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Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain
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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…..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.
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on 5 December 2012
Excellent book, actually reprising former MP Matthew Parrish's attempt to live on minimum wage or benefit decades ago. He couldn't do it either! - lived on sausages and mash and cheap cereal and bread for the entire time.

Delivery was prompt and the book - second-hand - was in every bit as good a condition as promised.
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on 12 June 2013
I borrowed this book from the library several times, bought a copy, lent it to someone, didn't get it back and just had to buy another copy. Really thought-provoking
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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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on 19 February 2011
Exactly. I'm not into any political debate, I don't follow their issues. I'm barely an observer. And without focusing on author's political background and views (I know it may be hard for some, yet I tried to be objective), this is bloody good book. I do work for described by Polly company, known as "Carillion". And yes, I am a hospital porter. Different year and place, yet similarities just struck me like ligthning in the face. Enough said. Worth reading.
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on 25 August 2011
Polly Toynbee works in a variety of low-paid jobs and lives in a substandard council flat, in order to experience at first-hand the realities of the sort of life that so many people are forced to live. She paints a vivid picture of the hard work and unsocial hours, the financial hardships, the lack of job security, and the terribly low value society places on these jobs, most of which are essential to society's functioning. She gives a political and social context to the jobs, looking at the inflexibility and complexities of the systems surrounding them, which make it very difficult for people in this situation ever to make any changes in their life. She is particularly concerned about the current trend to outsource public sector jobs to the private sector, and employ people as agency workers, which takes away many of their traditional rights and safeguards. I found it a brilliant book, consistently holding the interest as she describes her experience of the various jobs, benefits system, and council housing system, while drawing very shrewd and thoughtful lessons on changes that could and should be made to improve things. A book everyone should read.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 4 January 2004
Hard Work is the British version of Nickel and Dimed and Toynbee does justice to the genre. Toynbee works mind-numbing jobs that pay just enough to keep her in poverty. She packages pastries and cleans hotel rooms, she lives in a squalid flat she can barely afford, and she tries to make ends meet on minimum wage. It is very depressing.
Toynbee finds that being one of the working poor is to be defeated at every turn. When she gets her dark, damp, unfurnished flat, she has to borrow money from the Housing Authority to furnish it because she won't get paid until she has been working for at least two weeks. She can't make an appointment to see the doctor because her job doesn't allow any paid time off. She can't try to get a better job because all the employers want to schedule interviews during her work hours (and she can't afford to take time off) or they want her to devote the day to waiting for an interview. She can't even make her views as a voter known, because to get to the voting station would mean unpaid time off from work, or an hour on the bus and in line waiting to vote after a 10-hour shift on her feet.
Life is a constant Catch-22 and she finally admits defeat when she has to move out of her apartment because the building's front door doesn't lock, there are drug dealers in the lobby, and she can't afford a phone.
In between descriptions of her alternate life in the slum, she splices discussions of the politics behind the policies regarding wages and poverty in Great Britain. Even for someone who isn't familiar with British government, it is very clear. It is also obvious that we in America have a lot in common with Britain.
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on 14 December 2014
This is the first book of Polly Toynbee that I've read, and I've fairly recently started to follow her writings on the guardian. I find Polly quite amusing, she acknowledges that she has a lot of money and is far better off than the majority of people living in the UK but yet she is still so passionate about fighting for those who are less fortunate than she is.

Some parts of the book I really loved, like the start of her time living on minimum wage and trying to set up her flat etc, and the things that she struggled with, or without during the time. I'd of really liked to hear more about that side of things. The work that she did was interestingly written about and at times very sad. Being Polly Toynbee there is a lot about politics and a lot of well researched info and figures. Very interesting to read, even many years after it was written (I would like to know how things compare now) but I'd of liked more of a personal story about it all too.
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on 1 August 2013
I would strongly recommend this title.
Rated. An in depth read for enquiring minds
I give it the highest accolade.
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on 9 February 2014
I enjoyed this book and found it very interesting and informative about how difficult it can be to get a job when on benefits.
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