A nation of powerless workers and inequality
The name Margaret Thatcher is one that resonates with more or less every single person the UK. It is met with scoffing or near hatred by most working class and a sense of pride and ‘Britishness’ with others. The connotations of the stern and confident female leader is enough to make any Conservative Party supporter weak an the knees and think of the good old days. The days when LGBTIQ+ rights in the classroom were silenced and we used excessive force against Argentinian navy ships to install British pride. Let’s face it, they’re certainly not getting the Iron Lady 2 with Theresa May who is as strong and stable as mercury at room temperature but just as ‘likeable’ to the majority of the working class.
The discussion of having a statue of Thatcher erected outside Westminster has gone on for sometime now. It seems to have surfaced again more recently with supporters across the political spectrum. I understand she was the first female Prime Minister but I don’t feel that justifies being set in stone, or in iron with a large swinging handbag as some doting commentators have joked, especially since we are all standing on the monument to Thatcherism. We stand in country with a welfare state that is being decimated, bureaucratically alienated from it’s users and stigmatised by the right wing press and the ‘just about managing’.
We live in a country with a shameful social housing sector which was sold off for state profit with Maggie’s ‘vote winning’ right to buy scheme. Yes this allowed many working class people to own a property but it has residualised social housing and saw the decline of the desire-ability of housing estates once sought after under state ownership. I could go on and on about other ideological policies that inflicted harm on the working class people of the UK in the 1980’s but discussing the Poll Tax needs it’s own blog or political essay.
When Thatcher came into power in 1979 she had won to fight the unions. The ‘winter of discontent’ had triggered a political shift to Conservatism and she brought her ‘traditional school teacher’ attitude to politics. A strong woman ‘of the people’ to take on the male domination of Trade Unions who were, in Thatcher’s opinion, scuppering the UK’s productivity and holding public services to ransom. The planned and aggressive butchering of trade union rights through the plethora of legislation passed transformed employment relations in this country. Simultaneously her government went on to sell off public utilities including coal mining, gas providers and water.
The ideological assumption was that a competitive market would improve service delivery, keep costs down and the productivity in these industries would be improved; look how that has worked out. This was a turbulent time for manufacturing as a whole and the working class communities right across the country.
The miner’s strike of 1983/84 is a prominent memory and artefact in history of how aggressive and ideological Thatcher’s regime was in empowering employers and weakening trade unions and the employees. This whole period of time could be, and actually has, it’s own textbook but fast forward to today we see that ideology played out in favour of Thatcher. The neo-liberal agenda and quest for a free unregulated market was not accidental and was not halted or minimised under 13 years of a New Labour government.
Today where huge industrial estates and other hard industry once stood we see retail parks and leisure parks. Where small independent businesses used to occupy our high streets we see national and multi-national chain corporations occupy those sites which still remain open. In Scotland around 25% of the working population work in the service sector including retail, sales or hospitality. Just under ten percent of Scot’s work in hotels or restaurants. Traditionally the vast majority Scottish workforce was employed in manufacturing, production, energy extraction or manual labour. Some commentators assert the reduction in this type of work is because many more women are now in the workplace, which takes up just over 40% of the today’s workforce, but this is down to the decimation of industry which is echoed in areas like Northern England and parts of Wales.
This is significant because service sector workers tend not to have collective representation or be represented by trade unions; hindering their bargaining power with employers. In fact unions in the UK have seen membership decline massively and only have ‘real’ authority remaining within the public sector. However, public sector trade unions are under attack from Theresa May’s government with the austerity led public sector pay cap weakening the only strong remaining trade union movement in the UK. In the UK’s service sector is where we see some of the lowest wages, precarious working conditions and low skilled repetitive work. Many of these jobs have face-to-face customer interaction 100% of the time which exposes the employee to high levels of exhausting emotional labour which can lead to burnout.
The precarious types of employment can manifest in zero hour contracts (ZHC) or as ‘self-employed’ style of working with a central employer; referred to as the ‘gig-economy’. If an employee is on a ZHC they have no guaranteed amount of working hours per week from their employer. This gives the employer the ability to have the manpower when it is required but scale down and not have to pay employees when they’re not needed. This can also make it possible for employers to stop giving hours to employees that don’t ‘fit’ or don’t produce high levels of productivity. Having hours cut or removed completely is common if a staff member is ‘problematic’ or seen to be a trouble maker; meaning the employer holds nearly all the power. This type of working conditions are expected in retail and hospitality and becoming more and more normalised and widely accepted as ‘how it is’ these days. Employees with limited influence or power can do very little and as these jobs are relatively low skilled a disgruntled employee can be replaced relatively easily and quickly.
The gig-economy is a self-employed type of working arrangement with a single employer. This means you’re a worker for that employer but not an employee of them meaning you don’t receive all the same benefits or rights as employees. This is common in the growing courier companies, such as DHL and Hermes, where employees must rent their vehicle, uniforms or even buy the fuel for delivering the parcels. This model of employment is also present in companies such as the taxi firm Uber. This manifests by an App providing drivers with the customer pick ups and they have their service scored and graded by the customer. The employee can also be monitored centrally by management to ensure their productivity, working hours and even levels of customer service are above targets; set by management. What we now see in the new employment age is employees being controlled by an App on their phone which they require to utilise to gain access to work. The Conservative Government ‘investigated’ these types of employment practices and recently imposed that these employees must receive the National ‘Living’ Wage and be entitled to annual leave but they did not address the core issues of power, control and the really precarious nature of the job. Companies that adopt the gig-economy model can revoke the offer of work for that day with no notice or state they are not meeting the required standard of work and not offer work going forward. This cuts out the very lengthy performance management procedure and prevents the employer being taken to tribunal.
These two common manifestations of precarious work have installed uncertainty, in-work poverty and further job degradation and deskilling. The jobs are designed to be as simplified and controlled as possible, often by technology as the first contact ‘line manager’, resulting in very little autonomy. It is known that job satisfaction and organisational commitment predominantly comes from autonomous flexible work but in the precarious age of work it’s more profitable to have de skilled, repetitive and highly controlled types of job roles.
So what has this created? What does it have to do with Margaret Thatcher? The answer is a nation of powerless workers and the employer holding most, if not all, of the power. The precarious and low paid jobs occupied by a chunk of the Scottish workforce result in employees essentially being trapped in in-work poverty and an uncertain financial position due to having no employment security. In the hospitality sector, where less than 2% of the workforce has trade union membership, this is the kind of working practices that are on offer. In our contemporary labour market, which is amongst the most unequal in the ‘developed’ world, we see cases of CEO’s being paid 125 times more than a junior member of staff. We see the need and utilisation of foodbanks increase every month due to in-work poverty and the implementation of the heartless Universal Credit welfare reforms. This is extreme Thatcherism. An unregulated employment market free from collective bargaining and trade union interference. We all live and work in the monument sculpted by Thatcher’s Government’s ideological ideals, and this monument has been embellished by New Labour and Coalition/Conservative Governments that served after her. We don’t need reminded by a glorified statue outside the Palace of Westminster because we are reminded everyday. Reminded that in the sixth largest economy in the world the wealth inequality is scandalous and it is an eye sore. Let’s look at building on that rather than fawning after a Prime Minister that inflicted such social harm on the people she was elected to represent.
Brian Finlay – MSc Student of Human Resource Management
maggies legacy is still destroying our country today , weak or no unions , poor is getting poor’er .more food banks than ever in this countrys life , social housing has never recovered , thatcher mite be dead ,but shes still killing this country .
You’ve covered it, Brian. If I was on Facebook – I’d share this. And, you not only cover it, you express it well, too. A really good, sound, solid piece of writing – with true feeling.
I’ll put in my tuppenceworth –
First, that image of Thatcher – perfect – just LOOK at her!
Second – I lived in Wales, mid Wales, in the seventies and eighties, including the time of the miner’s strike. I honestly don’t think folk today can get a grasp on what was happening there, and in the mining areas of the North of England – everyone involved knew what the plan was, they fought and fought – and were beaten. The plan worked – Unions emasculated. As you can tell – still gets me angry.
One thing – don’t the employers realise that they would actually get better work from a work force with a feeling of loyalty and pride in their work? It’s true – that happens. And it needs to work both ways. But no, it’s all about profit and power now. And what good will it do them, in the long run? You can’t take it with you.
I wasn’t there at the miners stoke but I had studied it in detail and coming from a working class Scottish background have some understanding of it. To have lived through it tho is a dream deferent thing all together.
Employers are aware the quality of the work they’re getting from the work force is of poorer quality but the jobs have been deskilled and the control mechanisms that are in place keep productivity up. The turnover of staff is much higher but employers are expecting this now as the ‘job for life’ doesn’t exist anymore but organisations could improve their retention is they wanted to but choose this model as they easily replace unskilled labour.
The biggest implication of this is the workers well-being and financial security but the profit maximisation at the top is the priority….
Yes but yes but….I do get like a terrier with a stick about things, sometimes – here goes……..Even what would be seen as ‘unskilled’ work, requires some skills, and the lack or presence of those can make a huge different, to everyone concerned.
You go into a cafe, the person serving you, is happy enough to do that job – it shows, you get a ‘hello’, pass the time of day, the table is clean, the food arrives, etc. etc. It’s all just …better. Alternatively – same cafe, bad work place – tension – fear – maybe a lot of folk don’t pick up on it, but I do, and I think others do, too.
And, what is ‘unskilled’? You can either do something, anything, right, or not – even the simplest tasks. Sorry – I could go off on one here about taking pride, and paying attention to and being involved in even the simplest mundane tasks, and how much that matters, not only to the outcome, but also to the well-being of the person doing the task. I believe it to be important for a person’s working life to have something in it that they can properly participate in, and which lets them feel that they are ‘needed’, even if that simply means cleaning a floor or serving up school dinners. This isn’t being patronising – my Mum was a school cleaner and dinner-lady.
Going back to the old days of agricultural workers, working the land, they didn’t have many rights, unfortunately – but did have a pride in and knowledge of what they did, and knew that that knowledge was needed to do it right. I’m not living in a dream world about the past, with the happy labourers willing to give their all for ‘The Master’ – but – any sensible landowner knew the value of good workers, and knew that they would pay the price, if they didn’t treat folk right.
Employers who feel that they can get away with treating their employees abominably – need to realise that even in the case of ‘easily replaceable’, ‘un-skilled’ work – there is a difference between someone who knows the job and knows what they are doing, and someone who doesn’t. Even if they don’t care a damn about the well-being of their work force, they must see that it can end up costing them more, in the long run , to have this attitude. If they don’t know this, the way to show them is to not use their company/ premises/whatever. Trouble is, the customer/consumer, today, is also tending to accept the situation at the present time as being just how things are. (All those jokes about an Uber cab taking folk to the wrong place etc.) Well – doesn’t have to be seen as acceptable. Let them know when you disagree with what they are doing – here’s the origin of the word, ‘boycott’………..
We’re basically in agreement, Brian – I do tend to get incensed about certain things, one of those things, being unfairness, in any form.
If a person does good work, then that should be acknowledged in their pay and conditions of service – and pay and conditions of service are being whittled, whittled , whittled away.
I know – that’s what you were writing about! I’ll go away now.
To my mind – this is a fitting monument to Maggie Thatcher…………….
A museum of mining – no mines, but a museum of mining. ‘Nuff said.