Millions are taking jobs no rational person looking to maintain a family or build a career would normally consider.
In her wonderful web essay on why the poor make terrible decisions, Linda Tirado said that only if her readers could imagine having no options would they understand why so many chose self-destruction. Why sleep with men who will abandon you if you fall pregnant? Enjoy the momentary hit of tobacco smoke on the back of your throat or the sugar rush of junk food? Why take out debt at usurious rates of interest or work for employers who will only exploit you?
Because, said Tirado, long-term planning and delayed gratification become pointless when you will never have enough money whatever you do. “It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to.”
Tirado fell into poverty in Ohio. But what the Americans call the destruction of the middle class is proceeding briskly here, although most politicians and commentators are still struggling to understand the confused society we are moving to. The worst recession since the 1930s ought to have produced mass unemployment. Yet the numbers in work have risen.
After years of stagnation under the inept management of George Osborne, the British economy is growing, which sounds good news until you learn that living standards are still falling and therefore the boom can’t last.
The terrible choices the labour market is forcing people to make explain Britain’s contradictions. Millions are taking jobs that no rational person looking to maintain a family let alone build a career would consider. You might think, for instance, that when you were on a zero-hours contacts skivvying for a catering operation you could not sink any lower. But consider this account Louise Brady gave the Guardian of her life working in the kitchens of the Tate art galleries. “I felt I had to prove myself all the time,” she said.
Only compliant workers who proved themselves worthy by waiting on tables at short notice, coming in when they were ill, buying and washing their own outfits and cleaning up after the Tate’s black-tie events in their own time, would get enough shifts to live on. In theory she and her fellow workers could join a union, and confront the Tate’s managers. In practice, they were each other’s enemies competing for their overlords’ favours. She had to comply or her wretched conditions would worsen.
The growing sectors of the economy are hotels and restaurants, retail and care – all of them poorly paid and insecure. As most of us will become old and feeble, you might have thought that selfishness alone would ensure that we recruited well-trained and motivated people to care for the sick and elderly. Not so. An investigation by the Resolution Foundation showed care workers racing across cities for visits of just 15 minutes per patient.
One, Janice from Newcastle, described how she had to choose between walking out when her fixed time was up and leaving an elderly patient hungry and dirty, or staying on her own time. (She stayed because: “He begged me to assist him and I just can’t say no.”) The care contractors do not pay her and her colleagues for travelling between clients. They therefore work from 7am to 10pm, earning less than the minimum wage, although no one in authority cares about that.
Any true friend of Louise or Janice would tell them to stuff the Tate or tell the care company to go to hell and move away from a destructive life. But where to? Another zero-hours contract? Another employer the law allows to behave as if employment protection legislation does not exist? For millions “moving on” now means moving into self-employment, which does not sound so bad. Unfortunately, the stirring image “self-employment” evokes of the British turning into a nation of entrepreneurs is fake.
Now, as in the past, there are many self-employed people we do not need to worry about: barristers, financial consultants, the owners of thriving businesses and elderly people making a little money to supplement their pensions. But the extraordinary rise in self-employment to one in every seven workers is not a sign of a buccaneering people rising like lions from their slumbers. The self-employed are earning less and less. Their weekly income is 20% lower than in 2006. Many work in education and healthcare, and follow careers that would have once have guaranteed staff jobs but now lead to a life of hustling for casual shifts. To talk of the self-employed combining with their colleagues to improve their conditions, meanwhile, makes no sense. They have no colleagues. They work, but don’t go to a workplace.
The difficulties of any kind of solidarity in our times are captured in the Dardenne brothers latest film Two Days, One Night (which you can watchon the Curzon website if you do not have an art house cinema showing the latest from the Belgium avant garde at the end of your road). Marion Cotillard plays a mother, who returns to work after an illness to find that the management have told her colleagues that they will have a bonus if they agree to her dismissal. Cotillard spends the weekend trying to persuade them to allow her to stay. What makes the film so truthful are the regretful explanations of colleagues that, much as they would like to help, they are caught up in debt and cannot turn down the chance of a bonus.
It is an illusion to suppose that hard times inevitably lead to a revival of left-wing ideas. Ground-down people look to themselves and their families and forget about others. If that was how it was in the past, how much harder will it be to achieve reform today when workers are too isolated to even think about collective action?
Maybe not as hard as it appears. Most of the worst employers are in service industries, which do not face global competition. Catering at the Tate and social care in Newcastle cannot be outsourced to India or China. A radical Labour government could tackle them without worrying about companies moving overseas. It could increase the minimum wage and impose better conditions. When Labour first introduced a minimum wage in the 1990s the right boomed terrifying predictions that jobs would vanish and companies go bust. As it was, companies survived by reducing profits and pay differentials. The world did not end. In fact, the world barely noticed. Despite the isolation and collapse in solidarity, and the terrible self-defeating choices forced on millions of people, change is not only desirable but perfectly possible.
The Observer, Saturday 30 August 2014