Philip Stott continues our series on casual work with an essay on his experience as an airport baggage-handler and aircraft cleaner
After graduating from university, I immediately started working for an agency who specialise in providing workers for the aviation industry. I thought I would write about two of my ‘assignments’.
The first of these was as an aircraft cleaner for Derichebourg Multiservices at Liverpool Airport. I was part of a group of people in our twenties, some of whom travelled from as far away as Bury, who were taken on in order to work through the busy summer period. We worked a shift pattern, 10pm-6am; four days on, two days off and were paid an agency rate of £6.68 an hour (pretty bad for night work). Refuelling operators were the best paid and worked shifts, 8pm–8am, four days on, four off. There had been no pay rise at all for five years.
Although the work was not glamorous, this was to be expected. What really struck me was the condition of the equipment. For example, the company’s catering van had been saved from the scrap yard, each cleaning van had a door that was jammed shut and they were prone to breaking down. This could mean we would have to walk across the airfield in the wind and the rain carrying our vacuum cleaners, mops and cleaning equipment. Also, the airport did not have enough working Ground Power Units, so we would sometimes have to radio someone from Servisair to bring one round for us. Not great when you were rushing to get home so you could try and get in bed before it got light.
One of my favourite things about this job was the amount of stuff you would find left behind by passengers. Especially during the school holidays, when under the piles of rubbish, euro notes and iPods were common finds. Once I found 100 cigarettes and a litre of Bacardi – this made a nice supplement to our crappy wages.
A new supervisor had taken over a few months before I started and had made an effort to stamp her authority. Although efforts had always been made to make people work more for less money, it was her arrival that had turned ‘a nice little job’ into one that everyone hated. This had caused one of the team leaders to become obviously depressed, whilst the other developed stress related health problems, both left whilst I was working there.
Agency workers were almost segregated from working with the older staff. We would usually clean Ryanair planes with the supervisor whilst the permanent staff would clean EasyJet. We were constantly told how lazy the older staff were. This had its effect on people and on one particular night, a young woman got in such an argument with the supervisor that she felt she had to run off the plane and flee down the airfield, never to be seen again. There was some talk of members of airside security co-signing a letter of protest in relation to the way she was treated, but this did not get anywhere. When I did work on the EasyJet planes I found out that the lads worked just fine, it was only that they hated the supervisor so whenever ‘she’ was on a plane with them they would go on a go-slow.
Life got much easier once the two team leaders had left. A temporary team leader was brought in from London. He kept complaining how he had never worked in such shoddy conditions and would always let us do a half arsed job. Airside security were going through pay negotiations whilst I was there, some people enquired to their union rep about taking industrial action, but the GMB had signed a no strike agreement and they were told this was not an option.
The other cleaning lads made a formal grievance to the company about pay, but I have not heard of any developments since. It was an open secret that the company wanted to get rid of the old hands, I have since learned that the new team leader (who was used as a scab during the 2009 baggage handler strike and is the son of the airport’s chief firefighter) fabricated stories in order to try and get two of my old mates sacked.
A note on the manager. He had previously been the manager of a Sainsbury’s store and had been taken on by Derichebourg for crazy money. He was hardly ever on site but spent most his time at work doing what was no doubt crucial paperwork. We were often understaffed as agency workers were not replaced, this would involve Derichebourg having to fork out for a 60 day security pass from the airport and was not going to happen. The manager would sometimes help out when we were understaffed. Now, I did not mind that he worked slower than us but he did not even know what we had to do and I would have to instruct him on what our job was. For the money he was paid I found this bizarre.
Whilst writing this I have heard that the Derichebourg workers at Liverpool airport have not been paid their wages for the last month’s work.
I was rewarded for my obedience with a job as a baggage handler for Swissport International at Manchester Airport. The hourly rate for agency was £7.20. The worst thing for me about this job was the hours, with shifts starting as early as 4am and finishing as late as 11:30pm. For the first month I was rostered an average of thirty hours a week, easily enough to survive off, but these were cut the next month. Many people made up their hours through overtime, but as a sleep lover, I did not fancy only eleven hours between shifts.
Most agency workers were a mixture of guys in their early twenties living at home and those in their sixties who had been made redundant from their skilled jobs and were working for a few more years before they retired, some people were so desperate for work that they drove from Southport. It will be no surprise to readers of The Commune that people are earning less now than they have ever earned in their lives, in fact, the hourly rate for a baggage handler at Manchester Airport is about the same as it was in the 1990s.
Although I got on with most of the guys, there was a significant amount of people who made it clear that they did not want agency workers there and would not give you the time of day. Despite the fact that I could understand this, it was I who felt hard done by when I was working next to people earning more than three times as much as me, as I worked all the public holidays over Christmas.
The work itself was incredibly easy. Swissport seemed to have chosen a strategy of having a large, low paid and casualised workforce, so that unlike in Liverpool, I was not rushed off my feet. This meant we had lots of down time with nothing to do. Although this produced the effect of making me extremely bored and always looking for work to do, one guy I knew would leave the airport and make the long walk in-between airport terminals just to make himself look busy. This was very different guys working for Menzies: they got paid more but actually had to work hard every day. Swissport saved their money on equipment. Whereas the bag halls at Manchester Airport are full Servisair trailers, I frequently had to drive around the airport looking for Swissport trailers to load flights onto. The only times I had to exert myself was when loading flights to Pakistan: as these are not holiday flights, most bags weigh about 32kg; however, you work in a team of two, which really helps deal with the boredom. Loading a flight usually involves sitting around waiting for three or four hours whilst the passengers check in, there is a bit of a rush near the end but this is easily dealt with. Loading the large Airbus A380 Emirates flight to Dubai was hard due to the different amounts of classes involved, but this responsibility was rarely given to agency workers.
The young women taken on to work on the check in desk were treated particularly badly, though. After all the security checks they had to go through to get the job, they would be lucky to work twenty hours a week and would sometimes even be sent home once they arrived at work as they were not needed. This meant that they would be much better off claiming JSA, although some of them had their eyes on becoming air hostesses in the future and saw this as a way into the job.
I later learnt that Swissport were paid by the government to take people on, in order to reduce unemployment figures, so they had no incentive to give you any more hours and would not need to replace you if you left.
One of the biggest concerns for agency workers was the way we paid tax. Our agency used some dodgy payroll company that kept changing its name and every week we would pay less than a pound in tax, as the payroll company would claim large amounts of ‘expenses’ for us. Although some people received large tax bills for this, many people thought it was actually better to remain an agency worker than to sign on with the company as we were taking home more money.
Power in a union?
During the training period at work the shop steward was invited round and gave each of us a form to join Unite, he openly bragged with the other rep about how great it was to go down to London and drink lots of free beer. The new bag-hall manager was the old union rep who had been rewarded for his militancy with a nice manager’s job. There was graffiti throughout the bag hall depicting the steward as a jelly fish with no backbone. I did sheepishly ask when branch meetings were held and was laughed at in response and told not to ask. As the biggest handling company at the airport, a Servisair worker held the branch secretary’s position. Happy with this, he had decided not to hold a branch meeting for months.
The Liverpool baggage handlers’ strike that lasted two months started shortly after I started work in Manchester. I was glad to hear that my old friends in Liverpool were visiting the picket lines but there was very little discussion of it in Manchester, except that people would not mind being called ‘scab’, if the rumours were true about getting £100 for a single day’s work.
A rare piece of good news is that after months of putting it off, agency workers who have worked for more than 12 weeks now receive the same amount of pay as permanent staff, in line with a new EU law. Unfortunately, perhaps pre-empting these developments, in summer a new grade of workers was created and all workers taken on permanently are employed on a new contract with inferior terms and conditions.