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Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 18 November 2014
This is a well-intentioned book, and many of the points it makes are good, even vital, and yet I found the narrative voice so irritating that I often threw it across the room.

Toynbee comes across as utterly spoiled and privileged, and terribly, patronisingly sorry for everyone who can't windowshop on Kings Road because they know they can't afford to buy, and blithely unaware that this 'exclusion' applies to four-fifths of the nation.
Her norm is only too clearly the top of the middle class, people earning 100k plus with houses in Leafy London that they bought more than ten years ago. It never really strikes her that this First World Norm can't EVER be extended to everyone. There will NEVER be enough money for that.

Her impassioned plea for care workers to be better paid is moving and valid, but it's in part based on the idea that caring for incontinent old people is absolutely disgusting and depressing; at one point she comes very close to implying that they are the problem, and to longing for one of them to die, even though the individual seems quite contented in though demented. Doubtless they too have no reason to live as nobody is taking them along Kings Road or to Starbucks.

I actually ended up feeling very sorry for the people who had to work with Toynbee. They must have had it very tough. As the Great God Jarvis Cocker says, everybody hates a tourist.

That said, it's good to see someone at least trying to think about what 'job creation' at the bottom really means for those who have to do the jobs, and even better to see someone questioning what privatisation really means in care homes and the NHS. It was and is a brave project, but now what I'd like to see is something more like Studs Terkel's oral history work in the US, something that gives the low-paid the mike and allows them to speak for themselves. Or better still, something such as The Likes of Us, where the working class gets to write history for themselves. Well-intentioned kindly liberals can't really grasp what low-aid life is like, as Toynbee's frequent dashes back to her old life illustrate.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
The author was asked to live in poverty for the period of Lent. I agree the situation was artificial and in some ways she probably made it harder for herself by starting off the experiment with less than the majority of people would start off with. She of course could not claim Job Seekers' Allowance because she was not unemployed but she did make an effort to find out what she would have been entitled to if she really had nowhere to live and no furniture. She established what she would have to do to get a loan from the Social Fund in an interesting interview with a member of staff from the Department for Work and Pensions which showed how you really have to know the rules in order to get what you're entitled to.

She then approached a charity which provided furniture at rock bottom prices. I thought her visit to the charity was interesting as it showed the difference between what she considered essential and the items which are actually essential. I patted myself on the back that I would have had more money left over from the loan she had theoretically received. The author having furnished her flat then had to find herself a job as soon as possible knowing she had little money in reserve and would have to give up receiving benefit long before she was paid for her first week's work. This to me highlighted a major problem with the low paid - that gap between stopping benefit and being paid for your work. People doing the jobs at the bottom of the scale will usually not have savings to tide them over such a gap and bills have to be paid.

I felt her comments about spending more than she would earn for a week at the hairdressers or on a meal out served to point up the difference between the middle class and the poor rather than being patronising. The rest of the book contains descriptions of her various low paid jobs - packing cakes, working in a school kitchen, working as a hospital porter, cleaning, care assistant, nursery worker and cold calling by phone. She doesn't grumble about the jobs just points out how physically hard many of them are. She highlights many issues which seriously need addressing. Things like having to go and collect application forms rather than receiving them through the post, not being able to take contracts - or even copies of contracts - away with her, having to be at a job 15 minutes before the official start, having to go and sit and wait to see if there are any vacancies. Many of the jobs were through an agency which means an employee's rights are few and their job security non-existent.

The people she met were interesting and she really got over to me the commitment people showed to these low paid jobs. Many took a pride in their work and went the extra mile - often unpaid - to do the best they could. Many were working below their capabilities because it was nearly impossible for them to take the time out to search for another job. The majority of the people she met were women working for low wages - often below the then minimum wage - because the job fitted in with the care of their children and they didn't dare complain about pay and conditions. Employers consistently undervalue these people and do not reward them as they deserve to be rewarded.

The author highlights the stupidity of contracting out public services because you end up with workers doing the same job working side by side for different money and for different employers with different job descriptions so it is almost impossible for them to co-operate to get the job done in the best possible way. I thought the chapter about working in a care home was the most emotional and the author showed how people try and do the best for the inmates even though there are nowhere enough staff to do the job how it should be done. Was it really a good idea to hand this work over to the private sector where the main motive for the business is profit rather than service? Her interview with `Mr Jones' highlights the major problems. Profits are being made on the backs of low paid overworked staff.

Low paid jobs - in spite of the Minimum Wage - are even lower paid than they were in the 1970s relatively speaking. The Tax Credits system, while it may have boosted the income of some families - though not single people - has merely made it possible for employers to get away with paying lower wages knowing the taxpayer will make up the difference. Can this be right? Do we need to tackle this problem of low pay for essential work? Everyone would notice if all the care workers, laundry staff, cleaners, school dinner ladies went on strike but they are not unionised so this is unlikely. Employers regard staff as expendable and turnover is high. Yet if they paid more and took the time to train staff they might actually get a better job done at lower cost.

I thought this book was a real eye opener and it showed that these low paid essential jobs need to be looked at differently and the wages need to be increased even if it does mean higher prices for the rest of us. It's really a choice between higher taxes to boost the income of the lower paid or higher prices because the people doing these essential jobs are paid a proper rate for the job. Which do we want?
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
In 'Hard Work', Polly Toynbee a middle-class Guardian journalist takes up the challenge thrown to her to live life as one of the many 'working poor'. She adopts the lifestyle of an ordinary, middle-aged woman from a run-down council estate in East London.

Polly doesnt find it difficult to get employment, but the jobs are thankless, jobs that few people will lower themselves to do and the wages are so low that she is in debt from day one. Even getting to interviews, getting to work, supplying herself with a decent pair of work shoes puts into debt. Many jobs pay less than the minimum wage, and of course the banks wont touch her - but the many loan sharks operating on the estate are glad to loan her money - at hugely inflated interest rates. All of the jobs, without fail are hard work, dirty, boring and often dangerous. Polly is offered no training, no benefits, no job security.

This book highlights many many problems with today's society - although written in 2002, I am sure that most of these problems still exist - if not more. Our Government seem obsessed with getting people into work and training, yet the Government has contracted out most of it's public services, for example, hospital portering, public sector cleaners and care givers. By outsourcing this work they have given over this very important work to mainly uncaring employers who are only interested in making as much money as possible and not interested in the people that carry out the work for them - these workers that are being exploited day after day are mainly women, and mainly mothers.

Politicians have no idea of what is happening in low-paid Britain - this book highlights the disgusting state of the 'working poor' - people who work far and above the recommended working hours every week for so little pay and in terrible conditions. These are not people who are living off the state or scroungers - these are people who want to work and who want to provide for their families.

On the cover of this book, Will Hutton writes: 'Every member of the Cabinet should be required to read it, apologise and then act.' How I'd like to imagine that this has or will happen - sadly I doubt it, and this country will continue to exploit it's people - whilst speaking out about other country's human-rights issues.

This is a hard-hitting book that makes the reader realise that oh so many things are hidden from view - it's time that those in power took stock of the state of their own country before spending millions on invading other nations.
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64 of 73 people found the following review helpful
on 6 April 2003
I've never been so moved to write a review before. The contents and sentiment of this book will stay with me for long after I've put it down. Toynbee is a middle-class journalist, living a comfortable life in a fashionable part of Clapham, not having to worry about how much her weekly shop at Sainsburys comes to. As Orwell before her, she trades this in temporarily, to experience life on the minimum wage - to see how the ignored one third of the UK live. It's a chilling tale - although Toynbee never resorts to shock tactics - her story is about the millions of respectable, working people who will never escape the trap of poverty - not the minority underclass who the media always target because they make for a more dramatic story - the drug addicts, neighbours from hell and teenage criminals.
This is remarkable honest, raw writing - Toynbee reveals a great deal about herself in this book - and this adds to its power. She is not a left-wing apologist - she confesses that she likes some aspects of globalisation - at least big businesses have minimum standards to adhere to, unlike small ones. She likes shopping for pleasure, and sees nothing wrong with consumerism (environmental damage aside). The main thrust of the book - that the minimum wage must be raised is argued rationally and sensibly throughout. She also points out that inequality is related to gender, class and race - it's the "women's" jobs that tend to be the lowest paid.
In addition - this is beautifully and thoughtfully written - some of Toynbee's phrases gave me goosebumps. As a working-class boy who worked in nursing homes to supplement his university grant - a lot of what she said resonated personally with me. Good on ya Polly!
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
A passionately expressed and extensively researched study by journalist Polly Toynbee, into the lives of the poor end of society that everyone else, on the whole, would rather not have to think about.

For the sake of social experiment, Toynbee moves into one of the poorest and most destitute council estates in London and sets about attempting to live on the minimum wage, scraping by just like her neighbours and colleagues. From furnishing her flat at minimum cost from a local charity project, to surviving on less than ten pounds' worth of food for a fortnight, she aims to live authentically, taking on a variety of low-paid manual jobs, including a care home assistant, hospital porter, school cook and nursery nurse, to pay her way.

Despite her admirable goal (and a fairly admirable achievement), Toynbee never really makes her study as authentic as the blurb suggests. She doesn't actually utilise benefits services, instead paying large donations for their cooperation. She still flits back to her 'old life' as a journalist from time to time, to her nice house, when things get a bit dire. Some of the most profound moments actually stem from this, showing the difference in her two sets of wages, and the reactions of the benefit agencies to her hypothetical concerns.

This is definitely a worthwhile read, but sadly lacks grit and tails off to a disappointingly political and long-winded conclusion. Could have been done better.
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100 of 117 people found the following review helpful
on 15 April 2005
As someone who has spent a long time living in a family dependant on benefits, and having to suffer the social stigma of poverty and it's undignified nature, Polly Toynbee has written this book in order to inform others of the harshness of life at the bottom of the economic ladder, and I have a problem with it.
I work a low paid job at a supermarket, and my educational opportunities are limited and would like my voice to be heard, not a middle class person taking it upon themselves to speak for me. Yes, I do not doubt her sympathy, but that is not what many poor want; it is instead the chance to express their opnions and further their lives in a less oppressive way. Part of the problem is middle class dominance of politics, and it's reporting of it in a social context. Whatever happened to communication? Let the poor have the opportunity to speak for themselves, I am sure they would have alot to say, and it would be from a genuine perspective. Toynbee can immerse herself in it (poverty) but she is not of it.
Another thing is the negative life she imposes upon working class experience, rather than also focusing on the economic realities. I have many happy times being working class, times where myself and others have found ways to cope with our siuations in a positive way. It is not just grim estates and horrible landlords, and soul destroying work. Tell us something we don't know already. Of course she was going to find it tough, she comes from a more comfortable world, and her senses and feelings being in alien situations are going to be picking up experiences and their consequences in a more intense way. But to put it another way- yes it is good journalism, but from an unskilled, manual worker doing low paid work, and having experienced some of the things she describes in her book, it seems a bit ridiculous when someone plays at poverty for a bit in order to tell other people what it is like to live in poverty. Ask the poor themselves! We aren't stupid you know!
She goes on about the voicless and invisible. Well, she is contributing to that condition of being powerless and impotent politically.
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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on 2 October 2003
As somebody who unexpectedly found myself down and out in London from late 2001 to early 2002, I found this book complelling and true to life on the work element of the low waged poverty problem. The only caveat I have with the account is that many people rightly spot the work/welfare related causes but do not recognise that domestic causes are just as oppressive and difficult to overcome.
I was shocked to discover in London that not only is it difficult to come by even modestly paid work, the road to success is fraught with exploitative agencies, rouge employers, but also greedy private landlords and predatory moneylenders. While the book missed out on the harsh deal dealt out to those in private rented accomodation and under the scourge of door-to-door lenders (though the book does note one south London based hire purchase shop that mercilessly exploits vulnerable people on low incomes) the account of the employment based exploitation was hard hitting and accurate.
I liked the way the book talked to people face to face - for example the manager of the Care home, and the man from the DWP social fund. In fairness, the description of the Social Fund was much rosier than my experience of it.
Above all, the book points out the chilling fact that the situation is worsening. The lowest paid workers find it virtually impossible to obtain proper pay rises or greater rights, while the better off workers get huge pay hikes. Its a book that anybody involved in policy making or sociology should be forced to read.
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on 24 March 2015
“All their lives they have been working like brutes and living in poverty. Although, they have done more than their fair share of work, they have never enjoyed anything like a fair share of the thing they have helped produce”. Although, written in 1911, The Ragged Trousered

Philanthropist by Robert Tressell has strikingly, depressing similarities to Hard Work Low Pay in Britain by Polly Toynbee in 2003. Low pay workers are still working like brutes and surviving hand to mouth in a system that sustains poverty and work precarity. They are the “Invisible Workforce” who slave for contract service firms, their official numbers unknown and their rights rarely mentioned in public discourse. Condemned to work long, hard hours on a minimum wage that never allows them to raise above the poverty line.

Polly Toynbee a middle class journalist for the Guardian newspaper sets out to explore the lives of this “invisible workforce” or as she terms “Low Pay Britain”. The idea of the book came from a phrase in the Church Action on Poverty leaflet. “Could you survive lent on the minimum wage?” Which at the time was £4.10 per hour or £164 per week. In the 1970’s, Toynbee undertook a similar endeavour when she researched British working conditions throughout the country and took on whatever job she could find. 30 years on seems like an ideal time to revisit and compare conditions. This time she takes up short stints in a variety of bottom of the rung, low paid positions, such as a kitchen porter, sales rep., nursery assistant, carer and dinner lady.

The unfairness and inequality of society soon becomes apparent when she leaves her Victorian home and travels the short distance to Clapham Park Estate, one of the largest and poorest estates of the London boroughs. The proximately of great wealth to destitute poverty is close geographically but there is a huge difference socially and economically for the poor

who live on the wrong side of the tracks. There is a social exclusion, reinforced by the meagre earnings on the minimum wage. Toynbee sees this as a “No Entry Sign on every ordinary pleasure… is a harsh apartheid.” Toynbee questions a society that plants the illusion that if you work hard you can achieve anything. When in reality low pay British workers struggle in and out of low pay jobs with absolutely no hope of social mobility. Access to health care, education and owning ones house is out of their reach. The only solution for the Low Paid to obtain the “ordinary pleasures” is through credit. Toynbee on her first day soon discovers that the poor become a prisoner of this debt, as greedy loan sharks take advantage of the vulnerable. Since banks will not touch the low paid, their only solution is to take credit from unscrupulous lenders. She also discovers that getting a job puts you into debt. Getting to the interview, getting to the job and paying for a decent pair of work shoes puts you in debt.

Toynbee is descriptive and captures conversations well at her various low paid positions. Finding these jobs is surprisingly easy but they are all short term, between one day and a week. Conditions are terrible, with little training, opt-out clauses for long hours and deductions for uniforms and work materials. Toynbee observes that the flexible working conditions allow service contractors to squeeze every last penny out of the workers. Contracting firm’s main goal is their profit margin and not the health and safety of its workers or clients. The proliferation of contracting firms is the outcome of the devolution of the public sector by the English Government. The outsourcing of these jobs to private contractors has led to a highly competitive environment where service and employment conditions are poor. While working as a carer Toynbee was particularly outraged by the low pay and lack of training received for such important work. Workers were forced to work without the basic, necessities needed to perform adequate care because of the profit pinching tactics of the firm. The small print of a contracting employment agreements contain mainly

clauses that save the firm money and provides loopholes to pay below the minimum wage. The contractor keeps their workers as agency staff, which removes liability and any legal obligation to pay overtime, holiday pay or pensions. Toynbee particularly attacks employment agencies, who stand between the employee and any reprievable company. The agency staff are a sub tier workers, looked down upon by full time employees, who are annoyed by the never, ending training process for the revolving door of agency workers.

The book highlights how society views the various roles she undertook. Most of the positions were caring roles, positions which would be seen as woman’s work. Society seems to demand that women’s or caring work should be done for free. There is a gender prejudice operating in defining merit and the value of these positions. Many of these roles in services depend on subsidiaries and further enforce the devaluing of the labour, as the employer does not have to offer a decent wage. Toynbee captures conversations well and we get a sense that people in these roles are not generally lazy and want to be employed, even in these terrible conditions.

Toynbee argues that inefficient employers should be pushed out of the market and not offered help from the Government. She advocates for large business as she believes they are better organised and offer better employment conditions. I am not sure if this is the correct solution, as large firms are the culprits who have set the standard of flexible working and wage stagnation in a highly competitive economy. Investment in human capital and a change in society’s perception of these types of job would help improve worker conditions.

On the cover of this book, Will Hutton writes: 'Every member of the Cabinet should be required to read it, apologise and then act.' How I'd like to imagine this but sadly I doubt the Government will raise the minimum wage to a liveable rate. A rate at the time Toynbee writes is below the poverty line.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 6 April 2010
A great story and essential read for anyone making strategic or employment decisions in the public or private sector. Being ethical is not just about buying fairtrade begins at home!
A thought-provoking glimpse into the life and hard times of hospital porters, school dinner assistants, bakery workers and those who look after your children or the frail elderly... and the agencies who place them. This compelling account has enough detail of everyday life to suggest solutions, and the broader detail of social history to put it in context.
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Being unemployed, I read this book hoping that Polly focused primarily on her observations without too much analysis of causes and solutions. Sadly, politics dominate the book, but that's not the only problem.

In order to simulate a life of poverty, Polly created a completely artificial scenario that made things far worse than they would be for most people. She found accommodation (in a run-down tower block) that desperately needed furnishing, but without a starting allowance. While some people may find themselves in such a situation, I suspect that it's only a small minority. For example, when I was made redundant in 2002, I still had my rented accommodation, my possessions and some money. I still have the first two although I have much less money these days. Polly decided that she was going to get a job come what may and created a bogus CV, necessary for her purpose but not an option for me. Polly was able to use her real name as it's not her professional name. Polly also regarded a lot of things as necessities that aren't. By contrast, I adjusted gradually to a lower standard of living as I suspect most people do.

Since coming out of bankruptcy (something caused by taking out a huge loan six months before my redundancy), I simply remember when the big bills are due (every three months for the telephone, every six months for the water) and plan accordingly. I don't have a TV because the annual licence fee is a pernicious tax, but I can visit a betting office to see the big races (the aspect of TV that I most miss) although I rarely bet these days. Radio serves me well for news and sport. I do without home heating and when it gets really cold , I either hide under the duvet, go downtown or have a hot bath, all cheaper than heating a room for several hours. These and other sacrifices allow me a limited budget for books and music, but even then I am price-conscious. Life on benefits isn't great for me, but it's worse for some people, especially those with small families.

There are many problems relating to long-term unemployment that cannot be simulated including the re-training schemes (particularly New Deal, for which I prefer the description Raw Deal), the limited range of subsidised training courses and the even more limited capabilities of the agencies to understand individual needs (Next Step, a government agency, tried to put me on a NHS course but the NHS said I was over-qualified), the periodic jobcentre interviews, the checking-up in between, the impact of bankruptcy and so much more. The housing benefit system doesn't allow monthly payments, so as the landlord refuses to accept payments directly, I get 12/13 of my monthly rent every four weeks leaving me to pay the difference. Yes, there's a once-a-year bonus month but I'd rather have monthly payments without a bonus month.

Polly took a series of jobs in a short space of time (obviously for journalistic needs; I'll allow her that much) in order to get an idea of how hard some people have to work for pitiful wages, spread over several industries. The fascination of this book for me lies in the description of some of the condition under which people sometimes have to work, not least being the one-copy employmennt contract. If this isn't illegal, it certainly ought to be. In the days when I was able to find employment, there were always two copies, one for the employer and one for myself. I was always able to read my copy at home before signing, and keep it thereafter for reference. It seems that some agencies expect people to sign contracts that they can only study in the agency's office, but not take home. The system is clearly designed to stop people showing it to anybody who might make life awkward for the employer. I can only hope that I never end up desperate enough to sign such a contract. Polly also highlights a number of other issues that are useful to know.

I'd be interested to see how easy it would be for Polly to get a menial job using her real CV. My experiences suggest that employers seeking to fill such vacancies don't like taking on people with a history of well-paid jobs (in my case, as a computer programmer), preferring candidates accustomed to menial work. Meanwhile, the shortage of IT staff is a myth. Employers could fill such vacancies with people like me who could do the work but need re-training. Employers won't fund such training, nor will the government.

The book is good at highlighting some specific housing and employment problems but Polly's artificial scenario, only a little of which (the fake CV and rapid job turnover) was necessary for journalistic purposes, together with the large amount of unnecessary political dogma, detract substantially from what could have been a great book. If Polly had stuck to the facts as she saw them, letting readers make up their own minds about causes and solutions, I could have sympathized with her inability to adjust.

If you have an interest in the subject, this book is worth reading despite its limitations. One way or another, it will make you angry, whether you direct that anger at employers, governments, journalists or all of them.
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