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Economy and Jobs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:00 pm on 20th January 2020.

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Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions) 6:00 pm, 20th January 2020

I congratulate my hon. Friend Beth Winter and Andrew Griffith on giving their maiden speeches. They come from two different traditions and two very different constituencies, but Cynon Valley and Arundel and South Downs both have strong voices in this House.

Labour was accused by the Chancellor earlier of being out of touch, so I hope he forgives my saying that I represented workers in the world of work for 35 years. What I learned from that is that key to the success of any company or country is its workforce and how they are treated. I used to argue that there are two simple truths: that the difference between the average and the world-class lies in the extent to which we untap the endless potential and creativity of employees, and that how workers are treated is key to the quality of the service they provide or the product they produce. I worked with many world-class companies in world-class sectors, such as Jaguar Land Rover, Airbus, Siemens, British Aerospace, Rosyth and Devonport dockyards—all good employers that are rightly praised by their workforces.

However, there is another world of work on which we must also focus in this debate: the growing gig economy and the growth of work insecurity. Some 3.7 million people now work in insecure jobs, and 8 million work in relative poverty. Even in companies that purport to be good employers, the sad reality is different, and I want to focus on Amazon, which employs 27,000 people here in Britain. I have worked with the GMB both to stand up for the workforce and to challenge some pretty shameful practices.

I remember one particular woman—a team leader—who was asked to attend a disciplinary hearing. She was 38 weeks pregnant. The charges were for gross misconduct, and her crime that caused downtime during work was pregnancy. She was made to attend a five-hour disciplinary hearing and was not offered food or drink. She got off as a consequence of representation by a GMB official, but when she sought to appeal against the final written warning, Amazon set up the appeal on her due date. She was distraught at how the company had treated her. I also met a young man at the gates of the giant depot at Rugeley who had been sacked at 6 o’clock in the morning, and he had his child with him because of the difficulties of managing life and shift patterns. He wept, as did his child in the back of his car.

One can look at the evidence given to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee—I praise the work done by my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves in rightly focusing on this situation—about the targets being set for Amazon workers. One worker said:

“In Amazon, there is—I am not sure if this is the correct expression—a rat race. There is always a fight for the target. You need to hit the target, and if you do not,” they come after you. Drivers complained that they sometimes have to do 200 drops in one day. A worker at Rugeley was asked, “What’s it like to work for Amazon?” and they responded, “Prison camp.” Another worker at Rugeley was asked, “In your own words, is Amazon a safe place to work?” and the answer was, “No. Productivity is put first. It could be much safer.” A worker at the Dunstable depot was asked, “What’s it like to work for Amazon?” and the response was, “They act in a cynical way. If someone raises a complaint, they—the management—will start to do things until that person feels undervalued and leaves Amazon.” People are being pushed out by the company.

A worker at Peterborough was asked, “Are there enough facilities for everyone, such as washrooms, toilets, drinking water, canteens, etc.?” and the answer was “No! Given the size of the building and the number of people working there, there are not enough toilets or handwashing facilities.” A worker at Tilbury was asked, “In your own words, describe what it is like to work for Amazon” and they said, “To work for Amazon in my opinion is slavery in a modern world.” Finally, a worker at Gourock was asked the same question and the answer was, “This is the most stressful environment in over 40 years of working” that they had experienced and endured.