Books, life the universe

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Hard Work

I thought Polly Toynbee's book Hard Work was really excellent reading and it certainly made me stop and think. She had to pretend she was virtually destitute for the period of Lent and see what it was like doing a low paid job and trying to set up home from scratch. While she didn't claim Job Seekers' Allowance or a Social Fund loan she did go to DWP and talk about what she would be entitled to if she was in that situation so that she could establish how much money she would have to last her until she could get a job and where she could get cheap furniture from. She was loaned a council flat in a run down block that was being refurbished.

Some reviews have said the book is patronising but I didn't feel it was. She highlighted differences in income by saying she would have spent what she earned in a week from a low paid job on a meal out. I felt from reading the book that the author herself really learned a lot from the experience and it made her more understanding of the poor in society. She took several low paid jobs - mainly minimum wage - including - hospital porter, cake packer, nursery assistant,school dinner lady, early morning cleaner, care assistant in a nursing home and tele-sales.

What really came over to me was the inconvenience involved in getting a job. Bus rides or train trips to collect application forms or wait at a factory to see if there were any jobs, not being able to take away contracts - or even copies of them, turning up for interviews to find the person who arranged the interview has left the company etc etc. Even when you've got the job it's quite often through an agency with no printed terms and conditions and no job security or holidays. Even though we have employment laws in this country smaller employers do everything they can to get round them.

With the majority of jobs in the private sector cost cutting and profit are the all important things and everywhere is always understaffed so that one person off sick or left means that everyone else has to work even harder. In spite of this the author found many people doing more than they were asked to because they took a pride in their work and wanted to do the best they could. Even in dreadful jobs with difficult conditions people found it impossible to look for better jobs because of the time and effort involved. Many were trapped because the job was the only one which fitted in with childcare arrangements. More than 70% of the low paid jobs are done by women.

What really struck me was that when wages were compared with those paid for the same jobs in 1970 workers are relatively worse off now - in spite of the minimum wage being introduced in 1999. The author's interview with the anonymous 'Mr Jones' towards the end of the book shows how many medium sized private employers think of their staff - just as a means to make a profit. The book raises some interesting and complex issues about low paid work. Much of it is essential and if all the care assistants - for example - went on strike their absence would be noticed instantly; and yet they are paid less than enough to live on, even at a very basic level. No one seems to realise if employers spent more on training and paid better wages they would have much lower turnover of staff and probably a higher profit as a result.

Interesting and thought provoking stuff.


Leigh Russell said...

I agree - I think it's a disgrace how badly nurses, social workers and care workers are paid. Rich greedy bankers should donate their undeserved bonuses to people who actually need more money.

Jilly said...

I don't think some bankers even realise there are low paid workers and I'm sure most of them couldn't live on £200 a week!