Hard times



He was a single man in late middle age. Let’s call him George. An occasional worshipper at church, I’d arranged to visit him at home, in his bedsit above the betting shops and fast food joints on the local high street.

He’d recently started work as a casual labourer in a warehouse. It’s a post-industrial city in the north of England, and jobs are few and far between. It was a zero hours contract, on minimum wage. Hours went up and down, depending on what the employer needed. Some weeks there was no work. Turning down work when it was offered meant he was less likely to be offered it again. The fluctuating income played havoc with claiming the benefits he needed to support himself in down times.

In a previous generation, his might have been a decent job. Hard physical work on a low wage, but at least reliable and secure. Now he was living from day to day with no ability to plan or budget. Trying to do the right thing, in a precarious world, often without the basic income needed to buy food and pay bills.

This is flexible globalised capitalism, with its glossy consumer goods and rocketing mortgages, food banks and grinding poverty. In this new economy, some kind of work, even if haphazard and badly paid, is better than none at all.

But stare poverty in the face, and it’s hard not to be angry.

Politicians, employers, and trade unions argue about solutions. The last Labour manifesto pledged to abolish zero hours contracts, and raise the minimum wage. In Good Work: The Taylor review of modern working practices, released this week, Taylor resisted banning zero hours contracts, but argued that flexibility at least needs to be made to work both ways, for workers as well as employers.

Meanwhile, as a report last month from the Social Mobility Commission demonstrated, the economic gap between London and the rest of the UK, and between the old and young, continues to grow. In 1998, the highest earners were paid on average 47 times that of the lowest. By 2015, they were paid 128 times as much.

Maybe I don’t know enough about economics. Maybe I’ve misunderstood my theology. I realise the answers aren’t easy. But at some gut level, when I read stats like this, I can’t help feeling something is rotten.

There must be a point where we have to say: this is just wrong.


4 thoughts on “Hard times

  1. Simon Brooke says:

    Poor George. His problem is that in the West and especially in Britain today with our low skill, low wage economy there’s always someone cheaper and desperate enough to undercut him – we’re delighted to discover.

    My neighbours were thrilled to get “some Eastern European,” to drive their daughter’s stuff to Manchester for £150 including petrol. Great, but how does that poor man live? Was he one of those sleeping in a bunk bed in a flat in Grenfell Tower? Two weeks after striking their deal my neighbours put up a Corbyn poster in their window.

    The truth is that we deplore the way that Amazon treats staff like George but we love its amazing customer service. We were furious when Starbucks’ elaborate tax avoidance was revealed and that’s why we boycotted their shops – except that we didn’t, of course. Sales were unaffected by the scandal. We pity (or get annoyed by) those poor Deliveroo Drivers hanging around at Costa in Chiswick but we’ll still order food from them knowing that they’re in fact earning less than the minimum wage.

    Yes we rail against “flexible globalised capitalism, with its glossy consumer goods,” but we love what it delivers. Donald Trump got elected by promising to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US. But if an iPod, for instance, were made in America it would cost over $12,000 rather than $500. Ironically only the wealthy could afford one.

    We’re angry at bankers and hedge fund managers but we’re enamoured of the luxury lifestyles of David Beckham and a host of other vacuous, talentless stars.

    Public morality sits uneasily with personal consumption and convenience. But we live in a society that offers us not only free markets but free will – we could do something about this situation if we really cared enough.

  2. Steve the virge says:

    The death of my dear wife put me in a position to just about buy my 99 year lease 20 years ago. Without this (and equity release), I too would be receiving benefits. I suppose I’m in Theresa’s ‘JAM’ category (just about managing). At least I’ve had steady jobs throughout my life till retirement. My heart goes out to the poor souls with no jobs or ‘zero hours’. I help where I can, but fear for the current generation. They need to be given hope.

  3. david broad says:

    Simon hits the nail – the free market/capitlaist system allows us , at one remove admittedly, to see modern ‘workers’ . local and 3rd world, treated just as our own Victorian mill and coalmine owners treated theirs. How to have benfits of ‘free;markets without the exploitation . In a way the Corbyn ( and even Trump ) appeal parallels the Marxist insights .

    My own conviction is that une certaine idee of what a nation state should be like is the sole feasible way of constructing a ‘moral’ society.
    Lord Shaftesbury , Thomas Arnold, Dr Barnado and Charles Kingsley are the models- the Victorian ‘improvers’ – based on shame, ambition and CHristiian conscience and confidence. In a rather remarkable way , post-war Germany has aspired and succeded in creating a remarkable moral society – OK founded on guilt and fear of Russia to some extent but still a hugely impressive redemptive effort of will.

    On a personal note – where are our Conservative moralists ? See for example Enoch Powell’s speech on the Kenya Mau=MauHola Camp deaths in 1959 ( ?) or his insights into ‘communalism ‘ based on a direct experience of the 1947 Hindu/Muslim Indian Partition massacres .

    ps Hans Morgethau was an international affairs pundit and a Kissinger antagonist !

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