It isn’t often I pay huge attention to what the main man in the Church of England has to say. But when Justin Welby spoke last week I listened as he was talking about fundamental issues that are going without enough comment and attention. He addressed the TUC congress last week and urged more action on zero-hour contracts and the gig economy as “the reincarnation of an ancient evil”. The next day the Church of England was lambasted for hypocrisy as it holds shares in Amazon, a company we all use which does not pay its share of tax. But still, his message reached me.
In Belfast today our young people, and many older citizens, live in a labour market that resembles James Plunkett’s Strumpet City. Only that was set in 1913 in Dublin in conditions that saw caused the general strike and the founding of the Citizens Army.
If you want employment in Belfast today and you are unskilled you will likely end up working for an “agency”. Those agencies take you on and send you to clean, pack, drive, serve or whatever is required by whatever company they send you to. The wages are uncertain, as are the conditions. In one place you will get breaks, in another you won’t. In one place you will be paid one amount and in another it’s entirely different for the same work.
Young women and men are finding that agencies are the only place they can get work. They are texted the day before to let them know where to go and at what time. If they are texted on a Thursday night to come in on a Friday morning and they cannot make it, they run the risk of a text back saying, “due to your unreliability we are letting you go”.
Another text can say, be at a certain place at 6 am you will be driven to a venue and will return that night – and are told what to wear. Uniforms are at your own expense. A private car picks the young woman up and a man she has never met before will drive her over the border to a function then drive her back to Belfast at perhaps 2am where she has to arrange a taxi or being picked up, again at her own expense. Her safety is not of concern.
I heard tales that there is well paid, and consistent, agency work available in certain areas, but Catholics need not apply. And those tales appear to be true. There are other tales that night time shifts come with the knowledge that there can be intimidation and violence. If you do not take the shift however, you do not get another shift. If you are sick, you “obviously” do not get paid and you do not get another shift.
Because it is entirely unregulated the workers have no representation in this Strumpet Cityesque modern day Stevedore workplace. It is happening every day and it’s a growing and regular part of the employment market.
The burgeoning hotel industry in Belfast and many other “exciting” economic developments are relying on workers who live with these conditions. And it suits the profit makers and privateers. They get the labour of these workers without the responsibilities.
The question is who will do anything about it.