A story from Germany, a few weeks ago, keeps coming back to me when I read yet another contribution, going nowhere, to the related debates about social security, unemployment and employment on low pay.
It was about a mayor who tried to help asylum seekers by paying them a little under £1 an hour to work as porters in a station where a temporary steep stairway was causing some difficulties. The refugees from Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan, could earn that much without losing their basic dole and the mayor found all the volunteers he was looking for but the idea caused such an uproar the railway operator pulled out of the deal.
The volunteers saw a way to integrate, prove themselves – and pick up a few tips and maybe a useful contact or two. The objectors saw exploitation, racism, and an undermining of the going rate for labour. The argument over zero-hours contracts divides roughly the same way. The poor do what they have to. Their politicians say they are being diddled. The result, at best, is that the jobs are cancelled or exported.
I am a life member of the National Union of Journalists, which kept me in reasonable wages for 45 years of work which a lot of people would have done cheaper – and are now doing for free, to some extent. I believe in workers using whatever clout they can wield; in constraining capitalism; in the uselessness of most professional management; and in taxing the rich until they scream. But I am not sure I believe in the minimum wage.
There is one anyway, in effect – dole. Any attempt to impose a going rate for work, beyond that, only rebounds on the struggling. Middle-class socialists argue for and vote for a minimum wage to make themselves feel better. They want everybody to be happy without them having to tip more, or deal with beggars. But if all they do is legislate, they are only asking for the low-paid to be moved out of their sight.
Councils and clubs, householders and farmers, all have a lot of work which they could afford to have done for a few fivers at the end of the day but not for £7.69 an hour plus on-costs on a permanent contract – the TUC/Labour target. I agree it’s not much but until we’ve got it going spare, the poor could do with legitimisation of the grey economy – the no-tax, no-stamp, cash-in-hand sector which the Blair government did so much to stamp out. Like the refugees in Germany, some of us could live with the hard realities of the market if it did not mean losing as much as we gained.
A fixed level of benefits would be much more acceptable if you did not have to sign off it to pick up £40 for picking sprouts, or hauling the rubbish out of a pond, and then spend a day filling in forms to sign back on again. A lot of people might renounce, say, their right to housing benefit in return for something like the basic jobseekers’ allowance and a pass – possibly including some sort of biometric ID – which entitled them to work casually for off-the-books cash. Wages paid in this way would not be tax-deductible, which would put a limit on the scale of the sector. Pass-holders might be allocated derelict housing rent-free, to do what they can with. The state would limit its interest to policing the pass system. Some people would settle for tending their gardens and allotments.
What is there to lose? A bit of income tax which is hardly worth the effort of chasing. It is surely time we started taxing energy rather than labour anyway.
By all means try to make everybody richer. But meanwhile, why not make it a bit easier to be poor?
If we do not try it in Doncaster, perhaps they might be interested in Detroit.