This week saw worker activists hold two super-exploitative corporations to account at their Annual General Meetings. The first meeting was held by Next plc on Thursday night in Leicester, at the Marriot Hotel, and the following day Deliveroo held their AGM in London within the offices of Goldman Sachs.
At the first AGM a campaigner from Labour Behind the Label intervened to point out that “Next have been members of ACT – an industry initiative and agreement with the global union federation IndustriALL in pursuit of living wages – for over 5 years.” However, they went on to state that despite the ethical sounding nature of this initiative: “Workers from former Next suppliers Neo Trend in Turkey and Wai Full Textiles in Cambodia both report that they haven’t received legally owed wages and severance pay following Next’s withdrawal of orders and subsequent factory closures.”
This accusation of hypocrisy and hyper-exploitation was hardly surprising as earlier this year another nonprofit organization released a report titled “Money Heist: COVID-19 Wage Theft in Global Garment Supply Chains” which determined that in 2020 “Workers across 14 Next supplier factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka reported” a “22% loss in work days” and a “20% reduction in monthly wages”. The report estimated that in 2020, Next was involved in systemic wage theft that cost workers approximately $189 million.
As Eromi, a 29-year-old garment worker who works at a NEXT supplier factory explained to the authors of Money Heist:
“Although the factory shut down due to the Covid-19 lockdown only by the last week of April, workers were not paid for the entire month of April, even if we had worked overtime every week. We also did not receive our bonus that month. In mid-May, when a worker in my boarding house tested positive for Covid-19, the factory forced me to go on unpaid leave for 3 weeks. While the government provided 5000 LKR (26 USD) at that time, it was a quarter of what I would have earned had I worked those weeks. Since June, I have been asked to do unpaid overtime for at least 2-3 hours a week. In October, even when workers were informing the management that they were unwell and having fever, the management forced them to work – this led to the spread of Covid-19 in the factory, with almost 600 workers contracting the virus. I have never seen such tough times in my 9 years in this industry. I have been buying food on credit since April so that I can save some cash to send to my family. In July, I also pawned the only gold necklace I have. My husband has been sick and bed-ridden for the past 6 months and I have a three-year-old son in my village, so I have to send money to them regularly. Even if I go hungry, I do not want to see my child go hungry. At least, if the company paid us for our overtime work, life would not have been this difficult.”
As it turns out Next’s longstanding Tory CEO, Lord Wolfson of Aspley Guise, is also a board member of the gig economy profiteer Deliveroo which happened to hold their AGM the night after Next’s. This time seven riders attended Deliveroo’s AGM to showcase the company’s enduring commitment to exploitation raising questions for the board “on poverty pay, dangerous working conditions, and unfair dismissals.”
As ever the fightback for workers rights is a work-in-progress and such AGM interventions certainly play an important role in publicly highlighting the worst abuses of capitalist giants like Next and Deliveroo. But at the end of the day it will be the continuing day-to-day organising efforts of workers within trade unions at these workplaces that will play the most vital role in progressing the struggle for better working conditions for all. It is this ongoing fight that will help workers build the type of democratic mass movements and militant trade unions that will ultimately render capitalism redundant in the fight for a socialist future where ordinary workers not profit-driven apps can exert democratic control over their own lives.