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“It's aw a muddle, lass. Aw a muddle.” This was the dying lament of Stephen Blackpool, the power-loom operator of Hard Times who was driven to physical and emotional ruin by the ruthless economic and industrial system of his day.
The words which Dickens put into the mouth of the misused and bewildered Blackpool reveal a man who had little concept of the huge and entirely calculated injustice done to him and his fellow workers by the combined interests of capital and industry in Victorian England.
The largely inchoate anger against corporate greed, government policies and the increasing hardship they have combined to visit upon what David Cameron calls 'ordinary people', is as yet an idea in much the same situation of partial perception as that experienced by Stephen Blackpool. But put together a few pieces of news which have to some extent been eclipsed by events at St Paul's, and something far more like a plan than a muddle begins to emerge.
Last week, the government quietly abolished the Agricultural Wages Board, a statutory body which has looked after the wages and employment conditions of some of the lowest paid workers in the UK since it was set up by an Act of Parliament in 1948.
In the same week, a document on employment rights was leaked. This was written for David Cameron by the businessman and Tory donor Adrian Beecroft who numbers among his many interests the online 'pay-day loan' company Wonga, an organisation which lends to the desperate at an annual compound rate of over 4000 per cent. This document proposes the scrapping of protection against unfair dismissal. Earlier reports on ideas under consideration suggest that Beecroft also wants to end parental leave and maternity pay.
In June of this year, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published its remit to the Low Pay Commission. This document required the LPC to “consult and make recommendations on whether the NMW (National Minimum Wage) regulations can be made even simpler and easier to administer. As part of this simplification agenda, the Government has proposed the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB). The LPC is invited to consider the implications of this potential change.”
In the light of the abolition of the AWB, it is not unreasonable to be concerned as to what exactly 'simplification and ease of administration' might mean in this context to a government which appears to view all legislation enshrining worker protection as being potentially anti-business.
It is this attitude which is unpicking the weave of our common life. The contract between worker and employer is moral as well as financial and the mutuality which should be a connecting thread binding together those who work for the same enterprise is frayed if workers feels themselves to be no more than a financial commodity from which the greatest output must be wrung for the minimum return.
The thread comes entirely undone when the distance between top and bottom – not just in terms of remuneration - but in security, esteem and the concept of a future are so divided. The head of a big corporation and the insecurely employed minimum wage cleaner who keeps his office presentable can have no concept of a common life and no shared experience of the value placed on them by the company for which they both work.
There have always been lazy workers who seek to get away with as little effort as possible; there have always been bad employers who, in the socialist parlance of my childhood, “grind the faces of the workers”. But what we are now seeing has gone far beyond a 'boss v worker' class war. The idea that large numbers of the workforce are over-entitled shirkers, eager for their rights to the detriment of their responsibilities, and that any restrictions on employers are manifestations of unnecessary red tape, impeding both their profits and the general good of the economy, is becoming insidiously embedded in the narrative.
It suits the government to let this take root in our consciousness because it keeps the big corporate donors onside and permits crony capitalism to flourish while closing down the ability of more humbly placed workers to achieve the conditions of just employment which are the bedrock of a cohesive society.
At the top of the scale, the falsehood that fairness towards workers is a drag on enterprise breeds contempt in a certain type of executive. At the lower end, resentment, mistrust and despair are its sour fruits. These are toxic states of mind and can only produce outcomes which are destructive for all concerned. Ultimately, these will impact upon the FTSE100 CEO with his seven figure salary just as they do on the poorly paid operative, struggling way out of his sight at the foot of the corporate ladder. It will just take longer.
A society divided against itself cannot stand. The riots of August were an ugly reminder of what happens when a sector of society feels it has no stake in the future development of that society. These are hard times indeed and government policy, far from being a muddle, is conspiring against us all.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet