Paul Mason, economics editor of Channel 4 News, got a salute in The Shed for his comments in the Money section of the Guardian, April 2015, short version below:
In this election it has become obligatory for politicians to appear on TV, at a workplace, in a hi-vis jacket. Because work is the new obsession. “Hard-working families” are a key meme in all the campaigns. The workplace – once a no-go arena in British politics – has become the ideal venue for photo-opportunities.
Strange, then, that the actual politics of work barely get a look in. Job numbers we have …
But what goes on inside the workplace is still hard to make subject to public debate. Last week I stood outside a fast-food chain interviewing a man who had tried to organise a union there. He told me how, despite the smiles of the people on the counters, the situation behind the scenes was about tears, stress and constant pressure. “If the mystery shopper comes in and somebody is grumpy to them, the entire shift lose their bonus. Then everybody gets on to you: why were you grumpy? And so on.”
It was an eloquent interview, followed soon after by a terrified phonecall, begging me not to use it on camera. Though now in a much better job, my contact feared losing it if his face were seen. So the full story will be lost until somebody writes it, two decades later, as social history.
The workplace culture of today is no longer stratified by skill, as in the 20th century, but by status. A “core” of highly-skilled and salaried workers enjoys an unprecedented blurring of work and leisure time. They get on short-haul flights, flip open their laptops, do their expenses, make their powerpoint slides, switch to watching a movie, use the same mobile phone for work, leisure, love and life.
A bigger “peripheral” labour force works to strict times and targets: the care worker flitting between clients in 15 minute slots; the supermarket delivery driver, timed to the second; the fast-food server, required to perform not just physical work but what sociologists call “emotional labour” – you have to smile and mean it.
In hotel cleaning, you get conditions described – again anonymously – by the blogger Maid In London: a zero-hours contract, only £24 a week guaranteed. Seventeen rooms to clean in seven and a half hours, with an unpaid lunch break, workers required to provide most of their own uniform, and little supplied in the way of protective equipment. Fifty percent of new cleaners leave within two weeks because of the stress, says the blogger. Those who stay drink Red Bull for breakfast and are, she says, “in a constant state of motion and seemingly exhausted and agitated at the same time”.
It’s only from anonymous accounts like these – and the occasional foray of journalists undercover – that we get to understand the facts. At no point since the regularisation of employment law in the 1840s has the power imbalance between employer and worker been so extreme.
So here’s a suggestion for the politicians. Next time you put on a hi-vis vest, keep it on when you leave the factory. Take your tie off – and now try walking into a bank, or flagging down a taxi, or having an argument with somebody in authority. Or try all this in the apron of a hairdresser, or the T-shirt of a barista, or the overalls of a hand car-wash operative.
Through the slights, insults, cold shoulder and dismissive looks, you have to keep on smiling, for the modern workplace does not tolerate unhappy people.
Finally, go to an ATM and withdraw the trifling amount of £48.75. That’s what Maid in London earns for cleaning 17 hotel rooms in a day. Now imagine doing this forever.