Six months working in the bargain basement of the British economy almost finished James Bloodworth off. His inside account is a shocking insight into the dystopian practices that govern the new working class, who are working harder than ever for their poverty.
“We are living in a world in which nobody is free, in which hardly anybody is secure, in which it is almost impossible to be honest and to remain alive.”
George Orwell – The Road to Wigan Pier –
Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain by James Bloodworth: Atlantic.
For too long, members of the commentariat have reported on the ‘Westminster Bubble’ from the cosy confines of Westminster. Politicians speak of the need to listen to the much patronised ‘left-behinds’ without offering a solution rooted in first-hand experience of the same communities. This is not a new problem. In 1936, George Orwell set out on his hellish Road to Wigan Pier to enhance his own minimal understanding of poverty, in order to “take up a definitive attitude on the terribly difficult issue of class.” When Orwell joined the miners down the pit, he was suddenly struck by “what different universes people inhabit.” What he found in the slum towns of England shocked and appalled him. But his greatest fear was that the country, and the socialists in particular, were blissfully unaware of the conditions and “would even prefer not to hear about it.”
Were George Orwell alive today, he would find himself with the care workers, Amazon pickers and call centre operatives that make up Britain’s hidden workforce. These people are the subjects of reality TV shows such as The Call Centre and hard-hitting Panorama exposes; of long-read magazine essays and left-wing comment pieces. Yet few within the media mingle and work amongst them. James Bloodworth’s Hired: Six Months Undercover In Low Wage Britain shines a light on the modern workforce that few have taken the time to really understand. He takes on ‘bullshit’ jobs at an Amazon warehouse in Rugeley, a call centre in South Wales, as a care worker in Blackpool and finally as an Uber driver in London. Hats off to Bloodworth for beginning his journey in early 2016, when the ‘left behinds’ were mearly a twinkle in Boris Johnson’s opportunistic eye.
In Hired, Bloodworth immerses himself within a world epitomised by ‘tyrannical landlords, bad bosses and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.’ At Amazon he is tagged with an electronic device and monitored to ensure he walks the requisite 15 miles per day, to ensure cheap products arrive at your front door. His Romanian colleagues ask “Why you do this fucking shit? Why don’t you get another job? You English.” Shocked that a British person would put up with the conditions, they are the low skilled workers that Labour refused to talk about for many years. The recruitment agencies that supplied Eastern European workers to Amazon warn Bloodworth that there is a large number of other ready and amenable workers to take his place, should he step out of line.
As well as the day-to-day exploitation, Bloodworth taps into the sheer mundaneness of low paid work. When he takes on a job in a call centre, he is “bombarded with positivity and contrived wackiness” and told “We like to have a laugh” by the David Brent inspired boss. It’s all part of the faux ‘workplace experience’ that looks to make up for terrible wages with free breakfasts, beanbags, slides and ‘chill out’ rooms. The line between work and pleasure is redrawn as we are forced to spend more time there. But this is not Google. And the workers have no reason to be cheerful. The middle class professional believes that they are paid a higher wage to accept less freedom, to be at the beck and call of that dreaded work email at 7pm. Many are deluded that the pay off for a low skilled job is more freedom. At Amazon, Bloodworth is mandated to take a drugs test, which is used to lay off workers at a later date. Drug tests in low paid work are the scandal of our time. Imagine if every city workplace forced employees to take monthly drugs tests. London and Manchester are fuelled by cocaine lunches and hedonistic weekends. Being a ‘weekend warrior’ to ‘de-stress’ is greatly encouraged. Yet it is the poor who have the most to escape from who are now prevented from doing so.
As well as a restriction on recreational drug use, the rising cost of working class activities like gigs, football and the cinema, ensure that workers are forced to escape into other forms of indulgence. At Amazon, Bloodworth walked fifteen miles a day, but still managed to put on a stone. He argues that the stress of low pay work compels you to a “momentary morale boost” of chocolate or a well-earned post-work McDonalds. He contrasts this with the acceptable middle class notion of rewarding oneself with a ‘treat’ after completing a task. Just as Orwell did 80 years ago, Bloodworth is at his best when he attacks the cosy world of identity politics and the middle class who despise working class culture. Just last month, Michael Portillo argued on This Week that poverty no longer exits because ‘obesity is a problem of the poor’. He also argued that ‘people now have shoes’ – which I’m sure Bloodworth was grateful for as he toiled through a ten-hour shift.
In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell looks at a piece of coal and admits that he knows little of its journey to his fireplace. Back then, few had knowledge of the herculean efforts undertaken to keep the country fuelled. In 2018, every consumer has the opportunity to read about worker exploitation in the ‘gig’ economy. As we hail the Uber or order that cut price book, we understand the conditions that brought it to our front door. Many know and fully understand the Amazon working practices and have no interest in boycotting it. Should the care worker on less than the minimum wage go out of their way to pay extra for a product or a taxi? In using the services we can all convince ourselves that we are exploited in the marketplace together. That includes many low paid workers who enjoy the fruits of cheap produce and ease of having their relatives cared for by an un-trained stranger. Bloodworth writes of the people who are engaged, informed and articulate about the situation they are in, but for many low paid workers class consciousness does not exist. They wake up, they go to work, they get on with it with a smile and a joke. They go home to their lives and don’t think about work until its time to clock on again. Bloodworth does allude to this, arguing that “Thatcherism’s greatest success was probably in the gradual erosion of class solidarity.”
Underpinning the whole process is a lack of control over day-to-day life. De-regulation has ended the job for life, particularly at the low-end. Many people within the care sector for example, are signed up to three or four agencies in order to ensure they can work a full 40 hours. If you do manage to get your foot in the door, workers are beholden to an array of faceless external agencies as to whether they can feed themselves at the end of the week; the bureaucrats who delay the DBS checks, the managers who can readily drop shifts, the external company that forgets to log your time sheet correctly and on and on it goes. It is no wonder that the ‘Take Back Control’ message struck such an accord in the most deprived communities in Britain. Yet there is little in Hired that will change the entrenched views on Britain’s future. For a Brexiter, it offers a devastating critique of the insecurity of open door immigration and the Single Market. If you are a Remainer, it offers a glimpse to the dystopian future of further deregulation as we leave the EU.
Indeed, if the exiled moderates within British politics want to win the next battle over the future of Britain, the solution, one suspects, does not lie in coming down hard on Amazon and Uber. The companies have had great success in exploiting the low pay and desperation in post-industrial heartlands. Soon though, it will be cheaper to have no workers at all. It is from this position that many on the left have proposed the Universal Basic Income, which would see every citizen given cash to cover the basics. Its aim would be end a draconian benefits system and allow people to work less. Currently, the welfare system is built on the premise that the recipient remains as flexible as possible within a system that refuses to be flexible to them. The UBI would facilitate further deregulation of the market, allowing people to work only when they felt compelled to.
In theory, the UBI would combat many of the issues Bloodworth raises; of incompetent bureaucrats, unscrupulous landlords and the need to work 40 hours just to survive. Yet the UBI has yet to pass the ‘pub’ test in most working class communities. Ask people whether we should pay everyone an income in order to work less and it is met with much scepticism. Many assume that it will pave the way for the end of work altogether. Automation, it is predicted, will take 1 in 3 jobs. We should rejoice that people will no longer have to experience what Bloodworth and millions of others do on a daily basis. But before that takes place, the state must provide quality transport, care, housing, health and recreational services to soften the blow. Transitioning an electorate to believe that a brighter, work free world is desirable will be the biggest test of all. For the sake of the people they espouse to represent, Labour must win over the hearts and minds of the ‘left behinds ‘- telling them a story about a brave new world. Reading this book with an open mind will greatly equip them for the challenge. Just don’t buy it from Amazon.
James Bloodworth is a journalist, broadcaster and author. He writes a weekly column for the International Business Times and has written for the Guardian, New Statesman and Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Twitter @J_Bloodworth.