Better to light a candle…

Maurice reflects on the disparity in wealth between the employees and the owners in a well-known High Street store.

Tea-lights, each around 35mm across.

On Thursday 7 December the Guardian carried this story:

More than 800 senior Asda shopfloor staff face pay cut or redundancy.

It’s a rather unhappy tale in the run up to Christmas – but surely, you might think, not a major one, what with all the Brexit negotiations going on, to say nothing of the events in America covered in the last post?

Yet look a little closer and it speaks volumes about our whole political economy.

First, the headline is slightly misleading – ‘senior’ is a very relative term. We are talking here about ‘section leaders’, senior shop floor assistants, not boardroom executives. So already pretty low paid. Wage cuts or redundancies could be devastating for them and their families.

Still, sad as it is, the story may not appear such a big deal. But look at this other story from August:

Asda urged to drop equal pay challenge and raise shop-floor wages

Earlier this year, the GMB brought a successful case to tribunal on behalf of store staff – mostly women – who had been paid significantly less than the mostly male warehouse workers. Asda was ordered to make up the pay gap.

Better news, then; but could the two stories be connected? Is it a coincidence that, having lost at tribunal over equal pay, the company is now announcing cuts among the same category of employees? A connection isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility. Certainly, rather than paying up, Asda has chosen to appeal the decision.

In terms of the mooted job cuts, the company says it is necessary to cut costs to meet the competition of Lidl and Aldi. A race to the bottom, then, but understandable, perhaps, given the pressures of the fierce competitive environment they have to work in. Or it would be understandable if Asda were a struggling small to medium enterprise. But it is owned by Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, whose five main shareholders, the Walton family, are among the wealthiest people in the world.

Another story, this one from October:

The Heirs to the Walmart Fortune Just Made $5 Billion in One Day

“The five members of the Walton family who are the main heirs to the Walmart fortune saw their collective net worth increase by $5 billion yesterday”, says this story.

A billion each. Or £747m at today’s exchange rate.

How does that compare to the shop floor workers? They are reported to get around £12,820 per year.

To help get our heads round the scale of the disparity, let’s convert pounds to millimetres, and work it out in pounds per day – as we have done before here at the Combination.

If the Waltons each saw their fortune rise by $1bn this year, it would work out at $2.7 million a day, or over 2 million pounds sterling (at today’s rates). Two million millimetres is two kilometres. No building – indeed no mountain – in the UK would be high enough to roll your measuring tape off to mark out this height.

In fact, you’d have to stack Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland’s tallest mountain, on top of Mount Snowdon, and then some, to mark this out vertically from sea level.

On the same scale, the Asda employees’ wages would measure 35mm – the width of a strip of photographic negatives, or roughly the diameter of a tea-light candle.

It’s the crank economy in action: cut jobs or wages at the bottom in order to ‘compete in the market’, boost profits and thus wealth for the (sometimes already unimaginably wealthy) shareholders.

Of course, we’ve been assuming the Waltons only gained a billion each for the year.

Just time for one last story, then, this one from November:

The Walton Family Just Added $10 Billion to Their Fortune.

Yes, having seen their fortunes rise by a billion dollars apiece in October, the Waltons saw another gain, this time of two billion each, in November – giving them at least a $3bn rise for the year.

$3bn, or £6.14m a day, measured on our scale, comes out at over six kilometres. That’s a lot of tea-lights.

So when you see lots of symbolic candles being lit tomorrow, 10 December, for Human Rights Day, think about lighting one for the shop floor section leaders of Asda.

Better still, join the GMB or another union, and start spreading the wealth and power sideways.

Maurice Macartney

9 December 2017