Most of the ways in which we provide guidance, training and support for discipleship is predicated on having time and energy to think and pray. For people in the precarious economy, there is little such space.
It’s not easy, getting inside the jobs other people hold. People think of their own as unique, and lose sight of the stresses in different roles. And they are especially prone to missing the huge subterranean shifts in the nature of work today. These changes have been enabled by technological innovation, globalisation and the much vaunted flexibility of labour.
Interviewed for the Sunday Times in 2018, the co-founder of Facebook, Chris Hughes spoke awkwardly of the huge fortune made in the early years of the company, before he left. Since, he has come to realise that many rich Americans are also getting ‘very, very lucky’ due to a system that enables ‘people who have capital for enjoy immense returns’.
But what happens when all you bring to the table is low-skilled labour? We would rather not go there, if we could, which makes it all the more important to read the words of someone who didn’t need to, but did. James Bloodworth, in Hired: six months undercover in low-wage Britain (Atlantic Books, 2018) worked at an Amazon warehouse in Rugeley, as a care worker in Blackpool, a call centre employee in South Wales and as an Uber driver in London’s so-called gig economy.
We don’t over-think how Amazon parcels – of practically anything we want - are delivered so quickly to our doorstep. Bloodworth’s experience on a pittance, ruthlessly monitored by technology and penalised for slacking, was as a picker. The size of the warehouse meant endless walking:
To give some concrete sense of what that entailed, setting off on my first day from the heart of London and heading east, by the evening I would be arriving at Sidcup. By the end of day two I would be approaching Rochester. By the end of the week the coast of Dover would be in sight…
Breaks for lunch and during the day were slight and even less, given the time it took to walk to the lunch and break areas.
Some may argue there is great fitness to be gained from such a job, but the truth is different. Feet became pulped. Shifts were so long and the pay so poor, that all Bloodworth wanted to do at the end of the day – often around midnight – was to get a McDonalds or put some unhealthy dish in the microwave before crashing to sleep. Fresh ingredients were too expensive and he was too tired to cook properly. Within a few weeks, he had put on a lot of weight, despite walking all day.
His annual salary turned out to be £12,740 before tax. Amazon likes to create the impression of a big family rather than a multinational firm. ‘Jeff Bezos is an associate and so are all of you’ proclaimed a supervisor. Bezos, Amazon’s founder, is worth around $60 billion.
The new economy is hollowing out many middle-income jobs where people could earn a living by working hard and afford a home to buy and food to bring up a family. Life on low wages is precarious: landlords are frequently unscrupulous, employers often utterly lacking in loyalty. Zero hours contracts are burgeoning; the gig economy allows firms to say they are not employees, thus protecting the wealth of those who run companies from the duties of tax and national insurance – passing on the burden to others who take their responsibilities seriously.
It may be boring to some who prefer more fashionable causes, but attention to detail in the treatment of our lowest paid workers – proper lunch and toilet breaks, a living wage, health and safety at work for people who are beyond tired – would go some way in mitigating pain. It is good to see Bloodworth’s book acclaimed across the political spectrum for what it has highlighted. The unspoken – because cruel – assumption that people are only worth what they are paid must be tackled. An economy shaped in the character of God should look differently.
Church leaders should look carefully at this book, for this is how many of the people they are seeking to reach with the Gospel experience life. One of the most degrading aspects of such work is the sheer loss of space in which to grow the soul. Most of the ways in which we provide guidance, training and support for discipleship is predicated on having time and energy to think and pray; to find quietness to hear the Holy Spirit. For people in the precarious economy, there is little such space.
The Israelites had to be liberated from their bone crushing slavery in Egypt in order to encounter the majesty and character of God. Quietly, and without fuss, some of the gains of the modern world are being rolled back. When work is not structured in godly ways, we can’t be surprised if people struggle to find God in what they do and when they rest.
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