I always recall the TV programme Tomorrow’s World from the 1970s which regularly featured items on the future of work. It suggested that by the 21st century automation and scientific innovation would give the future worked unprecedented leisure time. The concern of expressed was how we would cope with these copious amounts of free time where machines took over the drudgery of labour.
Cut to Amazon in Rugeley Christmas 2011.
The management are clear. Unions do not fall into Amazon’s business plan. Trade unionists often appear outside the massive building in attempts to recruit members. They work in gangs and are performance led. Workers anxious to be kept on by the agency after Xmas sprint with trolleys past indifferent managers. It is unlikely that any will be employed after Christmas. One man regularly walks from Stafford to Rugeley when he misses the last bus because of the slowness of the security search who frisk the workers on leaving. Naturally all performance is monitored and in an 8-hour shift a worker will have a 30-minute break. The workrate of the employees are closely watched and the supervisor constantly watches the work for any sign of slacking. It is very demanding and a friend of mine who is fit enough is shattered blisters have formed on his feet and the loading of TVs on a belt has had its effect. People are quitting in their droves. My friend also left when he picked up his wages. Emergency tax plus travel costs have meant that he earned according to his calculation about £4 per hour. It simply was not worth the hassle.
For many people on marginal incomes this is what passes as work. Little control over your working environment, low pay, constantly monitored no trade unions and minimum pay with little worker protection. This is what ” flexibility” means.
It’s a 100 years since the publication of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. The author embarked on a detailed and scathing analysis of the relationship between working-class people and their employers. The “philanthropists” of the title are the workers who, in Tressell’s view, acquiesce in their own exploitation in the interests of their superiors.
One might argue that all this was a long time ago. But is it? It remains the case that casualisation of labour is increasing as the Amazon case proves. Growing evidence reveals what being part of a “flexible” workforce means, low pay, job insecurity, poor safety and few rights.
It has social fallout in terms of increased child poverty, where women are denied occupational maternity pay. It will mean increased pensioner poverty, as more people are excluded from occupational pensions. It encourages the payment of poverty wages and increases the burden on taxpayers of paying means-tested benefits. It reduces job satisfaction for permanent staff who train the constant stream of new entrants, whose employment is often cut short.
Pick up any copy of the Sentinel and it is this sort of work that is being created. We are not creating the high value, highly skilled and high paid work which North Staffs needs it is exactly the opposite
Such are the wonders of all that dynamism and flexibility, and an economic model with a rotten promise at its core. Work for less, with even fewer protections than before, but fear not ““ because that way lies recovery, and prosperity.
For whom, exactly?