Darren Westwood knows how to stick up for himself.
As a kid, he was bullied in the playground and beaten up in his local town centre. Now he doesn’t take stick from anyone, no matter how big or strong they appear, even if they happen to be one of the biggest companies in the world.
Mr Westwood believes his employer, Amazon, is a bully.
Having slowly grown fed up with pay and working conditions at the company’s warehouse in Coventry – where workers are on their feet all day sorting through goods to send to other warehouses – he has been corralling colleagues to support a strike.
After some initial reluctance, he gradually won them over and almost 300 workers are poised to walk out today – marking the first formal strike on British soil for the online giant.
“I don’t get fazed by things. I spent my life growing up and I’m at that stage where I’m not intimidated or worried,” the 57-year-old said.
“During the pandemic, people were thanking us and we appreciated that but Amazon were still making money, while we feel like we’ve been left behind.”
“The money is there. I know people say that it’s the politics of envy but we’re not asking for his [Jeff Bezos’] yacht or his rocket. We just won’t be able to pay our way. And that’s all we’re asking.”
Unions have traditionally had a hard time penetrating Amazon but the mood among the company’s workforce shifted in August after it offered its workers what many considered to be a paltry pay rise. The online giant lifted the hourly wage by 50p to £10.50 an hour.
Upon hearing the news, workers staged an informal walkout. They were expecting more, especially as the company has enjoyed stellar profits in recent years and inflation is rising at its fastest pace in 40 years.
The GMB union seized the opportunity and helped arrange a strike, with workers voting in favour of formal action just before Christmas.
It’s not just about money, however. Amazon has long been criticised for employing tough productivity targets that require workers to sort through a set number of items per hour.
Failure to do so can result in an “adapt”, a type of warning. Staff are given up to 30-minute breaks a day, only one of which is paid.
“When you think you’ve got to queue up to clock out and then queue up to go through the metal detectors and security, and queue to get your food, that time does evaporate very, very quickly,” Mr Westwood said. “I’ve been one minute late back from a break before and have been given an adapt.”
The loss of up to 300 of its 1,400 workforce in Coventry is unlikely to cause Amazon any major operational problems but management will be keeping a close eye on developments. Across the globe, its workforce has started agitating. In the US, workers at a New York warehouse recently voted to start the company’s first-ever labour union.
The GMB union is calling on Amazon to pay its UK workers £15 an hour to bring their wages in line with their American counterparts, who earn $18 an hour. However, Mr Westwood accepted that it would probably take a lot less than that to settle the dispute.
‘£2 an hour extra would be acceptable’
“I’d be happy if they just increased it by £2. I think £2 an hour extra or £2.50 an hour extra would be acceptable. I think everyone would stop then and people would be happy,” he said.
The company told Sky News that it pays a competitive local wage that has risen by 29% since 2018.
A spokesperson added: “We appreciate the great work our teams do throughout the year and we’re proud to offer competitive pay which starts at a minimum of between £10.50 and £11.45 per hour, depending on location.
“Employees are also offered comprehensive benefits that are worth thousands more – including private medical insurance, life assurance, subsidised meals and an employee discount, to name a few.”
However, workers accuse it of cutting other benefits in the process. Crucially, the 5% pay rise it has given its staff amounts to a real-terms pay cut because inflation, which peaked at over 11% last year, has risen at more than double the pace.
Mr Westwood pointed out that the company has put the cost of its services up to reflect higher rates of inflation, while neglecting to fairly share the spoils with its workforce.
A similar story is playing out across the economy, especially in the public sector, where industrial relations are fracturing under the strain of rampant inflation. Nurses, ambulance drivers, railway workers, teachers and postal workers have all voted to down their tools and march out.
‘Some nights I can’t sleep’
Like some of Amazon’s employees, many of them were repeatedly reminded of their value during the pandemic, when they went out to work when others stayed at home.
“These are good people,” Mr Westwood said. “I know that some people think that we’re unskilled and this is a minimum wage for a ‘minimum job’. But you need us during the pandemic. You applauded us and painted rainbows in the street. We’re the same people.”
“It’s 10 hours a day, standing on your feet. I do 18,000 steps and it takes its toll on people. I’ve got an injury to my shoulder. Some days it’s just so painful. Some nights I can’t sleep, it just keeps me awake. And that’s from the repetitive strain of doing the same job over and over and over and over.”
While Mr Westwood is hopeful that both sides can thrash out a deal, he believes that the major gain will be to increase unionisation within the Amazon workforce to ensure workers continue to stick up for themselves.
He accepts that working for Amazon comes with benefits and many people enjoy their time there but believes the company has a long way to go.
“Colleagues are struggling to pay their bills,” he said. “But we work for one of the richest men in the world, at one of the richest companies in the world, in one of the richest countries in the world… it’s not fair.”
Teachers’ strike to go ahead after education secretary ‘squandered the opportunity’ to avoid action, union says
Talks between the education secretary and the teaching unions have failed and the biggest teachers’ strike in years will go ahead.
Last-minute talks were held by Education Secretary Gillian Keegan on Monday in a bid to resolve a teachers’ pay dispute ahead of planned strikes this week.
Members of the National Education Union (NEU) in England and Wales will now walk out on Wednesday, with more industrial action planned in the following weeks.
The strike on Wednesday is expected to encompass up to half-a-million workers, with teachers due to be joined by train drivers, civil servants, university lecturers, bus drivers and security guards from seven trade unions in what will be the biggest day of industrial action in over a decade.
The NEU has announced seven days of strikes in England and Wales in February and March, with the walkout on Wednesday expected to affect over 23,000 schools.
Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, joint general secretaries of the NEU, said: “Gillian Keegan has squandered an opportunity to avoid strike action on Wednesday.
“The government has been unwilling to seriously engage with the causes of strike action.
“Real-terms pay cuts and cuts in pay relativities are leading to a recruitment and retention crisis with which the education secretary so far seems incapable of getting a grip.
“Training targets are routinely missed, year on year. This is having consequences for learning, with disruption every day to children’s education.”
In a separate comment, Mr Courtney said: “I regret to say that we didn’t hear anything that enables us to say that the strike shouldn’t go ahead on Wednesday.
“There’s no offer from the secretary of state trying to bridge the gap between us.”
Meanwhile, a headteachers’ union boss has described the talks with Ms Keegan as “deeply disappointing”.
Following the meeting with the education secretary, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Parents will have been looking for the government to avert the planned strike on Wednesday.
“Instead, the government continues to talk around the issues rather than putting anything on the table which allows for any meaningful negotiation.
“It is deeply disappointing.”
Mr Barton added: “We are sorry to report that there is therefore no resolution to the dispute and the strike is set to go ahead.”
The teachers’ strike was confirmed shortly before British firefighters voted to carry out nationwide action in a dispute over pay.
About 88% of members of the Fire Brigades Union had voted in favour of strike action, on a 73% turnout, the union said.
Its members had rejected a 5% pay offer in November.
Rishi Sunak says he acted ‘decisively’ in sacking Nadhim Zahawi following tax affairs row
Rishi Sunak has insisited he acted “decisively” in sacking Nadhim Zahawi as chairman of the Conservative Party after a row over his tax affairs.
Speaking in Country Durham at the launch of his government’s emergency care plan, the prime minister defended his handling of situation and stressed his commitment to “integrity” and the need to follow proper processes.
“What I have done is follow a process, which is the right process,” he said.
“Integrity is really important to me – all of you guys want to see that government is run properly, that it is run with integrity and there’s accountability when people don’t behave in the way that they should or if something doesn’t go right, and that’s what we’ve done.”
Mr Sunak also promised he would “take whatever steps are necessary to restore the integrity back into politics”.
“The things that happened before I was prime minister, I can’t do anything about,” the prime minister said.
“What I think you can hold me to account for is how I deal with the things that arise on my watch.
“And as you’ve seen, you know, when it came to Nadhim Zahawi, I asked the independent adviser to look at it straight away, acted on his findings straight away.
“That should give you some confidence that these things matter to me, and that I will take whatever steps are necessary to restore the integrity back into politics, and you can have confidence that the process works.”
Mr Zahawi was sacked as Tory party chairman on Sunday after an ethics inquiry into the handling of his tax affairs found a “serious breach” of the ministerial code.
Mr Sunak had resisted earlier calls from opposition parties to fire Mr Zahawi following reports that he had paid a penalty as part of an estimated £4.8m settlement dispute with HMRC.
But following the conclusion of an inquiry into the matter by his new ethics adviser Sir Laurie Magnus – which found that Mr Zahawi had “shown insufficient regard for the general principles of the ministerial code” – Mr Sunak swiftly removed the former Tory chairman from his post.
Critics of Mr Sunak have said he should have acted sooner in dismissing Mr Zahawi.
But the prime minister said it was on the basis of the facts contained in Sir Laurie’s report released on Sunday morning that he was “able to make a very quick decision that it was no longer appropriate for Nadhim Zahawi to continue in government”.
The PM’s official spokesperson reiterated to reporters on Monday that Mr Zahawi’s tax penalty was not disclosed to Mr Sunak upon his appointment.
Yesterday, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner and chairwoman Anneliese Dodds wrote to Mr Sunak asking him to give the public “full transparency” about what he knew about the investigation into Mr Zahawi’s tax affairs and when.
Ms Dodds described Mr Sunak as “weak” for not sacking Mr Zahawi “when this murky affair first surfaced”.
Ms Rayner added: “Rishi Sunak shouldn’t have needed an ethics adviser to tell him that Nadhim Zahawi’s position was untenable, but instead he continued to prop up the man he appointed to cabinet.”
Speaking to Sky News earlier today, shadow international trade secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds suggested the PM could have been lying about what he knew about Mr Zahawi’s tax affairs.
Asked whether he believed Mr Sunak has lied about what he knew of the matter, Mr Thomas-Symonds replied: “How could the prime minister not have known about the fact of the investigation when Mr Zahawi declared it in July?”
The row surrounding Mr Zahawi had centred on a tax bill over the sale of shares in YouGov – the polling firm he founded worth an estimated £27m – which were held by Balshore Investments, a company registered offshore in Gibraltar and linked to Mr Zahawi’s family.
Mr Zahawi had insisted he was “confident” he had “acted properly throughout”.
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper has called on Mr Sunak to withdraw the Conservative whip from Mr Zahawi “if he refuses to stand down as an MP” as he is “simply not fit to represent his constituents”.
In a letter to Mr Sunak following his sacking – in which he made no apology for his actions – Mr Zahawi told the PM he can be “assured of my support from the backbenches in the coming years”.
Speaking to Sky News on Monday, health minister Helen Whately said she thought the PM followed a “fair” process when deciding to sack the former Conservative party chairman.
Major search for missing 45-year-old who vanished while walking her dog in Lancashire
A major search is under way to find a 45-year-old woman from Inskip, Lancashire, who vanished while walking her dog.
Nicola Bulley was last seen three days ago – on Friday 27 January – at around 9.15am on a towpath by the River Wyre off Garstang Road in the village of St Michael’s on Wyre.
Police say her mobile phone was found on a bench near the riverbank and they are “extremely concerned” about her, and have urged anyone with information to get in touch.
Emergency crews including Lancashire Police, Lancashire Fire and Rescue, Bowland Pennine Mountain Rescue team and the North West Underwater Search Team have joined the search.
Police dive teams, fire service drones, search dogs, helicopters and mountain rescue volunteers have been sent to the area.
Lancashire Police earlier said Ms Bulley’s dog – a brown Spaniel – was also found close to where she was last seen and hope this might help jog the memory of anyone who saw her and may have information relating to her whereabouts.
She is described as white, 5ft 3ins tall, with light brown shoulder-length hair and she speaks with an Essex accent.
Ms Bulley was last seen wearing a long black gilet jacket with a hood, black jeans and olive green ankle wellies. Her hair was tied into a ponytail.
As well as Inskip and St Michael’s on Wyre, she also has links to Thornton Cleveleys.
In an update on Monday, Superintendent Sally Riley appealed for motorists who may have been driving through the area where Ms Bulley was last seen to come forward with any dash cam footage that could help officers.
The force said it is keeping an open mind about where she may be, and detectives investigating the circumstances around her disappearance are following a number of lines of enquiry.
Chief Inspector Chris Barton said on Sunday: “Nicola has now been missing for two days and we are extremely concerned about her.
“Firstly, if anybody saw her on Friday morning and has not yet been spoken to by police, or if anybody has any other information about where she might be, please get in touch with us straight away.
“Enquiries are very much ongoing and we have a team of detectives working tirelessly to establish the circumstances around her disappearance, in addition to a large team of police officers, partner agency and volunteer groups on the ground searching the area around where she was last seen.”
He added officers are aware a large number of people from the local community have organised a search of the area, and urged them to stay safe.
The River Wyre and its banks are extremely dangerous and searching these areas presents a genuine risk to the public, the force said.
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