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Book review Capital sins

Journalist James Bloodworth is shocked while working clandestinely to see that 21st century Britain employment practices have regressed to the level of 19th century inhumanity and abuse

Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-wage Britain
by James Bloodworth
(Atlantic Books, £12.99)

 
Don’t be put off by the bizarre endorsements from Blairite MPs, Tory journalists and Theresa May’s former chief of staff, Hired is a devasting exposé of the extent to which capitalism is ruining lives and communities in Britain.

James Bloodworth blends reportage, statistics and socio-political analysis to assess the impact of exploitative employment.  His case studies of precarious and poorly paid work in four commercial sectors and four UK regions, are moving, but the book’s strength is its readiness to examine personal experience in relation to class and an economy based on the notion that people are disposable.

Bloodworth’s journey begins at an Amazon warehouse in Staffordshire, a workplace exhibiting common features of the gig economy. He is subjected to humiliating searches, constantly threatened with redundancy, tracked by handheld devices, denied proper breaks and constantly urged to speed up.

Transgressions in punctuality, performance and sickness result in the allocation of penalty points. Those who accrue sufficient points are fired. The command and control approach to management is masked by feelgood slogans and euphemisms.  Staff are not sacked, they are “released.”

Bloodworth sees work at the Amazon Fulfilment Centre as the realisation of the “scientific” management theory of Frederick W Taylor (1911).  This treated workers as a subhuman species in the quest to maximise exploitation of people for profit.

Moving to Blackpool, he enters the home care sector on a zero-hours contract. His colleagues, who tend to be women, are poorly treated and there is a high staff turnover. The work is gruelling, payment proves haphazard and vulnerable elderly people are denied decent levels of care and contact.  Some councils, he reports, set the length of a home visit at 15 minutes.

Bloodworth works In the South Wales valleys as a “renewals consultant,” attempting to sell car insurance to resistant and irritated customers.  The pay is poor, but the conditions are tolerable. 

In London, he works as an Uber driver, a role offering the disadvantages of self-employment but few of the advantages.  Workers accept financial risks delegated by the company but are obliged to take every job they are “offered.” 

As in the Amazon warehouse, many of his colleagues are migrant workers, accepting roles rejected by British-born people.  Bloodworth is clear that the solution to poorly paid and insecure work is a struggle for improved standards, not stricter control of national borders.  

Hired focuses on people and places as well as work.  Old industries that offered better-paid and more secure work, fostering a sense of self-worth, have been obliterated by automation, globalisation and changes in fashion. 

Trade union representation has fallen, and Bloodworth notes a damaging lack of solidarity. 

He paints an alarming picture of declining health and well-being. The demise of Blackpool as a holiday venue, for example, has been accompanied by a rise in prostitution and suicide.

Hired offers a vivid insight into the appalling conditions endured by many of our fellow workers and a timely reminder that economic change is long overdue.

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