It’s all quite surreal at times. Orwellian. It may be best to avoid the papers.
Today, a headline from The Guardian has been shared about on social media: that the ‘Richest 62 people as wealthy as half of world’s population, says Oxfam’. As one indication of how inequality has widened through the years of austerity – to the benefit of the world’s richest – almost exactly 2 years ago The Guardian wrote how the world’s 85 richest people were as wealthy as half of the world’s population. Last year it was 80 people. If wealth inequality continues at this rate, the world’s richest people will fit more comfortably in a van than in a bus.
Today is Martin Luther King Day. It is appropriate therefore, that along with this news story I take the opportunity to share some quotes by Dr. King about inequality. His expressions about charities and philanthropy are also quite relevant to the previous article I published.
“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
“Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.”
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
“One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ … When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”
“Don’t mourn for me friends,
Don’t weep for me never,
For I’m going to do nothing,
Forever and ever”.
Those of you with an interest in sociology and economics (which, so far, seems to be at least some of the followers of this blog) should enjoy this excellent series of programmes by the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith: The Age of Uncertainty. Originally broadcast in 1977 and co-produced by the BBC, the series has a quality to it, and relative objectiveness (despite my disagreements with the ideological outlook of its creator) which documentaries of such topics tend to lack in this neo-liberal period.
It’s rare to come across such creatively made documentaries as this -especially nowadays – which is truly artistic in its presentation and tone. The visual effects and audio soundtrack are as tongue-in-cheek and subtle as Galbraith himself, whose language and presentation is often witty and ironic. There are 15 episodes in the series (and a book), the first episode I have linked below.
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.
In a day dominated by references to Back to the Future, this point on boom-bust-boom economics seems pertinent. I’ve noticed Enda Kenny and others keep saying – in all seriousness – that there will be no return to boom and bust. I have heard Barack Obama say similar things. This implies that continuous and steady economic growth is possible, as far as they are concerned – whether they are consciously lying or economically naive is uncertain. But capitalism without crisis and chaos is an oxymoron. This paragraph about the boom-bust nature of capitalism could have been written yesterday:
‘…the whole industrial and commercial world, production and exchange among all civilized peoples and their more or less barbaric hangers-on, are thrown out of joint about once every 10 years. Commerce is at a stand-still, the markets are glutted, products accumulate, as multitudinous as they are unsaleable, hard cash disappears, credit vanishes, factories are closed, the mass of the workers are in want of the means of subsistence, because they have produced too much of the means of subsistence; bankruptcy follows upon bankruptcy, execution upon execution. The stagnation lasts for years; productive forces and products are wasted and destroyed wholesale, until the accumulated mass of commodities finally filter off, more or less depreciated in value, until production and exchange gradually begin to move again. Little by little, the pace quickens. It becomes a trot. The industrial trot breaks into a canter, the canter in turn grows into the headlong gallop of a perfect steeplechase of industry, commercial credit, and speculation, which finally, after breakneck leaps, ends where it began — in the ditch of a crisis. And so over and over again.’ Friedrich Engels – 1877
Are people being bought out for a few extra crumbs by the Government coalition in this week’s budget? I’m fairly confident that most are not that naive or superficial. Polls are not very accurate, but at least they offer a rough indication of trends, and in one poll, 44% said they were unhappy with the budget, while 41% said they were “happy”. The rest had “no opinion”. However here are two comments from social media which left me astounded by their naivety:
I’m chuffed with the extra tax credit I’ll get. It’s allowing me to earn a little bit more before I get taxed. I started my business thanks to the social welfare, and S—— wouldn’t be where it is without it. I’ve a long way to go, but I’m satisfied for now. More arts funding would’ve been great, though.
Is the above comment an indication that the government’s use of this budget for electioneering purposes before a general election has worked in at least some cases? Perhaps that young commenter does not realise that all of their annual €550 “increase” will be wiped out in a couple of months should their landlord increase their rent by a couple of hundred euro; the Government has still not introduced rent controls and seems reluctant to. It would also be wiped out by an increase in the water tax to €500 – if that particular commenter chooses to pay it. Price increases may also null it; such is the nature of capitalism. I wonder if the commenter is insulated from the harshness of the current economic environment in other ways, that they may feel so confident in making such a comment? – I’m quite certain it does not reflect the broad opinion of the working class generally.
Another similar, more innocent comment below:
I’ve €264 more to play with next year…… Not great but
I’ll not turn it down
This comment conveys the sense that the commenter in question may not realise that they have not necessarily been “given” €264. That sum actually represents just some of the money that was taken from them a workers years ago through austerity. Concealing this point is the media’s portrayal of the budget as a “giveaway budget” despite the fact that it offers little, if anything, to people who earn average or below-average wages. Graduates, students and young unemployed people have been conspicuously ignored by it. It has served to increase the inequality gap even further too, and the modest increases that people have received generally should be viewed in that context. Those on low incomes will continue to suffer, while those on slightly higher incomes will be pushed further down, their temporary “benefits” received from this budget cancelled out.
James Connolly’s We Only Want The Earth came to mind:
Some men, faint-hearted, ever seek
Our programme to retouch,
And will insist, whene’er they speak
That we demand too much.
’Tis passing strange, yet I declare
Such statements give me mirth,
For our demands most moderate are,
We only want the earth.
“Be moderate,” the trimmers cry,
Who dread the tyrants’ thunder.
“You ask too much and people By
From you aghast in wonder.”
’Tis passing strange, for I declare
Such statements give me mirth,
For our demands most moderate are,
We only want the earth.
Our masters all a godly crew,
Whose hearts throb for the poor,
Their sympathies assure us, too,
If our demands were fewer.
Most generous souls! But please observe,
What they enjoy from birth
Is all we ever had the nerve
To ask, that is, the earth.
The “labour fakir” full of guile,
Base doctrine ever preaches,
And whilst he bleeds the rank and file
Tame moderation teaches.
Yet, in despite, we’ll see the day
When, with sword in its girth,
Labour shall march in war array
To realize its own, the earth.
For labour long, with sighs and tears,
To its oppressors knelt.
But never yet, to aught save fears,
Did the heart of tyrant melt.
We need not kneel, our cause no dearth
Of loyal soldiers’ needs
And our victorious rallying cry
Shall be we want the earth!