Comparisons with George Orwell abound as Bloodworth goes undercover to investigate the murky depths of the low-waged sector in the UK. He says his aim is to merely describe what he sees – although as a former editor of Left Foot Forward, he is, of course, partisan. His other aim is to tackle some of the myths of poverty and show how ubiquitous poor working conditions are in the UK’s low-waged sector, which has seen the biggest share of new jobs in the economic ‘recovery’ since 2008. His experiences at Amazon, Uber, a call centre and as a careworker are more like snapshots of a broken world, where the bottom has fallen out of social, working class life. What we are left with is a hollowed out and transient workforce, with little glue to hold people together. The pace of work is getting faster, productivity is being surveilled and recorded with ever greater precision, you are subjected to arbitrary and non-workable rules, and all will few structures to fight back. The dog-eat-dog nature of the modern low-waged workplace is best summed up by this poignant episode whilst the author was working at the Amazon fulfilment centre in the West Midlands:
“Wheeling a trolley down a deserted corner of the warehouse one dull afternoon, I saw a supervisor – a dead-eyed young middle-manager who was puffed up from the gym and pungent with aftershave – set upon an older man. Shaking his finger at him, the young man called the older worker every name he could think of. The words came out of his mouth like sour milk poured from a jug…The man on the receiving end, who must have been at least 60, grew pale and tense as he cowered under the wave of cruel invective.The wrath of the manager – whose face had turned from red to purple and back to red again – was only abated when he was summoned downstairs by a muffled voice on his walkie-talkie. The old man he left behind had by that time shrivelled up like a melted crisp packet. Nirmal…sidled up to me, shaking his head. ‘Fucking hell,’ he chuckled softly. ‘He ain’t gonna last long.’ And he didn’t. While I was stood outside smoking a cigarette at lunch that day, I watched the old man stagger out of the building …This ungainly man with bloodshot eyes moved as if all the life had been drained out of him. He teetered into the car park and towards a red little Nissan Micra which was sat with its lights on…As he approached the car a dishevelled old lady climbed out of the driver’s door as quickly as she could move. Looking fixedly at the man’s grief-stricken face, she pulled out a hankerchief …She dabbed the man’s face with her brown mottled handas she pleaded with him to disclose what had happened. The entire scene, which could not have lasted for more than a minute or two, made you want to cry. Off they trundled in the car, heads bobbing like plastic ducks in a bath as they disappeared out through the gate. I never saw either of them again.”
While he works largely in jobs where there is a majority migrant workforce (Amazon in Rugeley, as a care worker in Blackpool, and as an Uber driver in London), this book isn’t just about working conditions on the lowest rungs of the labour market. Rather, he broadens his scope to describe the context for the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum. As such, as well as talking to workers inside these workplaces, he makes it a point to speak to local (white) people in the towns where these workplaces are to get their take on the changes that have occurred in that area. While the Admiral call centre in South Wales where he worked was the exception in that the workers were mainly homegrown graduates, here he also talks to local people about the general social system they find themselves in. He describes a family he meets who buys a (what turns out to be a faulty) TV from a rent-to-own company, worth £150 but ending up paying £400 in installments:
“What was striking about the whole episode was the helpess position of the family. The television set was merely a side issue, but it neatly illustrated one of the fixes that many of the people I encountered found themselves in. Whether it was the employment agency underpaying you, the job centre messing you about or the rent-to-own store trying to bamboozle you, there was often this exhausting running battle with the authorities taking place behind the scenes.”
This snapshot of modern Britain seen through the eyes of both migrant and British workers implicitly draws threads of commonality between them. We are left in no doubt that they are both screwed. Unlike many left-wing commentators, he does not see the people left behind by deindustrialisation and neoliberalism simply as racists who are looking for a scapegoat. Rather, he points out the very material reasons why there has been a simmering resentment for many years, that culminated so explosively in voters’ decision to leave the EU. He mentions things like the shutdown of mines and steelworks, the lack of infrastructure like transport and social spaces, the emergence of new jobs that had no pride or dignity attached to them. That all this happened at a time when borders were opened to more countries makes it easy to see why the migrant issue was conflated with a more general disenfranchisement. One man interviewed says:
“‘The lot of them coming in…Where’s the working man supposed to live?…Where’s he supposed to work?’
The spread of precarious work, propped up by an army of exploited labourers speaking in incomprehensible tongues, inevitably fuels these sorts of concerns. But there is a feeling of English culture being overwhelmed by capitalism, too. The forces that have ruthlessly turned almost every British high street into a cultural wasteland of dull and identikik chain stores offering the same sensory experience are now so vast and incomprehensible that it is the single Polski sklep that is singled out. If English culture is trampled on then Ronald McDonald should take more of the blame than Eastern European fruit pickers.”
At the same time Bloodworthy points out that all of the people he interviewed who expressed anti-migrant sentiments never turned this into a personal racism towards individual Eastern Europeans that they got to know.
“The handful of migrants he knew personally were another matter entirely. They were ‘not like the rest of them’, he told me. Some were even decent blokes who you could have a drink and a laugh with.”
Another woman says:
“I don’t think it’s their culture…I mean, they’ve just got no money. They’re skint…like us in a way, but they hop on a bus and come over here and go up to Amazon. You feel for them a bit, really.”
This was echoed in another interviewee who bemoaned the fact that young people were lazy and not putting in the effort to get jobs, and in the next breath talking about a young lad he knows who is trying everything he can to get a job but that the temp agencies and Amazon keep undermining his efforts. These contradictions deservedly need highlighting, especially when we are trying to understand the supposed ‘irrationality’ and ‘racism’ of Brexit voters, as well as the lack of coherence in many people’s views when it comes to understanding ‘the system’. It would be simplistic to brand all working class people who are the losers of globalisation as ‘racists’, and the point that Bloodworthy makes is that there are real reasons for this discontent – that does sometimes involve migrants – and that this needs to be tackled with head-on with honesty rather than suppression and derision.
It is not just the ‘white working class’ who say racist things. One woman from Romania said to him: “Too many Indian people. Indian people everywhere!” This resonates with our own experiences. Many of the Eastern Europeans we have worked with harbour anti-Indian sentiments (one guy even refused to sit at the same table in the canteen as me!) Whilst we don’t deny that this is racist, there may also be a class element in that many middle managers and landlords in our area are also Indians. What doesn’t come through though, is how different nationalities are forced to cooperate at work and how these relationships of mistrust might be changing. Another interviewee in the book asked some Polish lads why where there was hostility between the English and Polish at work and he was told that it was because of the lack of recognition of the Polish in World War II. We might think this is an exaggeration but we recently came across these vans from the Polish Bakery in west London!
However, in general, Bloodworthy spends more time on the attitudes of white working class people towards migrant workers, which is probably due to the fact that he could communicate with them better and also because he wants to give some background for the anti-migrant sentiment that was so pervasive in the Leave campaign. He is careful to point out how these differences – which are pretty usual when you get new groups of migrants coming to any area – have been exacerbated by the government’s austerity programme and political choices, (Bloodworthy references the government cuts to ESOL – English for Speakers of Other Languages – classes, which has not helped matters) as well as the bosses. Here is a short excerpt from when he was a care worker:
“Hazel told me over the phone that she had in the past been sent to look after someone who ‘had been given the wrong drugs on so many occasions that it’s surprising she wasn’t poisoned’. She attributed this partly to the poor English language skills of some care workers: ‘Because a lot of the carers, their English wasn’t good enough to read what she should be having, and when.’
A growing proportion of migrants from Eastern Europe work in the care sector. LIke their British colleagues, the majority are compassionate and hard-working. Yet, similar to at Amazon, you got a sense from speaking to British care workers that the care companies knew they could extract a level of fearful compliance out of the Eastern European workers that they would not necessarily expect from their indigenous equivalents. The threat of being replaced by an acquiescent migrant from Eastern Europe, hard up and therefore willing to put up with almost everything that management threw at them, was, according to care workers from other compnies I spoke to, permanently there in the background, and sometimes darkly referenced in a nudge-nudge-wink-wink manner by the companies.”
Bloodworthy analyses the role of the state in fuelling these tensions and divisions within the working class as having their roots in Thatcher’s deliberate strategy to smash the unions, and more importantly, class solidarity, which we are still experiencing the effects of today. This, along with the accompanying changes in the capitalist production process since the 80s and the defeat of workers’ militancy during that decade, not just in the UK, but across many parts of the world, have undoubtedly had a long-term and catastrophic effect on workers’ ability to organise and gain strength. We can see this in all workplaces, not just those in the low-wage sector. Even those professions with a high union density like teachers and NHS workers have been unable to stave off the privatisation and decimation of services and funding. The lack of strikes in the UK is palpable.
Into this void where the unions and left used to be, a feeling of atomisation and despair has entered. This outlook seems to be a common theme amongst many of the new swathe of writers talking about the UK’s underclass and low-waged ‘drudges’. There is a sense of hopelessness and nihilism that pervades the book, and not just because of the lack of political solutions on offer. The people Bloodsworthy meets are largely without agency, have nothing to look forward to, are atomised and defeated. As low-waged workers ourselves, we can relate to this on some level: many of our co-workers are suspicious, tired and resigned. They say racist stuff, they are often hard to pin down, don’t want to get involved in trying to change things because they think it won’t work before they’ve even tried, believe in conspiracy theories. But to leave the perspective at this level is dangerous and self-defeating because it just confirms what we all secretly fear: that there is no way out of this mess we call capitalism and ultimately we are doomed.
We don’t deny that we are living in tough times. But being sucked into this chasm of despair says more about the the left’s pessimism and general lack of radical and viable strategies than it does about the working class’s ability to organise per se. Not that we are saying it is easy! Our experiences as militants in low-waged jobs has certainly not yielded any mass strikes! The author is right when he talks about the high turnover of staff fostering a lack of class cohesion, that union strategies won’t cut the mustard when they ignore migrant workers, and that increased labour supply from less developed areas often puts local working class people at a disadvantage that the bosses ruthlessly exploit. He does a good job at explaining some of the barriers to organising, for example, when he worked at the Admiral call centre, he writes:
“…there was a layer of staff who were paid slightly more than us but who had the ear of the management. It was very hard to get away from these people. They were a constant, lingering presence, like wasps around an open pot of jam. The way in which authority descended was a stroke of genius. One the one hand, it made it easier to get any concerns you might have dealt with – there was always someone there to pass any concerns up the chain. But the ubiquitous presence of a team leader made could also thwart any collective action on the part of the workforce.”
However, just because the situation is difficult does not mean we should abandon the workplace altogether. Bloodworthy was only working at Amazon, Carewatch, Admiral and Uber for a few months apiece which is definitely not long enough to dig deeper into potential strategies (other than individual acts of sabotage) that workers could use to build collectivity at work. Still, by not exploring this more deeply, the general conclusions are pretty depressing.
We don’t want to set up a straw-man to critique Bloodsworthy, after all, he did not set out to come up with political proposals or a 10-point programme. However, by stating that his aim is to draw attention to certain issues and alter the common perception of them, he is clearly staking out his audience as middle-class readers who are living in ignorant bliss that their privileges are at the expense of others who are less fortunate.
“You can sit, feet up and kettle on, turn on the computer and order something to arrive the next day with a mere click of the mouse. We have grown accustomed to cheap products that are cheap precisely because they have been produced in conditions as I have described here.”
This carries with it an implicit idea that our primary power is as consumers (regardless of the fact that ‘we’ all don’t have the same power to change our buying practices), political action will be interclassist, and ‘only if we had more awareness, things would be better.’ But this is pretty liberal thinking. What are Guardian readers going to do with this new eye-opening information? Stop using Amazon? Stop using Uber? Stop callling call-centres?! Use their liberal guilt to pressure government to change the laws? And if you think it is higher government figures who need enlightening (Margaret Hodge MP calls the book a “wake-up call”), we would be naive to think that the ruling class did not know exactly what their ‘hostile environment’ and anti-trade union laws would do to those at the bottom of the labour market.
Being a slave to the algorithm certainly is no fun, and Bloodworthy does a good job at highlighting the realities of ‘freedom’ under apps like Uber. But the trope is a common one: namely that we are all slaves to machines, every action being surveilled by Big Brother in this new Orwellian world of work. Yes, it is definitely oppressive. Those middle managers are the worst petty despots. The sanctions for sickness and low productivity drive you to work harder and the whole thing takes a heavy physical and mental toll. But if we just leave it at that, where are we supposed to go from there, other than hoping some do-gooder middle class types will come to our rescue?
This was a read-in-one-sitting book that, while it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, definitely confirmed everything we do know already. On this account, we can vouch for its accuracy in respect of the conditions and atmosphere that can prevail in many such warehouses and workplaces. However, we would like to offer a glimpse of hope in the darkness that such a ‘workers as victims’ narrative inevitably engenders. Many of the workers in these bigger workplaces have a lot of potential power – in terms of their role in larger supply chains and numbers. We are often starting from zero: in terms of union membership; knowledge about our legal rights; shop-floor collectivity and working class infrastructure like social spaces. This only makes our work as revolutionaries harder but there are no shortcuts.
So, as a small political collective, working in low-waged sector jobs in west London, what is our own benchmark for working class reports on workplace experiences? It is one thing to look at bad conditions, victimhood and divisions; it would be a different perspective to look at the material conditions for potential power: how is work organised; in what ways do management depend on the improvisation of workers every day; how do people who can barely understand each other manage to cooperate practically; what makes all the jobs similar – not just in terms of bad pay, but in terms of how work itself is experienced; what prospect of generalisation of struggle does this open up? Last but not least, what relations exist between modern industries and the way they are organised and a social alternative – can we see glimpses of how proletarian knowledge and relationships inside capital could transform warehouses, care homes, manufacturing units and their technological apparatus into something new? Our efforts at answering these kinds of questions are documented on our website, and we also have a questionnaire to aid people who want to think about similar questions for their workplace.
Be in touch!