Across the UK economy, businesses are facing a severe shortage of workers. This is the result of a perfect storm for British capitalism, with the pandemic, Brexit, and long-term decline leading to chaos throughout industry.
As a result, the bosses are resorting to desperate measures to plug the gap and keep their profits flowing.
Recently, for example, employers in the meat and food industry have been begging the government to allow the use of prisoners to solve their worst labour shortage crisis in 20 years. According to the British Meat Processors Association, Britain's meat-processing industry is missing about 15% of its necessary workforce.
This once again highlights the rottenness of the system, with the capitalists preferring to lean on what is essentially slave labour, rather than actually improving conditions and increasing workers’ wages.
To put an end to this anarchy and brutality, we need a socalist planned economy under workers’ control.
Pay and conditions
The meat industry is far from the only one affected by this shortfall of workers. Elsewhere, for example, we have reported about the situation in the UK haulage industry, which is missing over 100,000 drivers. Due to low wages and appalling working conditions, lorry drivers have begun to organise, raising the prospect of strike action and stoppages.
Poor pay and terrible conditions are a running theme across Britain's key industries that are now facing labour shortages. As a result, many workers have left these sectors over the years, in search of better prospects.
Conditions in the food industry are extremely tough and precarious, with many workers forced to put their health and safety at risk. Between 2016-17, for example, over 100 food workers suffered serious injuries, with 18 losing fingers, parts of fingers, or limbs.
It is also common to see 12 hours shifts in food factories, with patterns of ‘four on, four off’ – all just for the minimum wage.
It should come as no surprise, then, that many workers are dropping out of such industries – either voluntarily, looking for better pay; or forced to change jobs, due to overwork, stress, and deteriorating health.
The pandemic has also played a role in the current labour shortage crisis, with workers having to self-isolate as a result of coming into contact with others who have been infected.
Britain’s meat-processing plants have been infamous super-spreader locations, with a lack of social distancing and PPE leading to mass outbreaks in multiple factories. This is exacerbated by the fact that jobs in this industry are typically insecure and poorly paid, meaning that workers cannot afford to stay at home when they have symptoms.
At the same time, to maintain these low wages and poor conditions, unscrupulous bosses in the meat and food sector have for a long time relied on migrants from the EU.
Prior to Brexit and the pandemic, more than 60 percent of workers within the industry had been European workers.
But faced with low pay and a ‘hostile environment’, many of these workers are now leaving the country. It is estimated by the Office for National Statistics that, in the third quarter of 2020, there were 364,000 fewer EU nationals working in the UK than a year earlier.
Friends in need
To deal with this shortage crisis, the capitalists are now pleading with the government to use prisoners as a source of reliable, cheap labour.
“They [prisons] have got offenders and prison-leavers; we have got members who need labour,” stated Tony Goodger of the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers. “It seems sensible to bring the two together.”
And it is clear that the Tory government – always a friend of the bosses – is seriously considering the suggestion.
Responding to the meat industry bosses’ request, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Justice commented: “We will support all industries with skills shortages where possible, and are working towards bringing levels [of release on temporary licence] back up towards pre-pandemic levels as restrictions allow.”
Both the Tories and the capitalists are hiding behind the argument that it would be beneficial for prisoners to get a job and earn some money, as this would lead to a reduction in reoffending.
But it is clear that the real reason behind their desire to use prisoners is that they are cheap labour. Many are only paid around £10-20 per week. And in England and Wales, the minimum pay for so-called ‘orange collar’ workers is a pathetic £4 per week.
Cynicism and hypocrisy
Not only is this move by the Tories and bosses extremely cynical, but it stinks of hypocrisy also.
While allowing the use of prisoners at home, the British (and Western) establishment are denouncing China for human rights’ abuses in Xinjiang – including deploying Uighur prison labour in industries such as cotton and clothing.
The Tory government may even be fuelling this coercion, with suspicions that COVID contracts for PPE might have been outsourced to firms in China and elsewhere that use forced labour.
Meanwhile, Tory politicians have largely remained silent on the potential use of Uighur forced labour by companies – such as high-street fashion brands and outlets – doing business in Britain.
This shows that neither the capitalists nor their political representatives really care about the exploitation of prisoners, or the question of human rights.
While criticising the regime in China, the British ruling class are more than happy for UK bosses to utilise the same cruel, inhuman practices – all in order to protect the profits of big business.
Socialism or barbarism
All these recent events have demonstrated that capitalism is a chaotic and crisis-ridden system, which offers no future to humanity.
The ‘invisible hand’ of the market is unable to keep essential industries running. Instead, we see shortages and scarcity, alongside a race to the bottom in terms of wages and conditions.
In place of this anarchy and exploitation, these important industries need to be brought into public ownership, and placed under the control of the working class.
Only with a rational, democratic, socialist plan of production – based on the needs of the majority, instead of the profits of a few fat cats – can we finally put an end to these horrors facing the working class.
The choice is clear: socialism or barbarism.