Originally posted on my old blog ‘anotheranonymouslife’, March 24 2015… Lookng back, this article is a little “ranty” and was written hastily, but I think it’s nonetheless an important reflection of how it feels to be working on the minimum wage, or low wages.
On the Minimum Wage…
The Anti Austerity Alliance (AAA) and SIPTU have called on the minimum wage to be raised significantly, initially at least to €11.45 per hour (from €8.65) with a view to making it €13 per hour. This is calculated at €13 per hour with a 39 hour week; obviously, having consistent hours are key to earning decent wages and maintaining a healthy work-life balance too.
According to some, a low minimum wage is said to be good for “creating jobs” and maintaining “economic recovery”, however…
Some call them poverty wages. Others might say wage slavery. On the minimum wage, it certainly feels like slavery under another guise. Indeed, after I wrote the draft of this article, a colleague of mine mentioned to me in conversation how he felt like a slave. He felt “shocked” that our employer has the gall to pay such low wages. He has a ‘level 8’ honours degree in tourism and hospitality. One cannot say that he hasn’t worked or studied hard, or that he is some sort of “layabout” who deserves no better. He is a qualified and ambitious person, typical of most workers.
There is some talk, that raising the minimum wage would be detrimental for the “recovery” at a time when the most important thing is ‘job creation’ – much of the time, the jobs created tend to pay poverty wages, often to highly qualified graduates such as my colleague.
But what is the point of such poverty-wages for those who earn them and for society as a whole, if there is not enough earned to be spent, saved or taxed in the so-called real economy? Remember, the detrimental impact of paying poverty-wages are not just restricted to those who earn them, as welfare supplements and allowances funded by tax payers are effectively adding to the profits of employers too, and taking away from the other public services that money could be spent on instead. Relatively better-off family members, housemates, friends and others are also impacted by poverty-wages, as those working on minimum wage are often dependent on their financial support and assistance.
Does society really benefit from the creation of such precarious positions of employment? What then is the point of such poverty-wages, except of course to make extra profits for the companies that employ people on them? At the end of the day, a minimum-wage worker is making massive profits for their employer at the expense of their own well-being. Where does it end? It is a downward spiral, a race to the bottom.
In actual fact, it is not true that low wage jobs in turn allow the creation of more jobs, or that higher wages negatively impact on job creation (also see The Seattle Times findings of the impact of the $15 per hour minimum wage on local restaurant businesses here). It has been shown (not just among the left, I had a right-wing college lecturer who argued the same point) that higher wages among the general population will result in more money being spent, boosting the economy, increasing profits, tax revenue and potentially create more jobs. It benefits almost everyone to have a fairer economy where everybody enjoys a comfortable standard of living, spending more and generating more taxes – benefits everyone except of course large businesses who may have to sacrifice some short-term profits and some control over their browbeaten and exploited workforce. By paying poverty wages, wealthy entrepreneurs, business owners and companies enjoy making massive profits on the backs of those workers.
Many who argue in favour of the continuance of a low minimum wage (or for removing a minimum wage altogether) cannot relate to it, because they have no experience of what it’s like, or, because they fear that economically it will undermine their more privileged position within society. They cannot empathise. It’s no good to say to someone like a radio presenter or tabloid journalist (who are so quick to share their opinions on such topics, despite their privileged positions) to “do my job for a week, and you’ll see what it’s conditions are like” because they still could not relate to it.
To truly empathise with minimum wage and so-called “flexible” shift workers, that person would not only have to work for that pay and in those conditions for several months on end, to really let it sink in, but would also have to completely abandon their previous career and position in society, and all their wealth and other trimmings. They may then realise that they cannot just go back to their more advantageous job – they are trapped in this stagnant position for an indefinite period out of necessity.
They would have to know what it is to not enjoy those connections they have among their family and friends (or class) that would act as an escape route to a better social position and career; to not enjoy the same level of nepotism (or “networking”); to not have the ability to take out loans because they don’t earn enough to be allowed (authorised) one by their bank; to not afford to advance their education meaningfully regardless of their skill or intelligence because at the end of the day, money talks, not previous grades; to not have a healthy sleeping pattern because they’re working a night shift and are back in later that day to work the afternoon; to not to be able to work a second job (as if that’s even an ethical option?!) because the hours of your first are so unpredictable that it would be unfeasible and the hours are so tiring that it would be physically impossible; to not have respect from customers, management, and large sections of society for the work that you do, because your job is deemed the “lowest in society”; to know what it’s like to hope every month that nothing in your car or home breaks-down because you cannot afford to fix them, let-alone keep up their maintenance; to know that it’s not just your car, or your home, or your clothes, but also your health that’s suffering, as you put your own physical and mental well-being on the long-finger, because you cannot afford the heating or medication, and you have not the time for a healthy diet or exercise; and to do all this for an unrewarding job because it has become the only option available.
The likes of George Hook and co., with their right-wing radio rantings cannot understand the hopeless mundanity relieved only by the incessant exhausting physicality of such low paid and under appreciated work – work which is paying for their economic “recovery”.
What is conveyed by a company who pays its employees poverty-wages despite massively increasing its profits? Does it not suggest that a company would pay lower if it were not legally obliged to pay an €8.65 minimum? Is it not an insult? Does the company seem uncaring toward the well being of its employees, lacking at least in its respect toward them, lacking in understanding for the level of service that it asks of them without giving them fair compensation for it? Does it even know that it’s causing such harm? Do the directors and board members look into what kind of living conditions €8.65 will entitle a worker to? Does it not say much of a company which is satisfied to only provide a minimum level of service which just about gets them by, rather than strive for the real excellence that it claims to charge customers for, by ensuring the working conditions that can provide for that excellence? Does that company see pride in its own purpose if it does not take pride in its staff? Or is that company happy to be a veritable Thénardier?
We know that some minimum-wage paying businesses have doubled their profits in recent years! However, regardless of how busy or quiet it is, employees will still be paid the same minimum wage.
So here’s the bottom line. We cannot afford our own reliable cars to get in and out of work, or get small bank loans to buy better ones (the public transport service to my job is awful, although that hasn’t stopped the price of a bus ticket being raised significantly). We cannot survive independently on such wages and conditions in Ireland. Without help, we cannot afford rent, groceries, healthcare, education – these are basic things, not luxuries, which should be available to all! In short, we cannot afford to live.