Ze’ev Portner works as a part-time law lecturer at New Buckinghamshire University, and on the topic of insecurity in the ‘gig economy.’
If one wishes to get to the root of why populism in Britain currently has such an appeal, whether it is the populism of the Brexiteers or the Corbynistas, one must get to grips with what much of the country is like today. One in 20 people live on the minimum wage, nearly two and a half million people who are self-employed have a weekly wage below the minimum weekly wage, and, while there are record levels of employment, an increasing proportion of this work is poorly paid, precarious and without regular hours
If you want to engage with this experience, as you should, James Bloodworth has written the book to read. For, as history has shown, the roots of populism can be traced back to poor working conditions and living standards. In Hired: Six Months Undercover In Low-Wage Britain, he chronicles in a very graphic manner the daily reality of millions of Britons who are trapped in low-paid, insecure jobs in the ‘gig economy,’ on zero-hour contracts, who are exploited on a daily basis with few employment rights. As Bloodworth points out, “working for five hours a week may keep you off the government’s unemployment figures, but it is not necessarily sufficient to pay the rent.”
And for those in full-time work, more and more private sector companies are no longer paying sick pay, but merely statutory sick pay of £92.05 a week. How can anyone live off such a meagre amount whilst sick? This leads to tremendous injustices, with employees working whilst sick because they can’t afford to take time off because they will lose pay. It also leads to cruelty. An employee of a major high street law firm with numerous branches in the South East who suffered a broken leg as a result of a road accident, and who was clearly off sick through no fault of her own, was offered a loan by the firm to cover her time off which she was expected to pay back.
Exploitation is rampant. Stewards who work at Premier League football clubs for private security companies have to sign in an hour early before they start getting paid and there are numerous occasions where even when the steward arrives on time he or she is sent home with no pay as the security company has overbooked on its numbers. There are paralegals in law firms left dangling for a year and half on minimum pay before they are finally told whether they will be offered a training contract or not.
For too many people in Britain there is the insecurity of not knowing whether one has a job from one day to the next. The mental stress this causes is tremendous and immeasurable. We truly live in Dickensian times.
Bloodworth worked in an Amazon warehouse in Rugeley, Staffordshire. Until he mentions he is working at an Amazon warehouse, the reader is left wondering aloud whether he is actually working in a prison – with Amazon workers in effect getting only 15 minutes of lunch break to guzzle down stodgy food, where to be underpaid is the norm, where shifts last ten and a half hours, and where in this Darwinist world to be sick is considered to be an unpardonable sin caused by laziness, and where your every movement is monitored through a hand-held electronic device. Very Orwellian.
He then worked in Blackpool as a care worker. It is the norm for Home Office security checks to take two to three months, so care workers could end up with no pay for that period of time. In Blackpool, he struck up a rapport with a homeless individual called Gary who informed him that he always sleeps near a CCTV camera as a deterrent against people “kicking his head in” whilst asleep. A Shelter report in 2016 stated that one in three families in England could not afford to pay their rent or mortgage for longer than one month if they lost their job.
Bloodworth also worked at a call centre for Admiral in South Wales, which he described as “sheer tedium”. He finally ended up back in London as a driver for Uber, a company that has tried to avoid paying its staff minimum pay and holiday entitlement by defining its workforce as independent contractors.
Social justice should matter to people of all parties and none. Theresa May’s social justice agenda has been blown off course by the stresses and strains of the Brexit negotiations, but if the Government were seriously to tackle social injustice, many Labour voters would be tempted to support the Conservative Party. I speak as someone who has been a member of the Labour Party for 25 years, but cannot support Labour as long as Corbyn is Leader of the Party.
The truth of the matter is that there is no-one in politics today speaking up on behalf of the millions of Britons trapped in low-wage, insecure jobs, and this presents an opportunity for the Conservative Party. The middle class Corbynistas are more concerned, as Bloodworth points out, with the rights of Palestinians than they are with working conditions to be found in an Amazon warehouse in Staffordshire.
Since the era of Benjamin Disraeli, the idea of two nations has been on the political agenda. Millions of ordinary Britons wake up in the morning and ask the following question: How shall I keep myself alive? The Conservative Party should go back to its one nation roots and promote social justice for the millions of Britons trapped in low paid insecure jobs. It is the right thing to do and it is a vote winner.