When wages becomes a radical demand

On Twitter the other day, someone asked “When did a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work become a radical demand?” Truth is that this demand has always been a radical one.  For as long as people have had others work for them they have sought to extract surplus value from their labour.  What has become a radical demand is the idea that people should get any pay.

This week Cait Reilly and Jamieson Williamson took the UK government to court over being forced to work for no pay. In Reilly’s case, she was forced to gave up a voluntary, unpaid position in her area of expertise, to undertake routine tasks for no pay at a major high street retailer.  Wilson has his benefits stopped for three months after he refused to work unpaid for six months as a cleaner.  Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which the UK state is a signatory states:

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.
No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.

For the purpose of this article the term forced or compulsory labour’ shall not include:

(a) any work required to be done in the ordinary course of detention imposed according to the provisions of Article 5 of this Convention or during conditional release from such detention;

(b) any service of a military character or, in case of conscientious objectors in countries where they are recognized, service exacted instead of compulsory military service;

(c) any service exacted in case of an emergency or calamity threatening the life or well-being of the community;

(d) any work or service which forms part of normal civic obligations.

Basing access to benefits to which claimants are legally entitled on whether or not labour is undertaken is a clear breach of this Article.  The work undertaken by Reilly and Wilson could not be considered “training” in any meaningful form.  No training is required to empty boxes, stack shelves or clean beyond a quick induction.  These companies simply managed to obtain free labour, while the DWP saved money if they didn’t – a win/win scenario for the capitalists.  Leaving someone starving with no means to pay for their accomodation or bills plunges them into a downward spiral.  Homelessness, poverty, relationship breakdowns and beaurocratic headaches follow as people spend their days trying to keep their lives on track.  That threat of destitution hanging over your head, leads you to accept the unacceptable.

And workfare is the unacceptable, not just for those who are forced to labour under it, but for those who no longer have paid labour as a result of the free labour flooding into the market.  Why should someone be employed to stack shelves, when the jobcentre can provide someone for free.  Why should people be paid for guarding the Queen’s knees up – ensuring the safety of old rich white men while they thank Lizzie for all her hard work and sacrifice, while they shiver in fields and sleep under bridges.  It is after all a privilege.  As redundancies grow, short time working becomes more common and contracts become ever more precarious, the existence of a free source of labour imperils the security of  hundreds of thousands of low paid workers, who are replacable instantly; their security of employment undermined by Cameron’s newly proposed “No-fault” redundancies.

Workfare isn’t the only racket for extracting free labour in the UK at the moment tho.  Once you go upscale, internships are all the rage.  Bit posher than workfare, these schemes aren’t aimed at the feckless but at the favoured.   Prestigeous (and not so prestigeous) institutions recognising the dilemma that many young people are caught in in a time of decreasing employment, with skills which may go musty, but a lack of experience which make them less attractive have found a means by which to exploit this.  Offering the opportunity to hob-nob, and a focal point on a C.V., these unpaid placements rarely turn into more than the white collar version of workfare, except for a lucky few – who have external financial and employment support and who can use the thread of internship to pull a few strings behind the scenes.  Ambitious graduates take up these positions in the hope that it may lead to realisation of their learning, instead they find themselves skint, overworked and demoralised.

In Greece, workers are not being paid.  They are not being paid consistantly for months on end.  People are relying on handouts to survive while they live under the threat of losing their homes.  The idea that your wages don’t go in at the end of the month is an anathema to many of us.  Anyone who has been down the cashpoint in the early hours of the morning on payday, so that there will be milk for breakfast can recognise the horror of suddenly realising that your pay hasn’t gone in, and the fear that grips you. Now imagine 6 months of that. Hospital workers, civil servants, journalists and many others in Greece have faced exactly that. Many, for their own sanity turn up to work everyday, hoping that eventually it will be resolved and their pay will go in, but more than that to keep a sense of normality in deeply troubled times.

This expectation of work without pay is amply demonstrated by the obnoxious David Starkey’s behavour at the weekend. When challenged by Laurie Penny on his tax-dodging scams, he took to the podium to denounce her for wishing to be paid for a speaking engagement, when he himself had offered to work for free. How dare this uppity young woman expect to be paid for her labour? Wasn’t she aware that women and the young should feel grateful to be allowed to speak, without ridiculously expecting compensation. Jabbing his finger in her face he became patriarchy personified. The Thomas Paine society has denounced Starkey and his comments, pointing out that Penny did not in actual fact ask for payment, merely for expenses which was a condition of her speaking. Questions tho should be raised at why an organisation named after an anti-colonialist should be providing a platform to a white supremacist in the first place.

To be forced to work for free, either through survival, self-actualisation, sanity or public pressure is unacceptable.

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Murdo Ritchie
Murdo Ritchie

Some media organisations claimed the court decision was due last week for Cait Reilly and Jamieson Williamson. To date, I cannot locate any decision. Undoubedtedly, it will be a challenged decision anyway. It will be interesting to see how judges and barristers who have benefited from unpaid labour by the filtering process of pupillage or "devilling" where they have to work for free for a minimum of two years before being called to the bar can condemn a practice from which they gained?

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