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

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war