Unfairly distributed?

I’m currently staring at my recently purchased copy of James Bloodworth’s new book: Hired - 6 Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain – and a familiar feeling has gripped me. It’s the one I get when I stare at the rowing machine in the gym. I don’t want to do it… I must do it… the sooner I do it, the quicker it will be over…

I’m currently staring at my recently purchased copy of James Bloodworth’s new book: Hired – 6 Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain – and a familiar feeling has gripped me. It’s the one I get when I stare at the rowing machine in the gym. I don’t want to do it… I must do it… the sooner I do it, the quicker it will be over…

I’ve seen enough reviews to know this book will make uncomfortable reading for people like me i.e. educated Generation Y urbanites with a belief in social justice and a reliance on Amazon Prime (not to mention Uber). How will I be able to square my personal circle of high fiving same day deliveries while professing to Hero People – one of our values at Mash – after reading this book?

James Bloodworth spent 6 months working in four infamously unappealing roles – Amazon picker, Uber driver, care worker and call centre operative. Four minimum wage, low-skilled occupations generally devoid of job satisfaction. Temporary and/or zero hour contracts that made workers feel vulnerable and unappreciated; Draconian rules that shouted of distrust and disrespect for employees; and productivity expectations more suited to a robot workforce than a human one. The list of horrors goes on.

Bloodworth suggests that a growing immigrant workforce has facilitated this underclass of occupation – people with lower expectations than British workers, and less awareness of their rights under HR law. Of course he also attributes some blame to the last ten years of austerity and the government’s support for business over workers. But he saves a significant portion of blame for me – for us – consumers who want a good price and a quick service. As he writes in The Guardian:

“What I saw is the product of a consumption-driven society with unrealistic expectations: of a consumer class bossing another class around.”

Now this is where I beg to differ. I don’t remember anyone picketing outside WH Smith twenty years ago because their books were too expensive or they didn’t offer delivery. I don’t remember refusing to stumble into a minicab after a night out because I wanted to book it more cheaply via an app.

Consumerism isn’t driven by consumers any more than unrealistic expectations are created by them. Consumers are just people – from every class – who get invited by brands to try their wares. Of course they choose cost effectiveness and convenience. Due to his lack of time and money, Bloodworth explained that he survived on ready meals – who does he think created those if not minimum wage factory workers?

The reasons for this splitting of society are complex. And the need to protect and support workers in these roles is of course vitally important. But let’s not blame a society of consumers. If same day delivery didn’t exist, I suspect no one would really mind. If delivery cost more, we would just make choices about whether to shop online or in-store.

And let’s not vilify the whole commercial sector either. Many big brands do treat their staff well – John Lewis recently hit the headlines because they were only paying their 84,000 staff a 5% bonus. Read that again and you’ll see what I’m getting at. At Mash, we are a small business at the mercy of the wider economy, but we regularly turn away prospective clients who don’t share our values in respecting our staff.

This issue relates to a proportion of businesses – many of them disruptor brands – misunderstanding what progress means. It’s time for the likes of Amazon, Uber and so on to apply their pioneering genius to improving the lives of their workers. Because if they’re bright enough to take over the world, surely they can succeed in getting their own house in order too.

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