“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.