Amazon's picking warehouses. Credit: Vincent Boisot/ Riva Press/ Camera Press
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Less than zero: six months working in low-wage Britain

Going undercover in low-pay jobs, the author discovered a fearful and atomised working class that had lost its pride and dignity.

Rolling over in bed in South Wales at half past six one frost-bitten November morning, I switched on the radio. As I turned the old-fashioned dial, through the crackle a heated argument boomed out. The outraged tone seemed to capture the mood of the times. An hour or so later I picked up a newspaper, which five months after the vote for Brexit was awash with recriminations, post-mortems and fleeting despatches from parts of the country that were said to feel bitter and “left behind”.

South Wales marked the penultimate stop in my own six-month journey across Britain. I had set out in February 2016 to gather information for a book about the low-pay economy. Having wandered around this world in my early twenties – I had worked in a yoghurt factory, as a casual labourer and as a postman – I wanted to go back and examine something that was for the most part concealed from prosperous Britain. The aim was to offer a window into a hidden land in which work had gone from being a source of dignity to a humiliating assault on a person’s self-respect.

The first stop on my journey was Rugeley, a former colliery town of 24,000 people in the West Midlands. I had got a job via an employment agency at Amazon, and was subsequently put to work for ten-and-a-half hours a day, four days a week in one of the huge “fulfilment centres” that processed items sold by the world’s largest retailer. Everything at Amazon had a euphemism. We didn’t work in a warehouse and we were not employees; rather we were “associates” on temporary zero-hours contracts. You weren’t sacked at the end of nine months; you were “released”. We were pawns in an algorithmic system of management that was a throwback to the theories of Frederick Taylor, who believed in the scientific perfectibility of labour activity.

Everything you did during a shift was carefully monitored and categorised, from how long you took to go to the toilet to how many items you picked off the shelves each hour. The job itself was fiendishly exhausting. I would clock off at close to midnight. With suppurating feet a dozen of us would traipse over frozen ground for the mile or so it took to get back to the poky dwellings we rented from local landlords. We filed past the murky waters of the Trent and Mersey canal and down rows of red-brick terraces that once served as the barracks of local industry. The stomp of steel-shod boots on the tarmac and the movement of the winding gear had long since fallen silent, replaced by the Romanian curses of my co-workers.

The Lea Hall Colliery, once the biggest coal mine of its type in Europe, had closed on 25 January 1991, two decades before Amazon arrived. The closure of the pit immediately threw 1,250 men out of work. In reality the total was far higher, for it also included the support industries and the corner shops that the miners frequented at the end of their long shifts underground. Alex, a former pit mechanic who drank at the Lea Hall Miners Social Club, told me one evening that Rugeley had “never recovered” from the closure of the pit. “There are no jobs,” he said glumly, “or they’re minimum-wage jobs and they’re jobs based on short-term contracts and fear”.

Towns like Rugeley have “merely replicated their economies” since the crash deindustrialisation of the 1980s and early 1990s, according to a 2015 report from the Centre for Cities think tank. They had “swapped cotton mills for call centres and dock yards for distribution sheds”. Despite some initial excitement whipped up by Amazon’s PR people and complaisant local newspapers when the warehouse first opened in Rugeley in 2011, there were few British order pickers by the time I arrived in 2016. Many of my co-workers were eastern European migrants, transported in on coaches from nearby towns such as Wolverhampton and Walsall: an invisible army that came and went while most people in Rugeley slept. Desperation had brought many of them to these shores; it was now their job to service the shopping whims of Britain’s middle class. As one young Romanian co-worker put it to me: “You can work here like an animal; you work four days, you know, and you have £240. I am a nobody here, yes; but back in Romania I am a nobody without enough money to eat.” Alex, who for years had got up every morning to face a terrifying coal seam 300 feet under the ground, told me that he wouldn’t work at Amazon because of “how they treat people”.

I encountered something similar as I left the Midlands and travelled down to the Welsh Valleys. At the end of a long and undulating street in the town of Cwm in Blaenau Gwent the imposing Marine Colliery had once employed over 2,000 men. It was the last large deep mine to work in the Ebbw Valley and closed in March 1989, one year and eight months before Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister. Apart from cars on the bypass close by, the only sound you can hear standing at the top of the hill in Cwm today comes from the hundreds of tiny birds in the pines, oaks and Sitka spruce that form a patchwork of green on the surrounding hills – hills that were once synonymous with a modest prosperity.

“There’s no work around here, there’s nothing,” an elderly woman named Anne in a beige overcoat told me as I made my way down from the old pit one cold December afternoon. “There’s a couple of workshops down the bottom, but I don’t think they employ many. Nothing where you can say there’s ten or 20 people working or anything.”

Britain’s former mining areas are home to about 5.5 million people – about 9 per cent of the population. The scorched-earth policy enacted by the governments of the 1980s left a legacy that can still be observed today. Indeed, the Welsh Valleys offer an aperture into the “post-work world” that has become a talking point now that middle-class jobs are threatened with automation (a recent report by Deloitte found that over 100,000 jobs in the legal sector are at high risk of being automated in the next 20 years). The unemployment rate in South Wales is one of the highest in the country and has been ever since industry was wound up abruptly by Conservative governments intent on crushing Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers. “When Maggie Thatcher beat the miners’ union a lot of people in this country didn’t give a damn about it,” said Selwyn Williams, a former miner I met in the Merthyr Tydfil Labour Club. “But it affected everybody that’s working, even up to this day.”

In Blaenau Gwent, one in six residents in a population of 60,000 was collecting a prescription for antidepressants, according to NHS data from 2013. In nearby Ebbw Vale, a town whose steelworks once produced the material used to construct the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Stockton and Darlington Railway lines, five food banks operated within an area of about 42 square miles. Streets named after heroes of the labour movement were full of rent-to-own stores, betting shops and arcades. On the short Ebbw Vale high street I counted three pawnbrokers. In the Wetherspoons a portrait of the late former Labour leader Michael Foot was squeezed incongruously between two flashing fruit machines.

To get a job you often have to move away from towns like Ebbw Vale and Cwm or commute to bigger cities – Cardiff is an hour and a half away on the train. I was selling car insurance in a call centre in Swansea – a sleek and streamlined world all but impenetrable to those without the language skills or cultural capital required for the customer-focused “service economy”. In 2012 in the South Wales coalfield area, the number of jobs per 100 residents of working age was estimated at 41.

 Family values: wives and children at a miners strike picket line in Rudeley, Staffordshire, 1972.

Other towns I visited were beset by different challenges, albeit with similar consequences. I spent six weeks in Blackpool over the summer months, where I worked as a home carer. The job was physically and emotionally consuming and poorly remunerated. From early morning until late at night an overwhelmingly female workforce of isolated, harried and cobalt-uniformed workers dashed through the cluttered terraces of Blackpool’s South Shore. It was our job to wipe bottoms, give baths, administer medication and, occasionally, to clean up piles of sick (“Extra Strong Mints are the best thing to get rid of the smell of poo and sick,” one carer told me).

Most care visits had to be completed within 20 minutes, resulting in what has been accurately described as “clock-watch care”. At a time of punishing cuts to local authority budgets, the care companies that promised to empty the most catheters and change the most sanitary pads at the lowest cost invariably won the contracts from the council. The result, as one care worker put it to me, was that Britain’s elderly resemble “units parcelled up and sold to the lowest bidder”.

Beyond the front-of-town façade of rock shops, bouffanted crooners, stag parties and lager tops, Blackpool is a forlorn place, far from the “abode of health and amusement” it was described as in 1789. On my first night in town I stayed on Central Drive, a street that begins near the promenade a few blocks from the 19th-century Winter Gardens complex and snakes for about a mile until it reaches Bloomfield Road stadium, home to Blackpool FC.

It is the poorest area of Blackpool and one of the most deprived in England. There is an off-licence for every 250 residents and half the population smokes. Half the children in this part of town live in poverty. The homeless population is huge and very visible. The highs and lows of seasonal work in Blackpool have been exacerbated by the recent recession and subsequent government cuts. Between 2008 and 2012 the level of peak winter claimant unemployment in Blackpool doubled. “People come here for the day and think, ‘Oh, what a nice place; everyone must be buzzing’… All it is is zero-hours contracts,” said Gaz, an unemployed man whom I found traipsing desperately up and down the promenade hawking a glossy magazine for £3.

The final leg of my journey was spent in London among workers in the burgeoning “gig” economy, in which self-employed contractors are sent jobs via apps on their phones. For several months I drove an Uber taxi and was directed through the city by the capricious instructions of an algorithm under the pretext of “being my own boss”. Behind this euphemism I found a familiar story of exploitation masquerading as liberation.

Much of my job flexibility as an Uber driver was illusory. At a training session I was told that I could not “pick and choose” which fares I accepted. “The reason you’re online is to accept any job that’s given to you,” I was told by the representative of a company that was supposed to be my “partner”. Such was the level of control exercised that I was even told what conversational subjects were off-limits with passengers – politics, religion and sport, for example. A tool that allows passengers to award drivers between one and five stars at the end of every journey was sometimes abused, with passengers leaving poor ratings if you didn’t let them put loud music on or offer them free bottles of water. If your rating fell below 4.4 Uber threatened to ban you from using the app altogether. As much as Uber liked to say the passenger was your customer, it felt like they were Uber’s. It was this purported “freedom” for which gig workers had sacrificed most of their employment rights.

***

Much of the inequality and division I witnessed on my travels had been there in the background for some time, like the engine under a car bonnet whose whirrings you ignore until you find yourself broken down in a dingy layby. What was different about 2016 was that discontent began to percolate up to the surface, whether in the vote for Brexit, the dramatic swing of the Labour Party to the left, or in the rise of demagogues, like Donald Trump in the US. It would be naive to call Brexit a working-class revolt, yet as every one of the depressed towns I visited went on to vote overwhelmingly to leave the EU, it seems clear that the outcome was about more than a rejection of foreigners and European regulation. To many of the people I met, Europe was a target for their resentment of the pain inflicted by the untouchable hand of the market. Whether in Blackpool, Rugeley, Ebbw Vale or Cwm – all over there were persuasive reasons to want to “take back control”. “My personal view,” said Brian, a former miner at Bryn Colliery whom I met in Port Talbot, “is that it all started [to go downhill] as soon as we joined the EU… Look at this country [Wales], and look at how it was thriving in the Fifties, Sixties, even up to the Seventies, but since we joined the EU it’s just gone down”.

Britain is wealthier than it was in the 1970s, but much of today’s wealth is extracted from an underclass whose penurious existence is characterised by an almost total subservience to the whims of their employers. Trade unions have little power in this world. “Like Maggie Thatcher said when we were on strike – when I finish, she said, I want ten men chasing one job,” Selwyn told me over a pint back in Merthyr Tydfil. “And everyone thought she was talking pie in the sky. But it’s right today, isn’t it?”

When I left London early in 2016 Britain was not expected to leave the EU and it was assumed that Hillary Clinton would be a shoo-in for the White House. By the end of that year the complacency of four decades had given way to a powerful sense of dread. On both sides of the Atlantic there was a flurry of introspection and a renewed interest in those citizens who were said to feel “left behind” by globalisation.

This empathetic about-turn was short-lived. The backlash that created so much political turmoil two years ago has produced a further backlash: the working class have again become maligned caricatures or, worse, invisible. Despite a series of unpleasant shocks, the liberal capitalist order clings on. There is little understanding – at least in the communities I visited – of how change might come about. The mood there was characterised by a doleful apathy as much as by anger and resentment at the status quo. Few expressed voluble enthusiasm for the Labour Party, despite its recent transformation.

As I drank a mug of strong tea in a South Wales bedsit, it struck me that, almost 40 years after the curtain was violently brought down on the social democratic consensus during the bitter miners’ strike, there was a great deal in Britain to be in revolt against. Indeed, it took a certain type of affluent liberal hubris not to see it. The road to 2016 had been paved by several generations of politicians who believed not only in the fantasy of the “end of history”, but who had assumed that the market would guarantee the good life for just enough people to ignore those who failed to grasp the levers of social ascent. The result of this complacency has been the rise of demagogues who promise, in common with the fascists of the 20th century, to replace the invisible power of the market with the visible power of the infallible leader.

For all its dirt and danger, the old world of pits and steelworks at least offered the chance to join a trade union and take charge of your own destiny. It also gave birth to valuable neighbourhood associations – the factory became an extension of the wider family. In contrast, employment for a diminished and cowed working class today is often characterised by its antipathy to either pride or dignity. Both qualities were absent from the world I occupied for six months – a fearful and atomised domain in which the balance of power had been firmly tilted in favour of management. Of all the hardships facing the working class, I suspect it is this erosion of self-respect and solidarity that is the hardest to bear. “People actually say, ‘I’m only at Amazon,’ and in the past they would’ve never said, ‘I’m only at the pit,’” Alex told me over a drink at the Lea Hall Miners Social Club one evening. “You’d have said, ‘I’m a collier,’ because that’s what you were and you were proud of it.” 

“Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain” is published by Atlantic Books

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game

The Wu-Tang Clan in 1997: l-r, Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, U-God, GZA, Method Man, with RZA at the front. Credit: BOB BERG/GETTY IMAGES
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Hip-hop’s unhappy families: rappers’ tales of brotherhood and betrayal

Hard knocks and Hollywood adventures in new memoirs by Gucci Mane, Wiley and U-God of the Wu-Tang Clan.

The best pop music is a combination of individualism and unity. The Beatles, for example, earned lasting success as the sum of four very distinct parts. Few genres manage this as successfully as hip-hop, where bands such as NWA and New York’s A$AP Mob have released group albums and solo records. In a music industry run by a handful of corporations, hip-hop was always made up of hundreds of verticals.

A brace of new books act as a bridge between black music’s individuality and brotherhood. The most demonstrative example of rap’s independent streak can be found in The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, a thrilling though often superficial memoir by Radric Delantic Davis. The rapper helped build Atlanta’s “trap” sound on albums such as La Flare, has been to jail on numerous occasions and fought drug addiction for most of his adult life. His autobiography, written two years short of his 40th birthday, is an attempt to grasp the third rail of American life: atonement.

In November 2010, Davis was arrested for driving his Hummer on the wrong side of the road. He was sent to a mental health facility – the reckless driving charge was later dropped. The recording of his 2009 album, The State vs Radric Davis, went into hiatus when he failed a drug test and entered rehab. In its more satisfying moments, The Autobiography of Gucci Mane is defined by a relentless pursuit of self-control. Readers may or may not entirely sympathise: Davis once spent $75,000 on a diamond Bart Simpson chain. The book ends with his release from incarceration in 2016, where he read Malcolm X, Mike Tyson and Deepak Chopra. Davis got sober, shed 80 pounds and married. A film adaptation seems highly likely.

Eskiboy by Richard Kylea Cowie, the British musician known as Wiley, is an unconventional autobiography written by a committed individualist. The book is divided into 96 chapters separated by lyrics and includes contributions from friends and relatives, including his father, his sister and musicians Wretch 32 and Flow Dan. The effect is like watching an old episode of Behind the Music on VH1 or This is Your Life.

Cowie is a grime elder who helped dig the scene’s foundations. He eventually grew weary of London and now lives in Cyprus. Newcomers to songs such as “Wearing My Rolex” will enjoy his occasionally cantankerous opinions on the capital (“this is not a black man’s country”), fatherhood and food (“Yorkshire pudding, my God”), as well as the archaeology around the early years of his first group, Roll Deep. Cowie once released 200 songs online for free and first used MSN Messenger to distribute his music. He turned 39 this year, but Eskiboy reads like the worldview of a veteran.

Twenty-five years ago a New York group released their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It became one of the most consequential hip-hop records of all time, and Raw: My Journey into the Wu-Tang by Lamont “U-God” Hawkins offers a vivid portrait of the group that made it.

Back in 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan’s prestige was initially hard won. While New York’s first wave of rap music excelled at the soldiery of hip-hop – where rappers formed constellations around groups such as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest – the East Coast had been overwhelmed by Californian soloists such as Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg. Enter the Wu-Tang removed hip-hop from the warmth of the sun and returned it to the brownstone tenements of its birth. Released one year after albums by Kriss Kross and Sir Mix-a-Lot, Enter the Wu-Tang depicts a life of defiance born of deprivation. On songs like “Bring Da Ruckus” and “Protect Ya Neck”, the group draws on stories of criminology, an African-American version of Islam called Mathematics and two obsessions, chess and martial arts.

Compared to the digital stutter of rap in 2018, Enter the Wu-Tang sounds antediluvian, with its nine rappers taking turns to deliver eight bars over dense beats. Yet the detuned rhythms of its producer, RZA, can be heard in music by Kanye West, Drake and Odd Future. The group’s core rappers – RZA, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa – are responsible for the largest body of work in the history of hip-hop.

In the seven years between Enter the Wu-Tang and 2000, the Clan and its members released 31 albums and compilations, as well as comics, books and documentaries which have helped shape a universe built on Shaolin and numerology. One of the more poignant biographies from Planet Wu is the 2014 chronicle of the short life of Russell Jones, who died in 2004, aged 35, of a drugs-related heart attack. Jones called himself Ol’ Dirty Bastard, or ODB, “because there ain’t no father to his style”. Outlandish and addicted to drugs to alleviate a host of psychological issues – he once arrived to collect a welfare cheque in a limousine – Jones attracted both tabloid and police scrutiny.

Lamont Hawkins, also known as U-God or U-God Allah, is the latest Wu to publish an autobiography. In the group’s hierarchy, he was never a top-tier rapper, but was part of a second wave who released solo records in the late 1990s. Despite his late arrival, his memoir is the most vivid piece of writing to emerge from the Wuniverse.

Hawkins grew up in a single parent family in Brooklyn and Park Hill on Staten Island. Whenever he inquired about the family patriarch, his mother would reply, “God is your father!” Unlike Mane, who describes being orbited by grandparents, aunts and uncles, Hawkins’s childhood was blighted by black-on-black crime and drugs-related violence. He describes witnessing his first death when he was four years old and watched a woman leap or fall from the roof of an apartment building. “Lovin’ You” by Minnie Riperton was playing on a radio in the street. Hawkins was a member of gangs called Baby Cash Crew, Dick ’Em Down and Wreck Posse. He carried a gun from the ages of 14 to 21 and recalls watching one of his babysitters shooting up heroin on the couch. Years later, Staten Island’s rappers would describe Park Hill as “Killa Hill” in their music. “Dudes would shoot dogs and leave their carcasses behind our building all the time,” writes Hawkins. “It was like a concentration camp for poor black people.”

While Raw is full of the despairing tales that inform the Wu-Tang’s music, it is also fuelled by the gallows humour that runs through albums staffed by fictionalised gangsters called Tony Starks or Lex Diamonds. Hawkins describes watching thieves steal his mother’s handbag on five separate occasions. One day, as she walked him home from school, a young man pulled the jewellery off her ears. Years later, she saw a man on TV who she swore was her attacker – it was Mike Tyson.

Hawkins’s teenage years were a fountainhead of illegal and legal labour. Like Gucci Mane, who describes selling marijuana by the age of 13 (the discovery led his mother to evict him from the family home), a teenage Hawkins was selling crack and making a profit of $2,500 each day. He met his future Clan bandmates before he was 14. In one passage in Raw, he relates how authorities in Park Hill struggled to process the daily body count. He wanted to become an embalmer and applied to study mortuary science before deciding to follow a career in music.

The early years of the Wu-Tang Clan were a maelstrom facilitated by the kind of family grift that usually leads to acrimony. The group already contained RZA’s cousins GZA and ODB, as well as friends such as Cappadonna, a part-time taxi driver. The Clan was managed by RZA’s brother, Mitchell “Divine” Diggs. A third RZA cousin called Mook became their road manager. Mook drove the tour bus and accepted cash-only payments from promoters.

Any attempt at organising the group was futile. On tour, the crew sometimes numbered 60 members. Cappadonna failed to make recording sessions for Enter the Wu-Tang when he was sent to jail. Hawkins was incarcerated four times for parole violations and only managed brief contributions to two tracks. It would be different four years later when the members had all signed to major labels and the Clan’s second album was released, selling 612,000 copies in its first week. Hawkins writes with eye-opening details about how his life changed; at one point, he was dating 12 women.

He also expresses regret at the group’s more lurid behaviour. He describes arriving at a Beverley Hills party after consuming a large quantity of rum; other guests included Leonardo DiCaprio, the rapper Q-Tip and members of Metallica. At the party, Hawkins got into an argument with DiCaprio, Ghostface urinated off a balcony and later destroyed some flowerbeds. A moment of kismet is delivered on another occasion when the Clan reaches Mike Tyson’s house only to discover the world heavyweight boxing champion won’t allow them entry.

For a group of young men who had never left the US, hip-hop also presented an opportunity for travel. A trip to the Colosseum in Rome provided a hilarious awakening. “I thought it would be big like fuckin’ Yankee Stadium, but that place was a Little League arena at best,” writes Hawkins, bitterly. “The reality of it broke my heart. I remember thinking Hollywood had fed me some bullshit with the Gladiator movie and all that about its size.”

The final section of Raw returns to the matter-of-factness of its beginning. In the period between the Wu-Tang Clan’s first and second album, Hawkins’s two-year-old son, Dontae, was shot in one hand and kidney when, during a gunfight, one participant picked him up to use as a human shield. Dontae lost his kidney and has walked with a limp since. “RZA and the others didn’t make it any better, ’cause they didn’t give a fuck,” writes Hawkins.

The Wu-Tang’s once indomitable friendship has occasionally publicly soured over musical differences and financial disagreements. In 2007, the group even embarked on a tour without RZA. He replied with a rival series of solo concerts.

Wiley writes equally frankly about his long-running feud with former Roll Deep rapper Dizzee Rascal. The pair have quarrelled since Rascal was stabbed in Ayia Napa in 2003. “I am a part of why he’s Dizzee,” Wiley writes, offering reconciliation. “And he’s a part of why I am Wiley.”

Hawkins admits that the challenge of competing for space on albums has taken a toll: “Nine MCs going at each other, battling for who gets on the song can lead to some hard feelings.” In the mid-2000s, RZA became a filmmaker and the Clan felt his attention diminish. Hawkins describes Wu Tang-Clan’s 2014 album, A Better Tomorrow, as “some wack shit from start to finish”. In 2016, he sued RZA over unpaid royalties. Hawkins was also absent from last year’s album, The Saga Continues.

It isn’t wholly surprising that a group of middle-aged rappers is often at loggerheads over their direction and legacy. In the final pages of his fearless memoir, Hawkins unexpectedly calls for a renewal of the brotherhood that bent him to its will. “Yeah, we don’t always get along,” he writes, “but what family does?” 

Eskiboy
Wiley
William Heinemann, 352pp, £20

The Autobiography of Gucci Mane
Gucci Mane and Neil Martinez-Belkin
Simon & Schuster, 304pp, £16.99

Raw: My Journey into the Wu-Tang
Lamont “U-God” Hawkins
Faber & Faber, 292pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game