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IS IT possible to survive on the minimum wage? This is the question that journalists Fran Abrams and Barbara Ehrenreich ask in their books Below the Breadline and Nickel and Dimed. Abrams spent three months in England and Scotland as a cleaner, factory worker and care assistant, while Ehrenreich worked in the USA as a waitress, cleaner, carer and shop assistant. Both earned not much more, and sometimes less, than the minimum wage.
Christine Thomas reviews both books, which graphically depict what it's like to be one of the 'working poor'.
Lifting The Lid On Poverty Pay
SHIRLEY AND Dave have five kids. Shirley works days and Dave works nights in a care home for elderly people in Aberdeen. They hardly ever see each other and snatch sleep in between looking after the kids.
Joan is a waitress in a diner in Florida. She lives in a van parked behind the shopping centre at night and showers in a motel room.
These are the experiences of just three of the people who Abrams and Ehrenreich meet in their 'other life' as workers on the minimum wage.
Of course they're not the first people to temporarily leave a relatively comfortable lifestyle to experience first-hand what it's like to be poor. George Orwell famously did the same when he wrote his book Down and out in Paris and London.
It's a shame that so few books are written by working-class people themselves about their own experiences. Nevertheless, the 'experiments' carried out by both journalists have resulted in two very readable books which make you angry while being funny at the same time (especially Nickel and Dimed). Workers trying to eke out an existence on low wages will readily identify with them.
There are obviously important social differences between the USA and Britain. Here working-class people still have the remnants of a state welfare system which was fought for and won by workers in the past. The situation in the US is much more grim, as Nickel and Dimed reveals.
Ehrenreich explains that housing is the "principal source of disruption" in her co-workers' lives. Apart from Joan sleeping in a van, there is Gail who shares a motel room for $250 a week. Her male room-mate is sexually harassing her but she can't afford to move out and live on her own.
Marianne and her boyfriend pay $170 a week for a one-person trailer, while George can only sleep when one of the people he shares a flat with goes to work because they sleep in shifts in the same bed! Ehrenreich herself is reduced to staying in a seedy, dangerous motel room with nothing to screen the window and no bolt on the door.
The existence of housing benefit in Britain means that the situation is marginally better. Nevertheless, the cleaners who Abrams works with in London are mostly living with relatives and friends in overcrowded accommodation. She has to live in a caravan site in Doncaster and a miserable B+B in Aberdeen, which is supposed to be temporary but is in fact permanent home to many of the single men living there.
Housing benefit is in reality a state subsidy to low-paying employers. If the minimum wage was set at a decent level then nobody working would need to claim it or any other in-work benefits. But even this life-line is under attack. Already many councils 'cap' the amount on offer so that the unemployed and workers are forced to pay the difference out of their benefits or their poverty wages.
There are many, including in New Labour, who would like to go even further, cutting housing benefit and forcing the unemployed and low paid into 'appropriate' accommodation. Nickel and Dimed gives a glimpse of what it would be like if the 'reformers' got their way.
In a country like the USA, where at least 40 million people have no health insurance, falling sick can push you completely under. Holly, a pregnant cleaner with 'The Maids' cleaning company, keeps fainting. She falls and "something snaps" in her ankle. Yet she refuses to stop cleaning because she can't afford to take any more time off work.
In the sauce factory in Doncaster, Julie, an agency worker, strains her shoulder which becomes inflamed. But still she ignores all advice and continues working because, as an agency worker, she isn't entitled to sick pay and is afraid that 'Temps R Us' will sack her for being a bad employee.
Many of the 'maids' only survive the heavy, physical grind of daily cleaning by popping painkillers which they can't afford to buy.
Rosie gets by on a bag of Doritos on her eight-hour shifts because she hasn't enough money to buy lunch. Back in London, one cleaner is so poor she steals a greasy, tasteless cheese sandwich left over in the posh hotel she cleans, which is frequented by American tourists and celebrities. As Amos, another cleaner explains, all they're really doing is "keeping body and soul".
Ehrenreich asks Colleen, a single mother with two children, how she feels about the wealthy owners of the houses they clean. "I don't mind, really" she replies "because I guess I'm a simple person, and I don't want what they have. I mean, it's nothing to me. But what I would like is to be able to take a day off now and then... if I had to... and still be able to buy groceries the next day".
The Economic Policy Institute in the US recently calculated that a living wage for a family of one adult and two children is $30,000 or $14 an hour. 60% of American workers earn less than that. Even with the wage gains that have taken place over the past four years, the low paid are still earning less percentage-wise than they did in 1973.
"Something is wrong" writes Ehrenreich "when a single person in good health... can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow".
Ehrenreich points out that welfare reform was sold in the US on the basis that a job was the ticket out of poverty. But, she explains, the 'working poor' "neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shining and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high".
She herself is only able to balance incomings and outgoings by taking two jobs. She works five days a week as a cleaner and then at weekends in a nursing home. Lynne works six hours a day in Wal-Mart followed by an eight-hour shift in a factory. In that situation, which is not uncommon, 'life' consists of working and sleeping and little else.
Abrams paints a similar picture of 'multiple' jobs and working endless hours as the only way to survive in Britain on the minimum wage. According to the first chairman of the Low Pay Commission, George Bain, the minimum wage was supposed to bring the low paid from the "margins of degradation" to the "mainstream" of society. Yet £4.10 an hour (for over 21-year-olds) works out at just £140 a week, £40 below the current poverty line.
And Below the Breadline reveals how in many cases the minimum wage is no such thing. Employers find all kinds of ways fiddling the system and paying less.
In her cleaning job Abrams is charged £10 administration charges for a bank transfer facility and has to work an unpaid 'training night'. At the sauce factory in Doncaster she has to pay £15 for steel toe-capped boots and isn't paid over-time or for the actual hours she works.
In the care home in Aberdeen the carers don't get paid for breaks and have to buy two uniforms at £18 a go. In the first two years of the minimum wage, the Inland Revenue investigated 6,400 complaints, yet there wasn't a single prosecution.
The lowest-paid workers are not just made to feel alienated from society, in that they can't afford or don't have the time to buy goods or engage in many of the social activities that make life bearable, they're also alienated in the workplace itself. This is most starkly evident in the US where the bosses appear to go out of their way to humiliate and degrade.
Ehrenreich has to endure routine personality tests and drug tests when applying for a job and her private property is searched in the workplace - the assumption being that all workers are potential thieves or drug addicts. Wal-Mart even refer to 'time theft' i.e. employees doing anything other than their allocated work (including 'gossiping') in works time.
Many of the people she works with want to take a pride in their jobs - which after all they have to do day in day out, but are prevented from doing so by the relentless efforts of the bosses to cut corners and boost profits. The 'maids', for example, are only allowed half a bucket of water to clean floors, which is completely inadequate.
Abrams writes about "nappy abuse" in the care home in Aberdeen, where carers are encouraged not to change soiled incontinence pads because they cost too much money.
So what are the prospects for low-paid workers organising to fight against these terrible conditions? While Ehrenreich is working at Wal-Mart, 1,450 hotel workers go on strike at nine hotels. She starts to talk to her workmates about the strike and the need for a union: "I think we could have done something" she writes "... if I could have afforded to work at Wal-Mart a little longer".
A recent survey carried out by the US trade union federation AFL-CIO revealed that, for the first time in 18 years, more non-union workers would vote for union representation (50%) than not (43%). Unionisation drives have resulted in a growth in unionisation amongst cleaners and other low-paid workers, and some notable improvements in wages and conditions.
Ehrenreich concludes her book on an optimistic note: "Some day... they are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they are worth. There'll be a lot of anger when that day comes and strikes and disruption. But the sky will not fall, and we will be better off for it in the end".
The recent strike of privatised ancillary workers working for Sodexho at Glasgow Royal Infirmary also shows what is possible. They won a £5 an hour minimum wage as well as other improvements in sick pay and overtime payments.
But as Ehrenreich writes: "... even the most energetic and democratic unions bear careful watching by their members". This will certainly be the conclusion many local government workers will have drawn from their strike action, where their leaders are attempting to sell a deal which gives £5 an hour to the lowest-paid workers but very little for anyone else.
Reading books like Below the Breadline and Nickel and Dimed can make you very angry. Being a working-class person in capitalist society makes you very angry. But being angry is not enough; workers need a programme, strategy and organisation to fight to change their conditions and to fundamentally change a system which condemns them to poverty and exploitation in the interests of the profits of a few.
This is what the Socialist Party is striving to provide.
What We're Fighting For:
- For the unions to take immediate action to implement their current minimum wage demands, as a step towards a legal minimum of £8 an hour (the European decency threshold).
- For a minimum income of £320 a week.
- No exemptions from the minimum wage. An annual increase linked to average earnings.
- A maximum 35-hour week without loss of pay.
- Employment protection rights for all from day one of employment.
- Stop all council house sell-offs. A massive building programme of decent, affordable social housing.
How Much Should The Minimum Wage Be?
ABOUT £8 an hour according to the Council of Europe. This is its 'Decency Threshold' - the amount needed to ensure "a decent standard of living taking account of the basic economic, social and cultural needs of workers and their families". In other words - if you earn less than this wage you are doing without some of the basics that make for a decent life in the 21st century.
The TUC has called for a minimum wage set at half male median earnings, This works out at £5.38 an hour. But this is one of the levels that is used as a measure of poverty! Although it might be welcomed by those workers on the minimum of £4.10 (or only £3.50 in the case of under 22-year-olds) it would clearly do very little to lift anyone out of poverty.
The TUC has also said that wage negotiators should set a target of a £6 per hour minimum. If the minimum wage were raised to this level it would be an important first step towards reaching the decency threshold of £8 an hour. But this would require a determined campaign by the unions, involving demonstrations and strike action if necessary, to ensure that it was actually implemented.
It would also mean that union activists would have to organise to keep the pressure on the leaders so that they are not let down, as they have been in the local government pay dispute for example.
Because expectations have been pushed back a long way in the past few years, some people might think that £8 an hour is too much. But why should we settle for anything less? At £320 for a 40 hour week this is still nearly £140 less than the average wage, while the average pay for a chief executive officer is £509,000 a year!
And why should we be dependent on top-up benefits to supplement poverty wages? These are state handouts to low-paying, exploitative bosses and help entrench poverty pay. They also create a poverty trap - where wage increases are virtually cancelled out by clawbacks in benefits.
A minimum wage set at £8 an hour would go some way to ending the poverty trap. It would also help to close the pay gap between men and women, as women make up the overwhelming majority of low-paid workers.
The money that was saved from paying benefits such as the Working Families Tax Credit could be used to increase spending on health, education, childcare and other public services which working-class people need.
Of course it's vital that the minimum wage is updated annually in line with average earnings and is paid to all workers, including those under 21. There should be no exemptions.
Combined with a maximum 35 hour week, a decent minimum wage would help end the long hours culture, leaving workers less stressed, healthier and with time to spend with family and friends and to engage in leisure activities.
If the bosses say they can't afford such a basic demand, then we have no choice but to fight to change their system.
How much do you think the minimum wage should be?
Let us know about your experiences of poverty pay.
Write to us: PO Box 24697,
London E11 1HH.
email: editors@ socialistparty.org.uk
tel: 020 8988 8777
fax: 020 8988 8787
In The Socialist 13 September 2002: