Repair work on much of Manchester’s council housing is outsourced by the Labour council to Manchester Mears, a private outfit which has sought to maximise its profits by underpaying its workers, paying them as much as £3,500 a year less than comparable employees doing the same work.
In a hard-fought dispute that began in May last year, maintenance workers clocked up over 80 strike days. Now Unite has announced a deal that establishes pay parity within and across trade groups. Unite also claims it has won a 20 percent increase across the board, though this interpretation is disputed by Mears. (Unite claims victory following agreement in marathon Manchester Mears dispute, Unite the Union, 19 February 2018)
The deal is said to have followed talks between Manchester city council and Mears, and the role of the Labour council in all this is the elephant in the room. The council outsourced the work to Mears so it could get the work done on the cheap, with whatever corners needed to be cut to deliver the contract within budget.
The 180 workers involved in the dispute do all the maintenance and repair work across 11,000 of the council’s properties. Yet thanks to the miracle of outsourcing the council is able to shrug off all responsibility for the people doing all the work, and even pose as an ‘honest broker’ between Mears and its employees when the company’s behaviour becomes too much of an embarrassment.
The long-fought for pay rise is welcome news, and the workers are to be congratulated on having won this skirmish in the class war. But until the whole outsourcing farce is closed down and councils are forced to shoulder their responsibilities as employers of a direct labour force, cowboy outfits like Mears will continue to fleece their employees at every opportunity.
And the fact that the Labour council in Manchester is up to its neck in the outsourcing game should give Unite pause next time it is asked to write a handsome cheque to swell Labour party coffers.