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Labour goes crackers over pay disgrace

Homeworkers in Britain are paid between 1p and 2p for making a Christmas cracker which sell in the shops for anything up to pounds 2.50.

Boots the chemist is supplied by women working at home as "sub-contractors" who earn just over 2p, while workers who are contracted to Fine Art Developments, which supply many high street retailers, receive around 1.5p. The National Group on Homeworking estimates that some people are paid considerably less than 1p.

Ian McCartney, Labour's chief employment spokesman, said the wage rates were not high enough to be portrayed as poverty wages. "This is slave labour," he said. "Scrooge simply isn't a character in Dickens, the tragedy is that he actually exists. The pay of homeworkers is a disgrace. I wonder how many people who are buying their Christmas crackers in high street stores realise how little the people who are making them are paid."

Mr McCartney said that under a Labour government a statutory national minimum wage would include homeworkers for whom pay is difficult to police.

Denise McKenna, acting co-ordinator of the National Group on Homeworking, said the amount of money paid to workers who supplied Boots was at the top of the range. "Many are paid far less. One company pays pounds 8 for 1,000 Christmas crackers. If you are desperate for money you will work for virtually nothing," she said.

A spokeswoman for Boots pointed out that the retail price included materials, transport and retail costs. In a letter to Mr McCartney from Jayne Mayled, head of customer services at the company, she insisted that the flexibility offered to workers was often very attractive to those with family responsibilities.

"This method of working is particularly suitable for the domestic arrangements of a number of people as it provides them with an opportunity to earn money whilst continuing to look after their families at home and without the necessity to travel to and from a workplace."

Homeworkers making Boots crackers are supplied with a "kit" of components necessary to produce a batch of 1,800 crackers, for which they are paid between pounds 38.80 to pounds 49.60.

She said typical earnings per week ranged from pounds 25 to pounds 166 with one worker earning pounds 221. However, it should be emphasised that each home-worker could determine the amount of work he or she wished to undertake and therefore also the consequent renumeration.

A spokesman for Fine Art Developments said trials had shown that homeworkers were capable of earning pounds 6 an hour.