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Proletarian issue 58 (February 2014)
Industry matters around the world: Amazon workers fight back
Amazon

Order-pickers working in Amazon’s German warehouses have been fighting back against the multinational giant since last spring, staging a number of walk-outs in protest over wages and conditions.

Amazon (which maintains the pretence that order-pickers don’t count as retail staff, only as even cheaper-labour ‘logistics workers’) imposes a draconian labour discipline on staff, with unremitting hard physical labour, endless monitoring and little or no job security.

These punishing work conditions are not limited to Amazon’s German operations, as was revealed in an undercover BBC investigation, which placed a reporter in an Amazon warehouse in Swansea.

The reporter wore a pedometer, which indicated that he was walking as much as 11 miles as he navigated around the 800,000 square foot of storage, struggling to meet the target of picking one order every 33 seconds. His performance was monitored by the scanner he was given, along with the warning of disciplinary action should he fail to meet targets.

The courageous German workers are the first of Amazon’s global employees to take such action, taking their protest all the way to the company’s headquarters in Seattle. The fact that Germany is Amazon’s second-largest market makes this initiative of particular importance.

The company’s recent comments about the possibility of delivering its products by robotic drones suggest a hankering after a world where obedient automatons take the place of troublesome proletarians. Yet without living labour to exploit, capital would cease to feed on surplus value and at once asphyxiate. So Amazon is condemned to keep producing its own gravediggers ...

Bangladesh

... as are Primark and Walmart.

In a scramble to limit the reputational damage suffered after the Tazreen factory blaze and the Rana Plaza collapse (the latter killing over 1,200 workers and injuring a further 2,500), some of the European and Canadian firms found to have commissioned garment production on those sites have cooperated with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), agreeing amid much fanfare to release a fraction of their enormous profits towards a compensation scheme for survivors and affected families.

Anglo-Irish Primark, a leading discount chain ubiquitous in British shopping malls, has joined the scheme, as has Italian Benetton and Dutch C&A. Evidently, all three companies have been persuaded by their lawyers and consultants that such a gesture to the victims of superexploitation is needed to guarantee the social peace upon which depends the uninterrupted profit-taking from all the other neo-colonial sweatshops in Bangladesh and beyond.

Another factor driving this outbreak of philanthropy could be the perceived opportunity of the European garment industry to profit from the intensifying reputational damage afflicting their US rivals like Walmart, Sears and Children’s Place.

These companies have decided to tough it out and stick by their story that all those incriminating labels retrieved from the wreckage were nothing to do with them; that production was being undertaken by unauthorised contractors; and that documents like those recovered from Tazreen, which proved that Walmart contractors accounted for 55 percent of production just two months before the fire, somehow got it all wrong.

This arm’s-length delegation of culpability to local actors had previously been the standard defence right across the western garment industry, until popular outrage in Bangladesh and damaging headlines at home threatened to interrupt business as usual and the Europeans decided to box clever.

Whether the mock-contrition of Primark will now serve to pacify the working class any better than Walmart’s brand of hard-nosed bluster remains to be seen. Either way, it is by their own efforts alone that workers will overturn neo-colonial exploitation and end the murderous ‘accidents’ which such exploitation necessarily brings in its wake, and not by trusting in the enlightened benevolence of their exploiters.

Poland

Thirty years ago the received social-democrat wisdom, touted with great vigour by the 57 varieties of Trotskyism, had it that Lech Walesa and his anti-communist Solidarnosc union stood for all that was admirable in ‘democratic socialism’, ‘grassroots revolt against Stalinism’ and ‘independent trade unionism’.

Today, after the counter-revolution of which Walesa dreamed has had time to show its true colours, the workers at the once-thriving Gdansk Shipyard (which Walesa colonised as the power-base for his CIA/Vatican-backed anti-communist demagogy) now have cause to regret bitterly the loss of a socialist system in which industrial bankruptcies and redundancies were unknown.

As the once-jubilant Trot presses now tend to fall silent when confronted with the consequences of their beloved ‘political revolution’, it is left to Jan Cienski in the Financial Times to report on how Gdansk is faring in the bright new capitalist dawn.

The gloom is widespread at the historic Polish shipyard which now employs about 1,200 workers, down from 18,000 in 1980, when the yard, then named after Vladimir Lenin, was part of a core industry in communist Poland and the site of the strikes that created the Solidarity labour union.

While the shipyard’s political achievements in destroying European communism are legion – and commemorated in a moving triple-cross monument outside the shipyard gates – the yard has been in economic trouble for a quarter of century, twice being declared bankrupt. Now a third bankruptcy is looming as the shipyard famous for helping usher in the capitalist era struggles to thrive in the new world of Polish capitalism it helped create.” (22 December 2013)

Anxious to keep the shipyard going as a symbol of counter-revolution, the Polish government in 2007 invited Ukrainian company ISD to come to the rescue. But the government’s subsequent reluctance to stump up enough subsidy, compounded by the impact of the global capitalist crisis, mean that the shipyard’s future is again in doubt.

The FT quotes the current Gdansk leader of the local Solidarnosc branch, who joined the union as a young man in 1980, as passing this sobering judgement. “I’m just burnt out by all this. I even avoid going to any historical commemorations – it’s just awkward.”

Expect no less of an awkward shuffling of feet from the British fake ‘left’ as they push their Solidarnosc t-shirts to the back of the wardrobe.

Marikana: how imperialism pulled ANC strings

Whilst the establishment weeps crocodile tears over the death of Nelson Mandela, imperialism strains every fibre to ensure that the progress for which he stood should be stopped in its tracks and forced into reverse.

In November, the Observer threw some light on the unbroken neo-colonial stranglehold that British imperialism continues to force upon South Africa. (‘The British mine owners, the police and South Africa’s day of blood’ by Maeve McClenaghan and David Smith, 24 November 2013)

The report is based upon a newly-leaked transcript of meetings between the police and the London-based Lonmin mining company immediately preceding the August 2012 massacre of 34 strikers in Marikana, and also upon leaked emails suggesting ANC governmental involvement at the highest level – a cruel indication of the decay of national-democratic leadership since Mandela’s day.

Considerable attention has been directed at the level of violence already prevailing at Marikana in the period before the massacre, with two police and two private security men among those killed in the preceding week in addition to six strikers. Less attention has been paid to the scale of the class-war preparations engaged in by Lonmin, and the lengths to which the company went to pressure the police and the government to tuck in behind its own agenda.

What particularly incensed Lonmin was the success of a strike at Impala Platinum six months earlier, which concluded with a wage increase and the recognition of a new union, the grassroots AMCU (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union). Lonmin’s chief executive Ian Farmer said that success “rippled through the rest of the industry” and “created an expectation”.

Fearing that this would be taken as a benchmark expectation right across the industry – in turn destabilising existing agreements with the more white-collar based (and ANC affiliated) NUM – Lonmin effectively declared open class war, putting maximum pressure on the police, the government and the ANC to champion the rights of monopoly capital over the welfare of South African workers.

It was in the heightened tension created by this that the levels of anger and violence rose in the weeks prior to the massacre. Spies had been recruited from amongst the workers by Lonmin’s security chief, feeding information back to the company. Then when NUM officials panicked and shot at workers protesting outside their office a few days before the massacre, wounding two, union leaders suggested that it was Lonmin security that had wound them up to do it, telling them that the miners intended them harm.

The company had over 500 private security men on site, but was also anxious to pressgang the provincial police into defence of Lonmin’s profits. The police relied heavily upon the company’s own security, with close collaboration throughout.

Lonmin supplied CCTV, helicopters, jail cells and ambulances to the police operation. Lonmin staff also had access to police radios and logged information received on them. A photograph from the police command centre at the mine centre shows a plan for 16 August detailing the deployment of Lonmin security agents. The plan also notes the staff’s arsenal, which includes 9mm pistols, LM5 assault rifles and shotguns.

British imperialism, in the form of Lonmin, had its hand very heavily on the South African government’s shoulder all through the run-up to the massacre. The report notes that “emails, telephone calls and a letter between top Lonmin executives show the company lobbying politicians and police chiefs to increase police pressure. Three days before the massacre, Albert Jamieson, the chief commercial officer of Lonmin, wrote to the minister for mineral resources, Susan Shabangu, and asked her to act more decisively and to ‘bring the full might of the state to bear on the situation.’

He warned her darkly about “the consequences for the industry, province and the country if the various organs of the state are unable to bring these repeat situations under control.”

All of this blackmail came to fruition at a council of war just two days before the massacre. Clearly having been carefully coached, police chief Mbombo suggested that Lonmin should learn lessons from Impala and not favour AMCU, stressing how much hung on the outcome of the Marikana strike, which “has a serious political connotation that we need to take into account ... we need to act such that we kill this thing.”

Pleased that the message has got through, the human-resources suit speedily assented: “Immediately, yes.” The council of war decided to offer miners a bleak choice: return to work or face the sack. If that didn’t work, police would move in to break up the strike forcibly.

The human-resources chief complimented police chief Mbombo on the resources at her disposal, remarking at one point, “I must tell you, the ones that impress me [are] these snipers.” In turn, the police chief assured Lonmin’s security chief that she would lend him a water cannon.

The next day, just one day before the massacre, Cyril Ramaphosa, at the time a non-executive director of Lonmin, phoned the government minister, Shabangu, to tell her “that silence and inaction about what is happening at Lonmin was bad for her and the government”. Shabangu dutifully passed this message on to the police minister and the president.

Ramaphosa, who subsequently quit his post at Lonmin and is now deputy president of the ANC, later told the Marikana inquiry that “Lonmin management took the view that this was not simply an industrial dispute and that Lonmin needs the [police] to restore and maintain law and order and prevent further loss of life ... Lonmin was anxious that government be informed of the seriousness of the situation.”

Such revelations are unlikely to help restore the confidence of South Africa’s masses that the present ANC leadership can be relied upon to further the anti-imperialist struggle and take steps to lift them out of their dire poverty.

Note: Lonmin is the scrubbed-up name for Lonrho. Back in the days when imperialism was pretending to impose sanctions on Ian Smith’s white supremacist Rhodesia and the capitalists were pretending to obey them, Lonrho (= London + Rhodesia) was one of the most blatant of the sanctions-busters. So unsavoury was this company seen to be by the general public that its chief executive, ‘Tiny’ Rowland, was once singled out by Edward Heath (under pressure to appear disgusted, no doubt) as the “unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism”.


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