Tendance Coatesy

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Hired. Six Months Undercover in Low-wage Britain. James Bloodworth. The Must-Read of the Year.

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Hired. Six Months Undercover in Low-wage Britain. James Bloodworth. Atlantic Books. 2018.

Over the weekend it was reported that last year there were just 79 strikes, the lowest number since 1893. Union membership continues to decline.

The GMB, meanwhile, stated that ambulances had been called to Amazon warehouses at least 600 times in the last 3 years. On half of these occasions patients had to be taken at hospital. The union put some of the blame on the severe working conditions that company enforces on its employees.

James Bloodworth begins Hired in an Amazon warehouse – the size of ten football pitches – in Rugeley, “a place with the atmosphere of what I imagined a prison would be like”. Feel-good slogans were plastered on the walls saying that everybody was having a wonderful time. The workers, mostly Eastern European, were brought there by agencies, who hammered home that they could be sacked the instant they made any trouble. The work as “pickers” – in hard shifts – meant, “dashing around”. There was no real contract and no there were no real rights. People were under a full-time “cloud of suspicion”. Wages – for the author £227 a week but regularly underpaid, or involving tax shambles – barely kept up with ordinary expenses. Not to mention the rent to rapacious landlords.

Bloodworth got to know some of the migrants, from Romania. Life in their country was “bullshit”. If they were slaves in the UK, they still had money. These “anonymous foreign drudges” were like H.G.Wells’ Morlocks, while the customers dwelt, like the Eloi, enjoying cheap products.

Hired  is about  a world in which very few people are real Eloi. In Blackpool working for a company supplying care workers as council services have crumbled over the years, Carewatch, Bloodworth comes across the homeless. He sees an old man “buried under a pile of corrugated cardboard and bin liners”. In Blackpool’s main library there are people “who had been sent like badly behaved children to ‘job club’. There were the down-and-outs there too, “holding filthy carrier bags”, some falling asleep to be thrown back onto the streets. At moments like this you realise that only a comparison with George Orwell’s best writing will do.

The home caring job with the elderly came with heart-rending incidents. A colleague who told of having to deal with a client “with basically her bowels hanging out”. Payments, as with Amazon, were again a problem. Some migrant workers employed found the English needed for the job near impossible.

South Wales.

Bloodworth explores the Welsh Valley based Call Centre Admiral in cafés and drinking in Ebbw Vale Wetherspoons he hears the rancour of people left behind by the closure of the mines. As in Rugeley there is fear of migrants, and the targeting of Europe for the “pain inflicted over recent decades.”

Hired comes across many Leave voters. But “taking back control”, was not just a product of resentment at migration, unemployment, precarious jobs, and minimum wages. It was, we could note, promoted by the Sovereigntists of the left, and those who considered it a “transitional demand” to install the chaos that would lead to a left Brexit (Brexit). This was not just against the interest of the South Wales communities, whose remaining social projects were funded by the EU. For many workers, and all the major unions, this disruption would snarl up the supply, production and distribution chains that keep what is left of the country’s industry going. The present state of Brexit proves the case for Remain. The right-wing nationalists, who were its real promoters, have drowned any Lexit  (Left Brexit) voice out.

The book concludes with first-hand experience with the ‘gig economy’ of Uber and others in London. Here the workers, in the shape of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) were fighting back, establishing a collective bargaining agreement with Deliveroo.

Trade Unions.

A major theme in Hired is the contrast between the strength of the trade unions before Thatcher and today’s deregulated (that is, regulated by the managers of companies) labour market. Perhaps the example of former mining communities is too strong tot transport to London. My friends in 1970s London worked for cleaning agencies where conditions were not too far off today’s poorly paid posts under heavy surveillance. And the gig economy is not that new. I myself spent a Christmas period as an (illegal) stallholder flogging puzzle rings in Oxford Street., paid cash in hand. Nor were unions that powerful. A shop-steward friend of my parents got sacked from a big engineering company in the Lee Valley for union militancy. The AEU did not get his position back.

The book is the first I have read about modern Britain that talks about the world I live in. It speaks about people I know working in warehouses, to those catching what they can in short term jobs, the experiences of care-workers, the treatment of the out-of-work, to the lives of migrants.  There are cheap stores, like B & M, both where people work for another group of grinders and where we often shop. Bloodworth maps up the incomes and costs of how people get by, the constant worries and the little hopes and pleasures that keep them going. If he is perceived as an outsider, he has clearly touched ground. To those who might question how Bloodworth knows the details of their difficulties one can only say: this is what people talk about.

In low-wage Britain problems do not comes from an “ill educated working class” – terms that, given the intelligence of my mates, would make them laugh. Increased social mobility, meritocracy, is not the answer. The heart of the inequalities generated by the economy has to be tackled. They are fostered by deliberate political choice. The first response lies in exactly the daily grind of trade union politics, for rights, for good conditions, and, above all, for solidarity between diverse groups in their common interest. A Labour government would have to begin by strengthening union power. 

I expected Hired to be good. 

It exceeds that.

It is the essential read of the year.

Every trade unionist and socialist should get hold of it.

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Written by Andrew Coates

June 4, 2018 at 11:29 am

16 Responses

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  1. […] Coates (at Tendance Coatesy) is enthused by James Bloodworth’s new book on low pay and precarious […]

  2. I’ll get the book when it’s remaindered which won’t be long. Mr Bloodworth seems to be of the opinion that there was a period when, in this country, there was full well paid employment because of the trades unions, no housing crisis because there were enough council houses for everyone and social harmony. He is of course a complete and utter idiot.`

    Dave Roberts

    June 4, 2018 at 8:14 pm

  3. Yup, could not agree with you more Dave.
    I can remember during the Thatcher years, almost every other week, her or one of her ministers were moaning about the greedy trade unions holding the country to ransom with their excessive wage demands.
    So much for her weakening the unions. By 1990, even the hard left admitted that those in work were better off than they had been in 1979. Though I had to laugh at the claim that you are better off under Labour. Given that unemployment is always higher when the labour party always leaves office, than when they took office, it’s a claim that is hard to square.

    Steven Johnston

    June 4, 2018 at 8:52 pm

  4. I agree Dave, he just trots out the same old tired arguments. Praising the period 1945 – 1975 to the skies. Conveniently ignoring 1976 when it all fell apart, under a Labour government.

    Steven Johnston

    June 5, 2018 at 9:42 am

  5. There certainly were more secure jobs, and in unionised places workers had more rights than today. The social security safetynet meant there were not people begging in the streets and the only homeless people I saw were in the Hostels, such as the one in next to the Oasis Swimming Pool in Holborn or at the Sally Army Stall under Waterloo Bridge.

    Certainly there plenty of causal unregulated jobs in London, as I indicate (and could go on about in much greater detail) and people could live in the kind of tips in which he describes migrant workers housed today. Council housing was not always exactly great, though one of my friend’s parents (he was an electrician, her brother was the Renaissance keyboard player, John Tout) lived in a brilliant gaff in Tufnell Park. In the 70s there was also massive squatting movement, which, despite myths, was by no means just by students slumming – I am thinking of some of the big estates squatted.

    The expression The Forward Movement of labour captures the sense that we could improve things, a vision we need at the moment.

    Andrew Coates

    June 5, 2018 at 11:10 am

  6. Only the single and friendless from affluent areas would fail to recognise picture painted by this book and post.

    Boleyn Ali

    June 5, 2018 at 2:16 pm

  7. This has already been done by Poly Toynbee – Hard Work: Life In Low Pay Britain.

    PT

    June 5, 2018 at 3:02 pm

  8. Review: Hard Work: Life in Low-Pay Britain
    by Polly Toynbee

    “Except towards anti-materialist globo kids and the “reckless militancy” of unions before the fall, Toynbee has barely any hate at all. Why would she, as someone who begins by saying, “In all my life I have never experienced one moment’s financial insecurity” and concludes – heightened awareness and arguments for raising the minimum wage notwithstanding – right where she started? She is offended, not by inequality or even by greed, neither of them being “as socially corrosive as lack of empathy”. Let the rich pay a bit more for services and meals out, she cries. The poor will not be so poor, and the rich more comfortable in their condescension. The politics of sympathy are liberalism’s special grace. There is always the noble victim, the guilt-flecked solution, the gesture towards collective progress and the certainty of class privilege that trumps it all.”

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/feb/15/highereducation.news

    Having spoken/been interviewed by Toynbee I would say that this is a fair judgement, though the author of the review, JoAnn Wypijewski, writes for the Red-Brown Counterpunch and the toff-left in-house journal New Left Review.

    Andrew Coates

    June 5, 2018 at 3:44 pm

  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Venezuela

    So what went wrong when they tried it here?
    Oh wait, don’t tell me, it is all the fault of the America!

    Steven Johnston

    June 6, 2018 at 9:28 am

  10. I’m glad you referred to the squatting movement of the 70’s. Andrew. Do give a link to The Secret History of Our Streets episode six which deals with the massive Bangladeshi squatting movement of the seventies which consolidated that community in East London. It’s about half way through although the whole series is excellent on gentrification.

    Dave Roberts

    June 6, 2018 at 5:28 pm

  11. What I don’t get is, if it was all so wonderful, why did people vote, in 1979 for Fatcher, who must have brought the party to an end?
    Also, If the Labour party were going to bring it all back, why did they lose the 1983 election?

    Steven Johnston

    June 7, 2018 at 9:05 am

  12. A national embracing of Sadomasochism is what brought the party to an end. Guilt was the driving force behind this reversion. Human beings are only able to live in a state of bliss for so long. What seems like perpetual happiness soon begin to feel like Hell. As a nation we had lost our ability to feel pain: collective pain. And it is collective pain which draws people and nations together. Sadomasochism and Mrs T were the antidote, the lancing of the bliss boil, a natural counterbalance acting to, and deep-rooted, base desire within the human psyche to an over extended period of happiness.

    Dante's Inferno

    June 7, 2018 at 11:04 am

  13. Dante, but we get back to the old chicken & egg question. Which came first? Did we will a Thatcher into existence to lance this boil or was she already waiting to lance it, when the time was right?
    But I don’t blame the Conservatives for lancing it, we gave them the mandate at it was under them, from 1951 to 1964 that we “never had it so good”. So fair is fair, what they gave with one hand they can take with the other.

    Steven Johnston

    June 7, 2018 at 1:03 pm

  14. Dante, which came first then? Thatcher or our collective desire to lance the bliss boil? If the Conservatives did lance it then fair enough, we gave them the mandate to do it and its thanks to them, from 1951 to 1964, that we never had it so good. They gave us the welfare state too, in 1944. German conservatives gave the World the first NHS in the 1880s so they are not all bad!

    Steven Johnston

    June 7, 2018 at 2:38 pm

  15. Dave. Re: The Secret History of Our Streets. BBC iPlayer has I think still a programme about Brixton squats in the 70s/80s. I think Andrew saw it too? Back then Lambeth would allow squatting in empty council flats too, which I how come me and a mate got someone of our own to live in.


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