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“All their lives they have been working like brutes and living in poverty
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…..it 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.