On my two recent visits to the UK, and in London specifically, over the last two months and both admittedly combined not longer than one working week, I was astounded by the conditions facing working people. Particularly those working in supermarkets, bookshops and pharmacies. Here my experience was with Marks & Spencer, Boots, and Blackwell bookshops.
The cashiers were all standing. I was astounded. I asked the one Ghanaian origin new slave at Marks & Spencer: “Hey bro, why don’t you sit?” He laughed and said that he sits after work. All the working time – 7 hours I believe – STANDING STILL behind a cashier. I further asked, if they had union representation, he laughed off my question.
At another time we were seeking Ha-Joon Chang‘s Kicking Away the Ladder, as we have on an earlier visit bought his latest book Bad Samaritans. And bookshop after big bookstore they were standing. When visiting the Boots for cosmetics I teased an Asian worker there: “someone stole your chair!” He was cool and replied that “we never had chairs, it was like this when I began working here.” Thus, it was clear that this was a condition of employment and was – I thought – underwritten by a belief by the bosses that commercial and catering workers are more productive when they are standing.
I was concerned that the strong union movement, led by the Trade Union Congress that I had known over the decades, may be fading. But I was equally concerned that this was not an issue for the National Union of Students, Oxfam, and Action Aid, who are seemingly silent on this basic violation of worker and human rights. I was aware of the irony that whilst we are campaigning for the world community to “Stand Up and Speak Out” against poverty in terms of the Global Call to Action against Poverty and supported by the United Nations and other UN agencies, here workers were standing all day whilst their rights were being trampled. Most of the workers were either old or new immigrant communities and almost all I saw wore my skin – dozed with a lot of healthy melanin.
The highlight of the Stand UP Campaign is the 16 and 17 October – the latter being the UN recognized International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Last year over 23 million people stood up and broke into the Guinness World Records for the most number of people standing for such a progressive cause. In part the Stand Up is aimed at creating awareness of the Millennium Development Goals – and to create awareness on the powers that be, corporates and governments, to do more to create a justice based society.
I wondered whether the unions could not take this as a dispute to the International Labour Organisation or whether civil society should not join with the union and the TUC. A labour lawyer in South Africa volunteered to do a class case for UK workers – won’t that be a good case of solidarity?! One small way we can help these workers Stand Up for their rights is by offering them a seat…