No, Jamie Oliver, working 100 hour weeks is not pukka, it’s exploitation

That migrants are often happy to work in scandalous conditions doesn't prove British workers are “wet behind the ears”, it proves we need to improve employment protection.

“What uncouth toilers, in what remote corners of the world, sweated and starved to bring to some comfortable little householder in Upper Tooting his pleasant five per cent?” asked George Dangerfield in his seminal book The Strange Death of Liberal England.

The middle classes have often accepted the necessity of both the British and international working classes “sweating and starving” for the sake of life’s little luxuries. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is only the latest member of the comfortable middle classes to expect, as if by birthright, foreign workers to feel contented working sweatshop-like hours to bring contentment to today’s equivalent of Dangerfield’s “comfortable little householder in Upper Tooting”.

Like many others in a similar financial position today, however, he has a problem: British workers are apparently no longer willing to play their assigned role.

Oliver has made the news a number of times this week, perhaps not unrelated to the fact that he has a new book out. On Tuesday he claimed the poor were spending their money on ready meals and large plasma televisions rather than on nutritious cuisine. On Wednesday he then lamented young British workers who were, he said, “whingeing” and “wet behind the ears”. He went on to unfavourably contrast them with their Eastern Europeans, who are apparently putting in 18-hour shifts without so much as raising an eyebrow. (Don’t bet against him wading into the debate on Syria by the weekend.)

Oliver’s curiosity as to why the poor appear keener on dining out at the local chippy than staying in and eating rotten bread and homemade potted duck received a great deal of (largely disparaging) media coverage. This is as it should be, for as George Orwell explained in The Road to Wigan Pier, “The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food.”

But yesterday’s comments by Oliver on the apparent lethargy of the British working classes are perhaps worse than his remarks about the dietary intake of the poor, for they reflect a view conveniently held by the wealthy that there is some mysterious virtue in people (other people, of course) being exploited by wealthy employers.

In an interview with Good Housekeeping, the house journal of the suburban middle classes, Oliver claimed that young workers today needed to be able to “knock out seven 18-hour days in a row”. This he described as “a basic approach to physical work”.

On the political right it has long been fashionable to knock migrants, either for not speaking English, for speaking English too well (and therefore taking all ‘our’ jobs), or for essentially being foreign and expecting more from life than a few pounds a day working in a Soviet-era rust bucket. Liberal members of the middle class, however, are equally apt to lionise migrant workers for putting up with exploitative conditions at the expense of their British counterparts, who apparently have the front to believe there is more to life than filling their employer’s coffers.

As I recently wrote on The Staggers and as others have written before me, the white working class remains about the only group in Britain it is acceptable to disparage in polite liberal company. Throw in a few words about how brilliant foreign workers are and you will still be able to pose at posh London dinner parties as a bleeding-heart progressive only with enhanced credentials for your 'open mindedness'.

What, though, is virtuous about being exploited?

Oliver may well boast that when he was in his 20s “the average working hours in a week was (sic) 80 to 100”. The mistake is the corresponding assumption that the proceeding reduction in labour time and its replacement with leisure has been in any way a bad thing. As well as 100-hour weeks, for much of Oliver’s 20s there would also have been no minimum wage and prior to that no effective laws preventing employers from discriminating against disabled workers.

Hardly halcyon days.

Working 100-hours a week is what happens when employment protections are insufficiently strong and employers excessively greedy. The fact that migrants from developing countries are often happy to work in scandalous conditions in no way makes those conditions acceptable. It means there is work to be done in educating migrant workers on what to expect in the workplace, as well as in schooling them in effective union organisation so as to take a bigger share of the pie from multi-millionaire employers like Jamie Oliver. 

Jamie Oliver speaks to an audience about responsible eating during an engagement at the Wheeler Centre on March 6, 2012 in Melbourne, Australia. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder