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 Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.