Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, by James Bloodworth, Atlantic Books, £12.99
THE AUTHOR OF THIS BOOK spent six months working in the world of low paid and insecure employment in different parts of the country, and wrote it from first-hand experience.
He began in a former industrial area, in Rugeley, Staffordshire. When the area’s last coal mine was closed in 1991, 1,250 well paid manual jobs in manufacturing were lost. Jobs associated with the industry were also lost. It was replaced in 2011 - by Amazon.
This is a snapshot, as he describes it, of the experience of the working class in Britain. In former mining areas, comprising 5.5 million people, 9% of the workforce, mines and mills have been swapped for call centres and distribution centres. When once there were one million miners, there are now one million workers in call centres across the country. The shovel has been replaced by the telephone headset.
At first, Amazon was welcomed by the locals until they saw the reality of shortterm contracts, low pay and draconian managerial practices. Many did not last long with Amazon. Over 20 years many of the younger generation gave up on the town, commuted to find work, or went into higher education, gaining high aspirations and even higher levels of debt. Amazon filled the gap with workers from Eastern Europe, in this case Romanians. Living in overcrowded accommodation these workers did not see themselves as having a long term future with Amazon either.
A similar story is told in Swansea, where Amazon was actually given a substantial grant from the Welsh government to open a depot to replace jobs lost in mining and steel. This was for a company which was driving shops out of high streets, and avoiding tax. The author gets a job with a call centre, which had a labour turnover of 19% per year, well above the national average.
However post-industrial areas are not the only subjects of this book. The author worked in the care sector in Blackpool and described conditions both for carers and those in receipt of care, on the receiving end of zero-hour contracts, and 15 minute visits. Finally he comes back to London, and is self employed as an UBER driver, showing that although our large cities have been on the receiving end of some well paid high tech jobs, they are also a haven for the ‘gig economy.’ As the population of towns such as Rugeley have fallen, along with many others in the north of England, that of London has risen by 25% over the last 20 years, putting huge pressures on housing and public services.
The author does not set out a programme of political action. He interviewed people in Rugeley who vote Labour, and voted Leave in the EU referendum. However the area is represented by a Tory MP, adamant in his support for undermining workers’ rights in the government’s trade union bill. The author noted people’s anger was directed, not so much against the Romanians, who have contributed to the changing face of the area, but the loss of well paid and secure jobs and the loss of a community.
Much of this is a long-term legacy of the Tory governments of the 1980s and 1990s when jobs were lost in industry, and not replaced. When alternative employment was brought to these areas, it was too little, too late.
Ealing Southall CLP and UCU