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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Hired: a review [feedly]

Hired: a review

For some time, I've asked that journalists leave the Westminster Bubble and look instead at ground truth. I'm delighted, therefore, that James Bloodworth has done just this. His latest book, Hired, describes his experiences of working on low wages – at an Amazon warehouse in Rugeley, a call centre in South Wales, as a care worker in Blackpool and as an Uber driver in London.

Of course, he's self-aware enough to acknowledge that he's a tourist. His experience necessarily misses a lot: the sense of despair that comes with knowing that low-wage work is for life; or the difficulties of juggling such work with care responsibilities, for example. However, when so much journalism consists of smears, prejudice and idle gossip whilst the voice of workers goes unheard, James' story is essential reading.

It raises many issues, which should challenge both left and right. I'll list just a few.

One, sad to say, is immigration: especially at Amazon, James is surrounded by Romanians. The issue here isn't just the perception, fuelled by employment agencies wanting to screw down pay and conditions, that there's a vast reserve army of migrants. It's also perhaps that migrants contribute to a lack of class cohesion at work.

Secondly, James shows that a big problem for the low-paid is not just the level of wages but the insecurity. You can get by on the money James made, albeit joylessly. But there are many possible disturbances to these: "mistakes" in calculating wages (surprisingly common); changes in hours; unexpected expenses; or trivial misdemeanours at work that get you the sack. Any of these can force you into to the world of loan-sharks or homelessness.

For me, this strengthens the case for a citizens' income: it provides security against such shocks.

Thirdly, low wages are unhealthy. James says he put on a stone whilst working at Amazon despite walking ten miles a day. The stress of work compels you to want a "momentary morale boost" such as a cigarette, chocolate or junk food. Add in the difficulties of fitting meals around irregular working hours, and the fact that low-wage work steals (pdf)cognitive bandwidth, and we're left with the fact that demands on the poor to eat well are simply unrealistic.

What's more, poverty is oppression. James says:

Whether it was the employment agency underpaying you, the job centre messing you about or the rent-to-own store trying to bamboozle you there was often this running battle with the authorities.

This continues in the workplace. James describes how workers face intense distrust and constant surveillance by either technology or "petty fuhrers".

This oppression, however, doesn't come (directly) from fat plutocrats in top hats grinding the faces of the poor. Job centre staff who "treat you like scum", yobs who attack the homeless and the shop-floor tyrants at Amazon probably earn less than average wages. And yet they contribute massively to the misery of the worse-off. Yes, such people are under stress from those above them. But it's possible that they have, in James' words, "internalized the objectives of their gaolers."

And herein lies a depressing theme of Hired – the lack of class cohesion. James says: "Thatcherism's greatest success was probably in the gradual erosion of class solidarity." You get no sense in his book that his colleagues are active supporters of Corbyn or (worse still) that they have dense networks of friends or family to help them through the hard times. 

Granted, there's a danger here of romanticizing the past. The lack of class solidarity was a theme of Robert Tressell's Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and we must remember that trades union militancy was used to "preserve differentials" and to support Enoch Powell, as well as for more benign ends. Nevertheless, this reminds us of Marx's biggest error - the belief that class consciousness would increase over time.

Rightists like to tell us that there's more to poverty than a lack of money. They might be right, if not in the way they intend.  

 -- via my feedly newsfeed