The employers and the MPs are the real shirkers

The tiny minority that runs big business and politics has failed the hard-working majority in Britain.

Shirkers versus strivers those have been the terms of this weeks biggest debate, over the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill.

Many important points have been made about the ridiculousness of the governments 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 governments 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. Its 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 whove 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 quarters 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 whove been enjoying tax-dodging and monopolist benefits on a huge scale, the small wholesalers, farmers and manufacturers whove 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 cant do that. Its the old Henry Ford story he knew he needed to pay his production workers enough to buy their own Model Ts.

And theres 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 Peoples 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 theres 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. Lets 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.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. Source: Getty

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.