “the rest of you stay on the old minimum wage rates. But as my total salary budget is going up by 50p an hour, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you all to hand over your tips. After all, if I go out of business, you’ll all be out of a job.”

“It’s an April Fool joke, isn’t it?” says Bill, to hollow laughter all round.

 

April’s second new beginning: the modern slavery act reporting requirements come into effect

The company that supplies tea to Ye Olde Tea Shoppe has a turnover of over £36 million, so it will now have to “produce a statement setting out the steps they have taken to ensure there is no modern slavery in their own business and their supply chains” to comply with the Modern Slavery Act.

The company buys its tea from another company that buys from tea auctions in India. That tea may have been grown by one of several different companies that own tea plantations all over India, or it may have been grown by individual or cooperatives of smallholders… there’s no way of telling because it all gets mixed up in the factory and at the auction house.

Amid the labyrinthine complexities of tea company ownership and influence, where suppliers may own brands and workers may appear to own shares yet remain on appallingly poor wages in shockingly bad housing, it has been suggested that companies could be colluding to ensure that auction prices are kept low… so regardless of where the tea may have been grown, the money available to pay workers is severely restricted.

Those workers are the descendants of bonded and indentured labourers who were brought to isolated tea plantations a hundred years ago. Now as then, the plantation owners provide them with housing, education, healthcare, even food rations – so they are heavily dependent on their employers. Some would call this arrangement generous company perks, others would equate it with slavery – or something very closely akin to it.

How will Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’s supplier ever manage to navigate that labyrinthine supply chain to find out what’s going on within it, let alone ” ensure there is no modern slavery” in it? Yet the statement the company provides to comply with the Modern Slavery Act will need to say more than “Sorry, it was just too hard to find out”. It will need to be truly diligent in its due diligence and find out exactly where its tea comes from. It will need to exert every ounce of its influence and insist that those it buys from don’t suppress prices so that workers’ wages and conditions get squeezed. And it will need to find ways of listening to workers themselves to find out if what they are experiencing is akin to modern slavery.

April Fool joke? Possibly. Time will tell.

 

The third new beginning: Members of a new trade union for women tea workers in Kerala, stand for local elections

Ok, I’m cheating a little on this one. The beginning is not strictly on April 1st. The process began in September last year when women who pluck the tea that ends up in Mary’s Ye Olde Tea Shoppe new-fangled urn, rose up in protest. They were protesting against their bonus being slashed, against the low wages that made them so dependent on that bonus, against their poor housing, dangerous working conditions and the failure of politicians and trade unions to prevent these abuses of their rights as workers. The women who led that uprising were Gomathi Augustin, Indrani Manikandan and Lissy Sunny. They formed Pembilla Orumai – women’s unity – but weren’t initially allowed to participate in wage negotiations as it was not yet formally constituted as a trade union. Without them at the negotiating table, they were awarded a small pay increase on condition that they pluck more tea and a promise to look at a further increase and their other demands after the elections.

Gomathi (38), Indrani (36) and Lissy (47) can now earn Rs 301 a day – about £3 (ie 30p less than apprentice Mary, the lowest paid employee at Ye Olde Tea Shoppe, earns in an hour). They are asking for Rs 500 (about £5) a day.

Their members have already won a handful of seats in village level government, and in April they start contesting further seats. If they win, as their sisters won last year, their grass roots movement will have been legitimised, despite the alleged efforts of established trade union supporters to discredit, destabilise and destroy the movement. They will be formally empowered to support their fellow female workers in defending their rights to decent pay and working and living conditions.

April Fool joke? If so, the joke is on those who thought they could exploit women workers and get away with it.

*NB the photo is used purely for illustrative purposes to give a generic picture of an English tea room. The words of the blog are not connected in any way to the establishment featured in the photo.

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