Christmas toy deliveries could be severely disrupted this year after Santa’s elves voted to extend their strike. The elves at Santa’s ‘Wish Realisation Centres’, who have been on strike for a week over pay and conditions, have vowed to continue their struggle until their demands are met.
Elves have complained that working conditions at Santa’s manufacturing and distribution centres have become intolerable. They claim that workers are monitored with tracker devices which force a pace of work sustainable only by the very fittest. If performance is too slow, wages are docked. Toilet breaks are ruthlessly monitored and sickness punished with dismissal. The elves also complain of a 3-tier workforce. Older elves, who have worked for Santa of some years, have full pension and redundancy rights. Younger permanent staff have lower pay but some security. An increasing number, though, are employed on precarious zero-hours contracts with low pay and few benefits.
During a recent undercover newspaper investigation, a reporter claimed to have become ‘sick with exhaustion’ after only a few weeks working at a ‘Wish Realisation Centre’.
The roots of this dispute go back to the 1980s when Santa, desperate for investment to upgrade his operation, sold a controlling interest in Santa Inc to a consortium of venture capitalists. Although Santa is still non-executive chairman, most of the decisions are taken by the new owners, who brought in a cadre of MBA-educated gnomes to run the operation.
The gnomes, rewarded with a bonus scheme linked to shareholder value, concentrated on taking cost out of the organisation. New processes were brought in, pay rates held down and the final salary pension scheme closed to new entrants.
As one senior gnome blurted out, after a liquid lunch with Lucy Kellaway:
We have to do the nicey-nicey stuff to keep up the good PR. We wheel out the old boy to do the odd kids’ charity thing but the real value of the company is in licensing the Santa name and image. The brand is worth billions and we intend to squeeze as much value from it as we can.
Not that the elves are likely to see much of that. Pay levels at Santa Inc have been slashed. According to a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the median elf wage has been falling in real-terms for the last ten years and the majority of elves under 30 are in receipt of housing benefit or working tax credits. One newspaper reported that some elves were having to resort to food banks.
Falling real wages, casualisation of the workforce and increased performance demands led to rising frustration among the elves, which erupted into a full-scale industrial dispute last month.
Santa Inc has reacted to the strike by threatening to move its operations to lower wage areas. It claims to have armies of dwarves and goblins willing to work harder and for lower pay than the elves. This provoked an angry reaction from union leaders. Elves’ union general secretary, Legolas Crow, condemned “management bully-boy” tactics and accused the company of “flagrant life-threatening health and safety breaches”. He dismissed claims that the strike was crumbling as “nonsense” and “company propaganda”. He vowed to call further strikes if the union’s “reasonable claim for decent conditions” was not met.
There is little sign of the strike being resolved soon as both sides seem entrenched in their positions. As one picketing elf said, “We are prepared to stay out for as long as it takes. It’s a shame for all the children waiting for their presents but I just can’t afford to work for what Santa is paying.”
‘Legolas Crow: The vicious Marxist elf who wants to destroy Christmas!’
‘With the elves at the food bank.’
‘There can’t be any ‘poor elves’. I’ve never met one!’
‘Elves helped MI5 to murder Diana.’