James Bloodworth’s book Hired: Six Months in Low Wage Britain narrates his first-hand experience of working in the lower rungs of several well-known corporations that have come to constitute the “gig economy”. The “gig economy” is a post-recession phenomenon, one that has, to a great measure, disrupted the meaning of work in the 21st Century. A gig, of course, is the very epitome of ephemerality. Yet, after the recession in 2008, a significant chunk of work has been in the form of contract work, freelancing, or self-employment – all of which, like the gig – are for now.
Bloodworth argues that gigs have become the mainstay not only for millennials entering the labour market, but also for those laid off during the recession. What seemed to be a stopgap measure until landing the next job has became the norm of work, since corporations have restructured their business models around the ready availability of cheap labour. Hired is a rivetting account of what it means to be that cheap labour, and Bloodworth provides us an unflinching portrait of what such labour exacts from the body and mind of a low-wage worker. He isn’t afraid to critique the Left, which often romanticises Eastern European migrants for being hardworking, or for being nostalgic for “pit life” (despite unsafe working conditions in the mines), which allowed for a sense of solidarity among colliers. His book works as an informal history of labour relations in our time, and as an account of the working life, but is mostly a call to arms.
The rise of precarious work
Before 2008, there were fewer freelancers and self-employed persons, and working for an organisation meant that an employee was entitled to benefits (however slim) like sick leave, health insurance, bonuses, and conditions around being terminated. Also, since work was inextricably bound with a person’s sense of identity and self-worth, it meant a great deal to have a stable income – it made life meaningful.
The post-recession economic landscape presents a completely different picture due to the increase in “precarious” work, which, like the returns from a lottery, is unpredictable and can disappear at any moment. In his foreword, Bloodworth writes that he aims to document “how work for many people has gone from being a source of pride to a relentless and dehumanising assault on their dignity.” He backs hard statistical data with conversations and anecdotes from the growing class of casual workers, who work on zero hour contracts sans benefits.
A zero-hour contract (especially seen in the adult/elderly care sector in England) essentially absolves a company of providing regular work and income to its employees. Instead, they are paid only when jobs are sent their way, in that they are paid a piece rate per job. Also, the availability of jobs is contingent upon the employee acquiescing to flexible hours, which is especially hard on those working another job to make ends meet. This usually means they could be fired if unable when required.
The zero-hour contract then, is exploitative precisely because it treats workers as disposable units that are engaged when needed and let go otherwise, while being paid the minimum wage. It is exploitative of not only their physical effort but also their time: the time spent waiting for a job to come one’s way is not compensated for; this opportunity cost is not factored into the salary.
This blatant disregard for employees’ time is common to all low-income work, as Bloodworth finds out. In the Amazon warehouse, located in Rugeley, a town in central England, he has vivid memories of spending nearly thirty minutes in line waiting to be frisked before and after work, and even for toilet breaks – dead time which is not only physically exacting but also extends his workday. However, for the corporation even break-time is seen as a drain on worker productivity, and hence bathroom and lunch breaks are regulated, timed and monitored to prevent employees from “loitering”.
Being constantly under surveillance is yet another integral feature of the gig economy, where you are reduced to a unit in an algorithm whose movements can be tracked at all times. Since every second is accounted for, signs of so-called “laziness” earn the worker a negative score, and even taking a sick day is enough reason for an adverse appraisal, and eventual expulsion. For a job predicated on hours of pacing, lifting and retrieving, combined with a diet heavy on carbohydrates (which is what people can afford on a low wage), physical sickness is a given. But the new economic order is suspicious of infirmity; it is “the Darwinian world in which illness was an unpardonable sin.” So much for the twin promises of flexibility and autonomy that have been accepted as the hallmark of the gig economy.
The politics of naming
Hired is deeply invested in interrogating the slick “corporatese” employed by multinational corporations, mainly because it is language that has allowed these players to pose as “aggregators” and “service providers in the digital marketplace” instead of what they actually are: companies comprising of a hierarchy of workers. The gig economy trades in euphemisms.
When Bloodworth joins the warehouse operated by Amazon, his designation isn’t that of “order picker”, he’s an “associate” (in fact his supervisor informs him that he’s an associate like Jeff Bezos, the CEO), just as the warehouse is called a “fulfilment centre”. Similarly, “independent suppliers” work with (and nor for) Deliveroo, a British food delivery company and aren’t paid a wage but a fee, and their pay slips are referred to as invoices. Indeed, “Independent Contractor” is a pretty designation for a casual labourer who has no regular pay or hours of work – it is the primary way in which these companies pretend that those who run their business aren’t employees but independent agents who choose to work when they desire, and then go off the radar.
But does an Uber driver who has to make a certain number of trips within a stipulated amount of time (irrespective of traffic conditions, health and personal matters), while maintaining a certain rating, qualify as self-employed? To what extent is he free if he cannot negotiate even the conditions of his work? Bloodworth reiterates the “grim atomisation” inherent in his job “it hardly resembled a ‘gig’ at all: you certainly had no fellow band members. It was just you, strapped inside a metal shell and directed around town by an algorithm. It was not so much autonomy as isolation.”
This kind of language based on autonomy is directed at consumers as well; in fact the promise of happiness and freedom turns the capitalist machine. It is rather intensified in a brave new world where most of the time is spent online, where instant consumption is proposed as a fix for even the most mundane problem. Contrived positivity is the fuel of the modern office, and one must participate in the fun despite being a low-level call centre employee in an insurance firm, like Bloodworth was for a few months.
Work is repackaged as fun, with the workspace strewn with motivational lines. According to the author this “thought-terminating cocktail of uplift” is but a “mask of joviality” which would slip away if targets weren’t met. Political consciousness is anathema in this world of inspirational pap populated by free agents. Bloodworth remarks on the apolitical nature of the modern workplace – apolitical because employees believe that “politics is for other people”, that it is “done to you, rather than a topic you took any interest in”, and finally because the management actively discouraged political engagement through surveillance.
The allure of nostalgia
It is the changing nature of work that Bloodworth investigates by taking on various low-wage jobs – as a picker in an Amazon warehouse, as care provider, a call centre worker, and, finally as a Uber driver in London. Since these jobs are scattered across England, he goes on a journey that allows him the first-hand experience of living in towns that once housed coal mines, steel factories, cotton mills – all on the verge of decay, emptied of the young who have moved to bigger cities in search of respectable (skilled) work.
These towns are populated by former colliers and mill workers, who, now unemployed, feel left behind, forgotten and only find comfort in nostalgia. A picture emerges of a disenchanted nation desperately trying to hold on to “Englishness” in the face of bewildering change. Bloodworth makes the connection between the decline in manufacturing, the rise of low-income service jobs in the name of economic regeneration and the Brexit vote:
“It is odd in a way that anger at the slow erosion of British culture should be directed so overwhelmingly at migrants rather than at companies whose identikit stores plaster a bland façade of monotonous homogeneity upon every high street throughout the world. But it is a question of proximity I suppose: the immigrant, or the drinker next door who you suspect of robbing the social to pay for his beer, is a lot more solid – a lot more real – than the shadowy multinational that serves up trash under a slick and anodyne fascia.”
Nostalgia, in terms of a return to a grand past of England being an industrial hub is alluring to both left and right wing ideologies, and fuels anger and fear towards Eastern European migrants who are seen as snatching jobs away from “honest British folk”. Paradoxically, one of Bloodworth’s co-workers at Amazon is a Romanian woman who cannot fathom why he, a British man, would opt to work there. She even tells him that he doesn’t have an order picker’s face, implying that he looks too healthy, despite doing low-wage work.
Bloodworth believes that migrant workers agree to contract labour because they view themselves as expendables doing the dirty work beneath the dignity of a British citizen. This, along with their short-lived existence in the country, prevents them from unionising. Anger towards the migrant is a continuation of an earlier affective state of rage and disaffection best encapsulated in John Osborne’s landmark play Look Back in Anger (1956), which features the working class angry young man, Jimmy Porter, who could not come to grips with the fact that the sun had set on the British empire.
Towards the end, Bloodworth realises why we are hooked to the incentives of the gig economy. Much like the lottery, the unpredictable rewards of the gig economy reel people in, be it in the form of volatile prices or earnings. The belief, rather illusion, that tomorrow would be better, that one could pay lesser or earn more and the ensuing thrill of this uncertainty is what keeps us hooked.
Hired can be disorienting for any reader unacquainted with the geography of Britain, since the force of the book lies as much in the affective temper of British towns, as it does in its inhabitants. The fact that the book lacks a map locating the towns where the author worked does it no favours with an international audience. Indeed it reiterates the feeling that it was written for British readers. However, Bloodworth’s lucid style and empathetic tone makes up for the blindspots inherent to the text, because what we have is a measured and accessible account of what it means to subsist on a minimum wage in present day Britain. The author could have easily resorted to bombast and rhetoric to put forth his case and yet, as a keen observer of human behaviour, he takes an interest in people regardless of their political affiliations, and engages them in conversation. Since he juxtaposes his experiences with perspectives of his colleagues, he veers away from producing a solipsistic work buttressed by individual experience alone, rather he historicizes the working class and traces the genealogy of low wage work back to Thatcher’s policies in the eighties.
One can only speculate if this book will transform the way big corporations conduct business—it’s too big an ask—but it could make us conscious of the emotional cost borne by those who service our growing appetites.
Hired, James Bloodworth, Atlantic Books.