Milkshakes, chicken bites and workers' rights

3 Sep 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 3 Sep 2021

Pic: Unsplash

This has not been a good week for lovers of milkshakes, Gregg’s chicken bites and Coors beers.

But there is an upside to the supply chain crisis as well – it exposes the structural weaknesses of an economy which is so reliant on exploiting the low paid and provides a window for change.

Much of the media debate concerns the role of Brexit and the pandemic in prompting a situation where there are now more than one million job vacancies across the UK, the highest figure on record.

To date there has not been enough about how that represents an opportunity to roll back the exploitation, the zero hours contracts and the shameful fact that more than half of those living below the poverty line are from working households.  This means of course that a huge chunk of the welfare budget goes to supplementing workers’ incomes just to ensure they can scrape by.

The sectors most affected by the crisis include food manufacturing, agriculture, road haulage, hospitality,  and social care.

These are all areas where employers have assumed that there will always be sufficient workers prepared to put in a shift for low pay.

For the past few decades migrants have been the key. For example before Brexit 50% of those working in food manufacturing were born elsewhere as were 15% of HGV drivers.

The low wage syndrome also explains why the UK has the fewest industrial robots in the G7 and invests so little in smarter ways of working, and training.

After all, why bother when recruiting people and paying them less than they need to live on is a viable alternative?

The trope trotted out by business owners and some politicians is that the UK’s low productivity is the result of a lazy workforce, rather than a chronic lack of investment.

For example, back in 2013 celebrity chef Jamie Oliver told the Daily Mail: “‘The average working hours in a week was 80 to 100 – that was really normal in my 20s. But the EU regulation now is 48 hours, which is half a week’s work for me. And they still whinge about it!

‘British kids particularly, I have never seen anything so wet behind the ears. I have mummies phoning up for 23-year-olds saying to me, “My son is too tired.” On a 48-hour-week! Are you having a laugh?”

The previous year a group of right wing MPs produced the report Britannia Unchained which characterised British workers as “among the worst idlers in the world”.

Its authors Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Liz Truss, Chris Skidmore and Dominic Raab are all now Ministers in the current government, four of them in the Cabinet. It is worth noting that Foreign Secretary Raab has been in the news of late for not returning from his holiday as the tragedy in Afghanistan unfolded. He famously said he had not been lounging around on the beach because “the sea was closed.”

In any event it took 12 years for average wages to get back to pre-2008 levels, exacerbating income and wealth inequality, a process which has accelerated during the pandemic.

And for all the government boasting about employment rates it is worth pointing out that two-thirds of the growth in employment from 2010 onwards was accounted for by self-employment, zero-hours contracts and agency work. We might have got more jobs, but they are not necessarily good jobs, offering decent pay and security.

To date employers’ reactions to the current crisis have been predictable. They want to get back to how things were before.

For example  Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland said: “On the skilled worker list are ballerinas and concert orchestra musicians, but not HGV lorry drivers - so let's add them to the list. It's 'criminal' that they are not on the list.”

This is a strange analogy. And although there may be merit in such measures to alleviate problems short-term it doesn’t address the underlying issue.

To do that employers need to invest more in labour-saving technology and provide more training to improve the skills base and increase wages. The drivers that Mr Walker is so effusive about currently get paid an average £11.80 per hour.  

In addition we need to remember that people do not migrate to other countries for the love of them – they do so for work and countries that have higher wages will be more attractive than those that offer low pay. A shortage of labour is not a problem unique to the UK. There is no escaping pay rises.

All this may be a terrible inconvenience to better-off people who may miss some items from their shopping lists. But they should also reflect that their convenience has been built on the exploitation of poorer working people.

Now, for the first time for a long time the balance of power in labour relations has changed. And if that means the low paid being paid more and a reduction in wealth inequality that has to be a good thing. Already salaries are increasing for HGV drivers, shortages in the labour market elsewhere should prompt other increases.

This may yet prove the first step in building a different economy, more innovative, more skilled, with higher productivity and faster growth to replace one that is based on the exploitation of the poor.  

That should more than recompense most of us for missing out on the odd milkshake and chicken bite.



The opinions, views or comments in this article do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.

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