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Problems at work - No. 8: Minimum Wage, Maximum Hours

The announcement that the minimum wage is set to rise to £4.85 next predictably had union leaders, desperate for a reason to stick with Labour, claiming that in the fight against poverty the Govemment really is making a difference. They are deluding themselves; the minimum wage is not about ending poverty, it is set so low it merely legaises poverty wages. Labour see a  low wage economy, in which the working class remain powerless, as the essential ingredient of a 'successful' 'free market' economy. Labour's inspiration is not justice or equality, but the USA, where the minimum wage has been in force for years and has done nothing to prevent the growth in poverty and obscene inequalities.

The TUC is happy to hail the minimum wage as a triumph, but this reflects more their desperation and failure, rather than any use in the minimum wage. In the distant past, the unions linked poverty directly to the failure of capitalism, and it was seen as something that couId not be tolerated. Today, unions have come to terms with capitalism and the inevitable poverty it brings. The days when the unions sought to empower the poor through organisation as the means of fighting a capitalist system that condemned them to a life of poverty are long gone. Now they would rather see the poor as helpless victims to be pitied and if possible - but not organised.

From this perspedive, the TUC is the same as the Tories - they see poverty as due to the failing of the poor. The TUC talks asmuch but but cares ilttle about poverty, and hide their indifference behind the minimum wage. The minimum wage amounts to throwing a beggar a few bob for a cup of tea in order to be able to sit down to enjoy the union expense-account dinner with a clear conscience. The TUC has given up the fight against capitalism and poverty - instead, they preach partnership with a system that condemns and stunts the lives of millions.

Hours - women lose out

British workers already work the longest hours and receive the least number of holidays in the EU. However for those at the bottom of the pile, the situation is much worse. Govenrment statistics show that last year three million workers - two thirds of them women - did not get paid for bank holidays over the Easter period. As a result, they suffered a drop in earnings - and all because in the UK employers can treat bank holidays as a normaI working day, and then send workers home without pay.

Many other peopIe will be forced to take bank holidays as part of their minimum right to four weeks paid holiday. The UK is the only EU member state that allows employers to include public holidays in the European minimum of four weeks paid hoiday. It is 133 years since the introduction of the Easter Monday bank holiday, yet a significant minority of UK workers are still not getting it.

Those most likely to lose out are women workers in low paid and less skilled jobs - in other words, those who can Ieast afford it. The job types with the highest proportion of women losing out are sales and customer service jobs (23%) and personal service jobs (23%). Workers in the hotel and restaurant sector are the most likely to be sent home without pay (32%), while in health and social work over 400,000 people are affected.

Labour Britain is also now blocking an EU Directive that would provide equal pay and improved rights for agency workers. Agency workers are among the worst exploited, with poor pay and often poor and dangerous conditions, where health & safety is ignored. The Directive would have improved pay and conditions of agency workers and brought some much-needed regulation to a notoriously unregulated industry. What few laws there are governing agencies are routinely ignored. It is not gang leaders that are at the forefront of exploiting illegal immigrants, it is job agencies, who treat them appallingly, knowing that they will not complain to the authorities.

The fact that Britain is out of step with Europe on casualisation is no accident. Poor pay and conditions and laws allowing hiring and firing at will are the bedrock of Britain's so-called economic success. More protection for workers is badly needed, but this is never going to happen under Labour because it goes against its fundamentalist free market dogma. In the long run, only a return of working class collective power will turn back the capitalist onslaught of the last 30 years. And that will only come about with the defeat of the anti-trade union legislation and a return to free collective bargaining.

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