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Working poverty: beyond the breadline August 23, 2009

Posted by Rhian E Jones in Politics.
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As the recession continues to bite, commentators continue to scrap over which of us bears the most impressive teeth marks: part-time and temporary female workers, those stuck in Britain’s post-industrial wastelands, or the Eighties-redux ‘lost generation’? The media’s preoccupation with the recession’s impact on unemployment, rather than the wage cuts, increased workloads and greater insecurity heaped upon those still in work, has been reflected in the response of both main parties. Labour in particular have ramped up their championing of paid work as panacea, chivvying the jobless into employment in an increasingly bloody-minded fashion with no apparent concern for what awaits us there. This Stakhanovite drum-beating is at odds with the reality of both poverty and work in modern Britain.

Under Labour, the National Minimum Wage has had a positive effect on the gender pay gap and, together with Working Tax Credits, has significantly raised the incomes of millions of working households. However, the problems of working poverty persist and are only increasing under current conditions. A trawl through IPPR research shows that almost six in ten poor UK households have someone at work, more than ten percent up on a decade ago. In 2006, more than one-fifth of all UK workers were paid £6.67 an hour, equivalent to 60 per cent of full-time median earnings. Handwringing over increased unemployment obscures that section of the population who cannot sufficiently stretch their wages to cover their cost of living, and who endure conditions which can be as stressful and soul-destroying as the full-time search for a job. The modern worker is subject not merely to financial hardship but also to insecurity, long hours, low pay, exploitation and sexual and racial harassment. The TUC’s Commission on Vulnerable Employment reports that over two million people endure “intolerably poor” working lives. As UK unions have been systematically defanged, so protection from increasingly unscrupulous employment practices has been undermined or disregarded. In addition, any party which aims at the emancipation of labour must recognise that material security, and the space and energy it grants us, is a cornerstone of creative and intellectual fulfillment. An insidious effect of working poverty, and the relentless, low-level grinding routine which accompanies it, is its theft of mental as well as physical resources.

Concentrating on driving us into work at any cost, Labour ignores that work is not a guaranteed escape from poverty. There has been little debate on what would constitute a fair wage, or what combination of regulation and support should be available to workers and employers. In politics and media, the issues of low pay, bad conditions, and the many inadequacies of Tax Credits and other attempts to tinker with the basic injustice of wages which fail to keep pace with the cost of living, are overshadowed by issues surrounding the jobless or those in long-term receipt of benefits. While the latter group are sensationalised and demonised, the working poor are almost entirely absent from the arena of debate, and too busy or exhausted to shoulder our way into the spotlight.

This is a situation in which resentment is effortlessly bred, and in which it is easy to lose sight of what unites us. The Labour Party was founded on a desire to prioritise the needs and interests of workers, and, in today’s neo-Victorian socio-economic landscape, these ideals are once again glaringly relevant. Labour must accept that a job is currently not enough to secure a reasonable standard of living, nor is it a safeguard against exploitation, stress and insecurity. Government policies on wages, taxes, credits and benefits must acknowledge the existence of working poverty, identify the problems inherent in employment alongside those of unemployment, and devote a similar amount of resources to tackling them. When the working poor are able to live rather than existing, Labour will have succeeded not only in regaining the support of a core demographic, but also in making employment an appealing prospect in itself rather than a dead-end into which it is obliged to force us under threat of destitution.

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