1990s >> 1994 >> no-1074-february-1994

Work – as in holic

I am unemployed at the moment, on a small retainer from a government which begrudges it heartily and doesn’t miss an opportunity to remind me of the fact. Officially I am an IT trainer and (for the benefit of those at the benefit office employed to stop my benefit) I am actively seeking work. Information Technology, if you don’t already know, is for those who think there is something seriously groovy about electronic filing systems and adding machines. I certainly do. In this heady world of techno fashion toys people like me describe new clever filing systems as “sexy”, which shows you how disturbed we are.

It is interesting to note in passing that the CBI recently complained that Britain was going down the toilet because its workers are not trained in Information Technology. Anyone who knows anything about computers knows this is all bollocks, and that Britain will go down the toilet whether or not its workers know how to save a text file memo in dBase. I suspect the government takes the same view. I got made redundant, after all.

Being unemployed is of course a pain in the arse, but it has its moments. I’m pretty rich in freedom for one thing, although oddly I fritter that away in just the same way an employed person does money, wondering where it all went at the end of the month and thinking that it never seems to buy anything these days.

But I’ve had a dose of life in the Office, as a computer programmer, and by god that was like being on a different planet. Forty hours a week for forty years under forty-watt light-bulbs — that was a nightmare I had to get out of bed to experience. The cheery accounts department banter only made it worse. But what threatened to push me over the edge was that I was surrounded by workaholics. I developed a large rash of “attitude problems” and “under-motivation complexes” by being planted among individuals who all wanted to chalk up fourteen hours graft a day and no passes.

Chas was the accountant. Very nice chap, charming, friendly, lots of brains and charisma. One of the new breed of managers, who don’t give orders but merely ask “personal favours”, giving you the impression that they’re your friends and not your employers. Chas works from seven a.m. till ditto p.m. virtually every night (and takes work as well). Then there’s “owd Fred”, who’d been there since they took all the railings away from the park for Spitfires, and he was putting in a solid ten hours a day. There’s Arthur who would look at his watch and say “Christ, I’ll get shot . . . ” but still wouldn’t go home.

Who you know

The Managing Director, a relation in the old family, would come in for an occasional gloat round the office but was usually out fishing in the afternoon, from what I could see.

So did I have the wrong attitude, I wondered? Is office work so exciting that people the world over just can’t tear themselves away from it even to go to lunch? In extremis, I turned to friends for a little psychiatric help.

“Look here,” I chattered through clenched teeth, manfully containing my hysteria, “is it me or is it them? Who’s the nutter?”

“Oh, that’s nothing,” came the careless reply. “I worked at a place once . . .”

One morning I staggered into work after a particularly heavy night on the piss to discover that the mainframe computer had crashed because, get this, one of the staff had come back to finish some invoices at midnight. Unpaid, mind you.

And when you suggest that socialism could roll along quite happily because at bottom human beings quite like work and would do it paid or not, people look at you as if you’re completely deranged.

“Oh no,” they state flatly, “you can’t have a society where everything is free and nobody is paid to work. No one would do anything. People are too selfish.”

Working to rule

People think I’m cynical. Well now, let’s not get the wrong idea. I’m not flatly knocking dedication to the job. I wouldn’t want to be shovelled bleeding into Casualty one night after being bagged by some drunken bastard in a Volvo only to find that the staff were on their shift break and couldn’t possibly be disturbed until halfpast two. I realize that working strictly to rule isn’t always practical or desirable. But there are one or two basic economic considerations here that are worth pointing out. Unions exist, as everyone knows, to try to improve the pay and conditions of work. Many however have exactly the same attitude to them that we do to a commercial plumber. In other words, we treat unions like a paid-for service, to resort to only when our pay-packet springs a sudden leak, and not as organizations that require our constant attention. Union reps with hundreds on their books usually can’t get double figures into the meetings. The fact that this is partly the movement’s own fault for being undemocratic in the past isn’t really the point. What is the point is that workers themselves, by opting out of a union which “charges eight quid a month and does sod all” and by agreeing to work extra hours for nothing, are not doing themselves any big favours.

Being an unemployed IT trainer myself, I could take the view that every IT trainer out there who is doing work for free is a traitor to the cause of my personal unemployment. The state won’t come up with the funds to pay me, and thanks to them it doesn’t have to. According to one researcher, “the cost of replacing the work of the voluntary sector would be well in excess of £20 billion — or some 12p or 13p on the basic rate of income tax.” Since we’re being so generous with our time, why don’t we volunteer to run the NHS as a charitable endeavour and then we can put the nurses out of work too? (Half the hospitals in the country seem to be paid for out of collection as it is).

Meanwhile the Managing Director is presumably still pissing himself laughing down by the river. Whoops, another bite on the line  . . .

Joining the dog race

If you bred whippets for sale, you wouldn’t feed them on smoke salmon and then sell them for half their value, would you? No, you’d buy the cheapest dog food you could get away with and charge the highest price you could get. Thus are fortunes made. It’s not a matter of greed as some people seem to  think but simply of common sense. Gather ye profits while ye may, because of course the bottom might drop out of whippets at any moment. Not a pleasant thought.

In capitalism people’s skills, like whippets, are a commodity. In fact, unless you’re rich, it is the only commodity you’ve got to sell, so why sell yourself short? The selling process is nothing but the frantic pursuit of means to pay for the privilege of living. It’s like being born with an overdraft that you can never clear off.

The labour market that we sell ourselves in works like any other market, in other words, on the basis of supply and demand. If you have trained for thirteen years as a doctor, you’re a bit of a rarity and in some demand, so normally you’ll fetch a decent price. (Naturally they’ll always try and pay you less, if they can get away with it — you have to learn to haggle, which is why unions were created in the first place). If you have trained for thirteen years as a Conquistador you will certainly be a rarity but no one is going to pay you large sums of money to invade Mexico. The labour market is quite ruthless. Some workers fetch good prices and other don’t. What’s more, like any other market, nothing is stable and demand is unpredictable. The buyers of labour wring their hands and sniff that the recession is ruining them, but they make a staggering profit out of this arrangement.

Just look for a minute at where the profit comes from. If employers were to pay you exactly what you’re worth to them, they wouldn’t make a penny out of it for themselves. So they pay you less than your labour is earning them and keep the difference, to save up and buy themselves nice clothes, politicians and continents. Ah but, you might ask, how do they know exactly what your labour is worth to them? After all, most workers are not employed to produce anything at seventy pounds a week that you can paint green and charge a hundred quid for. In the real world it’s much more complicated than that. So they employ accountants like Chas to figure it out for them (and they don’t pay him the millions he saves them either).

Why should a worker give ten hours to an employer when the contract says eight and they’re only paying for seven anyway? Add to this the anti-union feeling which also exists, and one begins to see that really, until people start taking their own interest seriously, the owning class has got it made.

Paddy Shannon

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