You Just Haven’t Earned it Yet, Baby

August 30, 2012

ImageChris Grayling, standing before the hopes of a generation

Chris Grayling wants to bring back slavery. OK, OK, he wants unemployed young people to work for free in order to earn their benefits, which clearly isn’t a variant of slavery. Writing in the Evening Standard, the Employment minister has announced that, in selected London boroughs, “Every young person who has done less than six months’ previous work will be asked to take part — and if they refuse, they will not be able to claim benefits.” This may then be rolled out across the nation, “giving those young people a much better start” than “head[ing] straight into the welfare state.” Seemingly undeterred by the utter failure of government contractor A4E to find work for the unemployed, the government apparently believes that stints of free labour will puff up the CVs of young people sufficiently to make their flirtation with Jobseekers’ Allowance a thing of the past. Will it, heck.

The first thing to say about the proposal is that it will be counter-productive. By forcing large numbers of young unemployed people to work for nothing, many paid employees will either not be hired, or will be forced to work for less or not at all. In the context of the kinds of workplaces mentioned in connection to the scheme, such as homes for the elderly, this suggests a secondary motive behind his thinking. By giving young people unpaid work to do, the profits of care providers can be subsidised. This is somewhat ironic, given that Grayling claims to be tackling a “something for nothing culture.” It also raises questions about the impact that using untrained, unpaid labour will have in such workplaces. Care homes already have a dire reputation following well publicised scandals and mounting costs for individual care. Unleashing thousands of poorly trained and unmotivated workers upon residents would surely lead to some extra challenges, which the sector could do without.

The second point is that if we accept the contention that “if you haven’t yet had the chance to make a financial contribution, then it’s not at all unreasonable to ask you to give something to the community before it gives something to you” then your unpaid contribution has to be proportionate to the support you receive. Benefits for unemployed young people are not very generous. Jobseekers’ Allowance for those aged between 16 and 24 comes in at £56.25, hardly a king’s ransom. At minimum wage levels, that would equate to 9.25 hours of work per week, if we take the over 21 wage rate as a guide. However, Grayling suggests that young unemployed people be forced to undertake 3 months full-time work, in order to qualify for their £56 allowance. That works out at around 480 hours of work, to earn £672, or a very ungenerous £1.40 per hour. While Grayling is right to say that this is not “slavery”, it is certainly a deeply exploitative scheme designed to deliver cheap labour to vested interests, and one that is guaranteed to generate cynicism amongst young people, without any guaranteed means of furthering their “careers.”

Thirdly, it is probably a good idea to have a look again at the central point that ” if you haven’t yet had the chance to make a financial contribution, then it’s not at all unreasonable to ask you to give something to the community before it gives something to you.” This is problematic on a number of levels. Firstly, it doesn’t make sense to penalize those emerging from education for not contributing money that they haven’t yet been able to earn. Grayling’s statement only really makes sense if applied to those who have earned a great deal from the community but not then paid their fair share back. Tax dodgers like Philip Green spring to mind, not the legions of young people who see no prospect of landing a decent job, can’t afford training and are being constantly stigmatised from on high as leeches and layabouts. Secondly, the idea that young unemployed people extract resources from a “community” is problematic, particularly when employed by a hard-right Tory. I presume that Chris Grayling more or less agrees with the Thatcherite dictum that “there is no such things as society etc…” but he is happy to employ the notion of a broader “community” when it suits his ideological aim, which is to divide up the poor, categorising them according to politically loaded moral qualities. I suspect that by “community” Grayling means “taxpayer” and by “taxpayer” he means “the rich” which, while strictly inaccurate in a fiscal sense, makes perfect moral sense to those who see only laziness and fecklessness amongst the poor.

A fourth point is that Grayling’s proposal seeks to punish young people collectively. While arguing that “some who really are sitting at home and putting little effort into moving on  in life”, his proposal will stick “Most young people [who] are trying very hard to find work” in the same category, and unpaid “jobs.” This is a mistake, and not just in terms of everyday fairness. By creating a pool of unpaid labour constituted solely of young people, the whole cohort is stigmatized. Employers get used to having a few free youngsters around, courtesy of Job Centre Plus (soon no doubt to be “mega super job centre ultra plus”). The entry-level wages of many young workers will be adjusted accordingly, and more “apprenticeships” will crop up, paying between the £56 per week benefit and £243 per week minimum wage. And this will all become perfectly natural and moral. After all, these youngsters are being taught how to work, and would otherwise decay slowly in front of their XBoxes, sloping out only to buy buckets of crack and six packs of taxpayer funded Diamond White. Making them work for nothing, or almost nothing, becomes a moral necessity. Labour dignifies them and raises them up (literally, from the couch, but spiritually too). African slavery was justified in almost precisely these terms. Not a coincidence.

It is tempting to see Grayling’s op-ed for the Standard as just another hard-right fusillade to stoke the fires of lumpen rage at moochers and leeches. It is certainly thin on evidence to support his ideas. It is hard to take a proposal which uses only anecdotal testimony by “A young man at the end of a busy shift behind a bar. A few months out of school, in his first job” too seriously. Indeed, is Grayling arguing that young people “a few months out of school” have exhausted the patience of the community and must now be enslaved to protect their future employability? Tough love, I’d say. And are post-pub conversations really the best means of formulating social policy (even if, we have to suspect, such methods are pretty conventional)?

There is a serious problem with youth unemployment in the UK. The number of young NEETs (those not in education, employment or training) hovers at around 1m, and won’t be falling anytime soon. But this can’t be disentangled from the broader problem of unemployment and the lack of jobs for anyone. Young people are affected more acutely in some cases, as they lack experience and lose out to older jobseekers, but everyone is penalised by the sluggish economy. And this unemployment is not really caused by people lacking motivation, or even skills. The fundamental cause of unemployment is an unwillingness on the part of the rich to either invest in job creation (a kind of capital strike continues, with low bank lending and corporate investment) or to pay their way via increased taxes which could be used to stimulate the economy through public investment.

The role of corporations is also important. At present, job growth and corporate profits are not closely linked. Firms can boost profits by shifting jobs overseas, by forcing workers to work harder and longer hours, or for less pay, by investing in productivity enhancing technology or realising economies of scale. While economists would say that the benefits of such cost cutting feed back into society through cheaper goods, this is far from guaranteed. After all, a sizable chunk of the benefits are siphoned into tax havens and luxury goods consumption, which generates few jobs. And there is no guarantee that firms will pass on savings to customers (see companies, gas or banks, or supermarkets). What is happening is that money is being captured by a small number of people, with corporations being used as a formidable tool, a kind of fishing net, while small businesses struggle to secure funding and, when they do, have to compete against the force of corporate monopolies.

Remedying this would require a lot of actions which are unpalatable to Tories. So it won’t happen soon. But it pays to remember that unemployment is not primarily a moral failing, at least not on the part of the poor. It is generated structurally, and must be fought on that terrain, not in the minds or on the CVs of its victims. That should be a truism. After a century of sociological dissection, it is depressing that politics should descend so easily into abject moralizing, but there we are. It’s the human scale way of seeing economics which hard-right strategists exploit so well, and that the left still fails to engage. It would be simple, and refreshing, for Labour to respond with a broadside against the idle and greedy rich, siphoning fuel from society’s petrol tank and jetting off to the Cayman’s, but it’s also very hard to imagine.

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