Disposable Britain

Friday, 16 August 2013

It’s no secret that apartheid was brokered in Britain. The logic of that policy condemned surplus labourers in South Africa to black reserves where they could rot and die at minimal cost to the system. The same economic cunning is now being used against the natives back home. Zero-hour contracts, which strip away workplace rights, have “spread like wildfire” – even to Buckingham Palace. Long live the Queen! The welfare state is dead. This is the age of disposable people.

A survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has revealed there are as many as a million zero-hour workers in the UK – four times the official estimate. They’re on call and must be ready to deploy when required. Employers, however, are not obliged to provide work or guarantee any income. They can also dispense with hard-won rights like sick leave, maternity benefits, holiday pay and pensions.

Public alarm at the extent of the practice has forced politicians to make soothing noises. They all sing from the same neo-liberal hymn sheet; the contracts give workers the freedom to choose their shifts and provide vital labour market flexibility. That’s not what workers think.

Andrew Hyams who has real experience says, “Zero-hour contracts make people’s lives insecure so that companies can treat human beings like disposable objects… If you are unhappy about anything related to your workplace, you become scared of mentioning it lest you are denied work the following week…I know people who have forked out for the commute only to be sent home. In theory, the worker can turn down hours if they are inconvenient without repercussions. Yet those who don’t comply are often not asked again.”

The contracts first appeared in low-skilled leisure and hospitality industries. McDonald’s, Britain’s biggest food chain employs 90 percent of its staff, more than 80,000 workers, on zero-hour contracts. The retail giant, Sports Direct retains all of its 20,000 part-time staff on the same basis. At Amazon zero-hour staff complain they are monitored by GPS trackers, searched at airport-style security check-points and penalized for talking to colleagues, taking sick leave or even spending too long in the bathroom.

Most of these workers are tied to a single employer. In the case of Buckingham Palace the contract states: “You are employed to work exclusively for Royal Collection Enterprises Limited (a Palace subsidiary) and if you wish to seek secondary employment you must first obtain the written consent of your Head of Department.” South Africa’s notorious pass-laws were also designed to curtail labour mobility.

Since 2005 the number of “zero-hour” contracts has more than doubled and they’re now prevalent in the public sector and skilled areas like education. They only affect some 3 percent of the workforce but are an ominous sign of the direction in which Britain is headed. Comparisons have been drawn with the plight of unregulated workers in the Satanic Mills of the industrial revolution, casually employed and brutally discarded.

The analogy is fair, or will be as things get worse. Certainly increasing the vulnerability of workers will contribute to an endemic culture of bullying at work. The kingdom is now a wanton plutocracy. Obscene inequality is blamed on the laziness of the poor who refuse to get rich and instead burden the taxpayer. The government says it has slashed benefits to force people into work. But the Centre for Economic and Social Exclusion found that less then one in eight families have any chance of finding employment. Almost a million families will lose, at the least, £1,600 a year as a result of the benefits squeeze.

Thousands deemed to have an extra bedroom – no matter how small or useful – will have a further £50 a month deducted from benefits they receive only because they get paid so badly. Even disabled people are being forced to leave homes they can no longer afford to live in. The High Court has dismissed claims that the “bedroom tax” unlawfully discriminates against them.

This vicious pettiness is supposed to revive a stagnant economy crashed by the banks. Nobody seriously believes that – not even the comrades at the IMF. Besides, economic policy has been replaced by an operating system designed to facilitate the theft of the nation’s assets and wealth by a new class of robber barons.

In line with best practice the looting is conducted by private corporations under the doctrine of Gross Domestic Product – the bizarre notion that paid work, no matter how wasteful or destructive, contributes to “economic growth”. The redistribution of income is achieved by devious means. They include the issue of an infinite number of parking tickets, bailing-out banks and bombing various countries illegally.

The Dons who run this casino economy find industrial capitalism tedious. They don’t get their hands dirty directly shafting workers. Counterfeiting is their speciality. Adair Turner, formerly Britain’s top financial regulator blamed the financial crisis of 2007/08 on the unrestricted ability of the private banking system to create credit and money. He could have added that this gives the money-men total control over government and allows them to drain the real economy.

The rest of the pack, who can’t conjure money out of thin air, must rely on cheap and disposable workers for their profits. The downside – and a persistent irritation for capitalist production thus far – is that workers on the minimum wage do not make great consumers. And as inequality soars, spending becomes the rich man’s burden. Analysts at Citigroup, “the leading global bank” (200 million accounts in 160 countries) have been prescient.

In 2005 and 2006 Citi published advisories on “Plutonomy”. Ajay Kapur, a global strategist at the bank is credited with coining the term. It describes a society in which most of the wealth is controlled by an ever decreasing minority. Economic growth depends on how this “Managerial Aristocracy” spends its money. Its members are the only consumers who matter. The US, UK and Canada were identified as prime plutonomies.

Citi’s “Plutonomy Memos” argued affirmative action was needed to help the rich retain a fatter profit share. “The Managerial Aristocracy, like in the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, and the thriving nineties, needs to commandeer a vast chunk of that rising profit share, either through capital income, or simply paying itself a lot.”

Since the memos were written inequality has boomed. Last month the biggest US banks reported profits were up between 20 and 100 percent on the previous year. Citigroup’s profits topped $4.18 billion, up 42%. Last year John Stumpf (Wells Fargo) got $19.3 million; Jamie Dimon (J. P. Morgan Chase) $18.7 million and Lloyd Blankfein (Goldman Sachs) $13.3 million. Clearly there’s no need to worry about positive discrimination– or the danger of bankers denying themselves.

Citi assessed the risks of stoking resentment through the outsourcing of jobs and the use of cheaper migrant labour. It also considered the threat of a potential social backlash. It concluded this was unlikely to happen as long as enough of the electorate believed they had a chance of becoming “Pluto-participants”. What the memos don’t mention is that the governments of the plutonomies have long been preparing to quell any dissent.

They’re equipped with the finest military hardware taxpayers can buy, the latest surveillance technology and robots and drones to send into action. Constitutional rights have been shredded, legal safeguards dismantled and internment camps await protestors. In the US the army can now be used against citizens. Meanwhile a fraudulent war on terror is used to frighten and disorientate while a campaign against the poor and immigrants breeds suspicion and division. Economic insecurity is ratcheted to keep the peasants in place. The US is already a prison state.

Those facts make Plutonomy UK a serious contender. Capitalism’s inherent contradiction – the inability of workers to buy back the value of their production – disappears. So does capitalism. Production is concentrated on servicing the needs of the plutocrats. Workers, obsolete as consumers, can simply be replaced by machines. A servant class re-emerges to cater hand and foot to the new managerial aristocracy ensconced in fortified plantations and estates. Significantly there are no policy alternatives. Austerity measures are deliberately designed to increase inequality. The government has not even threatened to ban zero-hour contracts. I suspect it’s disposable Britons this time.


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