Monday, 23 February 2015

Decent jobs

On Friday I was interviewed by journalist Tom Esslemont for BBC Radio 4 news about poverty in the north east. The point made by everyone he spoke to was that there are not enough full-time, well-paid, long-term jobs in the north east. Today the front page of The Journal picked up on the same theme. The Trussell Trust (which runs Food Banks) reports that 22% of those seeking help this year were referred because of 'low income' meaning people in jobs and that this is up 6% on the previous year.

To illustrate the point, over the weekend I found out that the retail chain Next recently changed the employment contracts of pretty much all their shop staff to just 13 hours a week apparently to reduce the amount they have to pay for national insurance. Staff who have mortgages, families, childcare costs, financial commitments and could formerly rely on a set number of hours work each week were suddenly and arbitrarily reduced to 13 hour contracts worked over 3 days each week. I am sure Next would say that staff can increase the number of hours they work to suit themselves by exchanging shifts - a system operated online. But the demand for extra hours is so great, shifts are snapped up in seconds.

I heard too that Top Shop only employ staff aged under 18 so that they only have to pay £3.79 an hour Minimum Wage instead of £5.13 for those age 18 to 20 or £6.50 for those age over 21. The Minimum Wage is the minimum employers can legally pay; the Living Wage Foundation recommend the minimum should be £7.85 an hour outside London.

At what point did it become acceptable for any employer to have such limited regard for the legitimate needs of their employees? Mahatma Gandhi listed 'Commerce without morality' amongst his 7 deadly sins:
The seven deadly sins
Mahatma Gandhi
Wealth without work,
Pleasure without conscience,
Knowledge without character,
Commerce without morality,
Science without humanity,
Worship without sacrifice, and
Politics without principle.

And in 'The Wealth of Nations' (1776) Adam Smith identified five moral problems created by capitalism: impoverishing the spirit of the workers, creating cities in which anonymity will facilitate price-fixing, expanding the ranks of the rich who lack virtue, inducing government to create monopolies and privileges, and separating ownership and management in ways that lead to what we now call agency problems.

Fortunately not all retailers are behaving like 19th century mill owners; I did also hear about cosmetic shop Lush who do pay their staff the Living Wage rate.

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