For six months, James Bloodworth went undercover in low-wage jobs around Britain to experience first hand the uncertainty and hardship caused by the current ‘gig economy’, a phrase that he derides for the positive spin it puts on exploitative work models. He acknowledges that he is something of a tourist in these industries, that although he lives in the squalid conditions many workers are forced into he always knows there’s an end point and money in the bank. Nonetheless, it gives a voice to those without the luxury of time and comfort to write a book. It is an eye-opening account of the appalling conditions of workers across the country and a reminder that our use of cheap and convenient services such as Amazon and Uber perpetuate this uncertain job market.
His first job was in an Amazon warehouse in Rugeley in which all staff were on zero hours contracts and conveniently ‘released’ (their word for firing, part of a wider language used to mask the reality of shocking treatment) before they reached nine months and a permanent contract. They were regularly underpaid and fobbed off by the agency who recruited them and consistently treated them with disdain. The working conditions were exhausting and unrelenting – a half hour lunch break fell far short when considering time taken to get to the canteen and through security. Their actions were constantly monitored and they were penalized for too much time idling (including toilet and water breaks) as well as being disciplined for taking a day off sick.
The local community were disgruntled by the outcome that Amazon’s arrival had created. They were promised local rejuvenation but in reality locals did not take jobs at the warehouse. The largely Eastern European workers were shocked that Bloodworth, an Englishman, would choose to work there. People knew the working conditions were substandard and were reluctant to put up with it. It was known that the workforce was largely made up of migrant workers but it was not their presence they were upset about as much as the town’s declining prosperity.
Next he tried his hand at being a care worker in Blackpool. What he discovered was that it was surprisingly easy to get such a job and that the training was inadequate. Most staff were on zero hours, minimum wage contracts and worked long hours often without a break. Bloodworth was clear that it is not a lack of genuine desire to help on the part of the carers so much as unrealistic expectations or insufficient training that led to low levels of care.
Between 1979 and 2012 the amount of NHS and council provided nursing home beds fell from 64% to just 6%. Privatisation has resulted in the focus shifting to profit rather than care. The poor treatment of staff was harder to bear than at Amazon because of the knock-on effect is has on the ‘customer’. The tight schedule meant you weren’t able to just chat to them, something most of them craved. It also encouraged cutting corners as you knew any delays would cause a backlog for the rest of the day.
His third job was working for Admiral in a call-centre in Wales, and although the least offensive of the roles, there was nonetheless a sense of constant surveillance and a false sense of community spirit – enforced ‘fun’ and cringe worthy roleplaying and singing. There was also the intense boredom inherent in so many modern jobs and one of the most challenging aspects of such work.
His final foray into low-wage work was driving for Uber in London. A company that sells itself on the freedom its drivers experience soon proved anything but. The cost to the customer is set by Uber and the driver isn’t told the destination when a job pings through on their phone, meaning they can drive far out of their way for what ends up being a £5 job (less once Uber have taken their share). Drivers are also penalized if they reject too many jobs and are encouraged to stay out for longer and longer hours. They get no workers’ rights because technically they are self-employed yet have to accept work entirely on Uber’s terms. Bloodworth describes a feeling similar to that experienced when gambling, seeing how much you can earn in a day (although it often works out as less than minimum wage).
This book comes highly recommended and will open your eyes to the struggles of thousands of workers around the country. Bloodworth spends time getting to know people in the communities in which he lived and worked, providing a much broader view than his own narrow experience.