Shirkers versus strivers – those have been the terms of this week’s biggest debate, over the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill.
Many important points have been made about the ridiculousness of the government’s various claims about the closed blinds or curtains of those who they identify as the “shirkers”, the unemployed – which will presumably include many of the employees of Jessops , who on the government’s account this week are strivers but will soon be “shirkers”. (Not to mention the fact that closed blinds in the morning might well indicate a night-shift worker…)
Many of the progressive side have, rightly, been rushing to say that people trapped in unemployment are not shirkers. It’s a term that, in the usual terms of the debate, rightly has a bad name.
But shirkers there are.
Group one of the shirkers are the employers who’ve shirked their responsibility to provide decently paid, secure, reliable jobs on which their staff can build a life, and that can be the foundation of the a secure, stable economy – which the future of their businesses must ultimately depend on. The CEOs and CFOs and their henchpeople have certainly shirked their responsibility to look beyond the next quarter’s profit-and-loss accounts, and their own annual bonuses.
We can offer excuses for some employers – the small retail businesses struggling to compete against the multinational giants who’ve been enjoying tax-dodging and monopolist benefits on a huge scale, the small wholesalers, farmers and manufacturers who’ve seen their profit margins squeezed by the same giant customers.
But there are no excuses for the profitable multinational giants, which have privileged the position of their shareholders and top managers at the expense of their staff – and their own long-term future, for ultimately they need customers who can afford their products, and staff on a minimum wage well below the level of a living wage, on part-time contracts and short shifts to maximise company convenience, and on the obscenity of zero-hours contract can’t do that. It’s the old Henry Ford story – he knew he needed to pay his production workers enough to buy their own Model Ts.
And there’s a second group of shirkers: the leaders of successive governments. The former Labour government has to bear a large share of the blame – how could it be after 13 years of their regime that the minimum wage was significantly, in the South East hugely, below a living wage, that people working in a full time job needed significant benefits – housing benefit and family tax credits – simply to survive?
Of course, the blame lies with more than just the single figure of an inadequate minimum wage. Labour did nothing against job insecurity, short-hours shifts and zero-hours contracts – indeed cut further the already Thatcher-slashed ability of the unions to fight for better conditions.
And it swallowed hook-line-and-sinker the neoliberal line about Britain being able to abandon food growing and manufacturing – importing essentials from developing nations, plundering their water and soils, exploiting their grossly underpaid workers – while relying on the “genius” of bankers and the luxury industries servicing them and their friends as a foundation for the British economy, a foundation that it turns out was built on shifting sands of fraud, incompetence and incomprehension of risk.
Further, it ignored the fact that in the low-carbon world we need to be moving towards fast supply chains must be shortened – the distance from field to plate for food cut to a minimum (for reasons of cost as well as carbon emissions), that most goods need to be made much closer to where they are needed.
What a shirking of responsibility that was.
But beyond the blame, we can look to the positive green economic shoots, the small signs of the future, the small businesses, cooperatives, social enterprises and community groups - the true strivers, who against all of the odds, against the efforts of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition to intensify the neo-Thatcherite policies in Blair-Brownism, are trying to start to rebuild a sustainable British economy.
Whether it is the Transition groups  up and down the country, promoting food growing, jam-making, baking and encouraging crafts, innovative small co-operatives like Who Made Your Pants?  or The People’ s Supermarket  who are building a new model of business, or groups setting up new community-owned generation schemes, there are strivers who are now trying, from the grassroots, working to build the new British economy.
And then there’s the countless other individual strivers – the parents struggling to give their children a decent life with inadequate funds, going without meals themselves so their children eat properly; the carers who for the measly sum of £58.45 labour huge hours, with inadequate chances for relief, for their loved ones; the unemployed who battle on for employment, completing courses, putting in applications, even in the face of multiple knockbacks and government insults.
So maybe we can rescue the terms shirkers and strivers. Let’s highlight the real shirkers – most of whom fit in the Occupy classification of the 1% - and celebrate the many strivers, the 99%. With those ratios, the future of Britain can only be bright.