Andrew Gimson

Every fair from fair sometime declines

Polly Toynbee describes herself as ‘profoundly anti-religious’, but she had the energy and curiosity to accept an ingenious challenge from a group of Christians. Church Action on Poverty wanted her to spend Lent trying to live on the minimum wage of £4.10 an hour. She duly moved out of her comfortable house and into a cheerless flat on a nearby council estate, where she tried to support herself in such badly paid jobs as hospital porter, care assistant, packer of cakes in a bakery, school dinner lady, office cleaner and telesales rep. Her book sheds light on the kind of conditions endured by what she calls ‘the bottom 30 per cent’, the generally hidden multitude of workers who carry out essential tasks for wages which are sometimes lower than they were in the 1970s.

Perhaps the most depressing of her findings is that in many of the jobs she did employers not only expressed no appreciation of any extra effort, kindness or initiative shown by their workers, but actually insisted that their employees stuck rigidly to the letter of whatever contract they were carrying out. This meant that the porters in the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, where Toynbee did a stint, were strictly forbidden to help nurses to carry patients, with the result that ‘diminutive nurses heaved about hulking great patients while porters had to stand by with their arms crossed’. The nurses were covered by NHS insurance if they harmed themselves or a patient sued, while the porters, provided by a private agency, were not, and the agency was determined to avoid any liability for anything that might go wrong.

Toynbee does not put it quite like this, but it appears that while we have broken the power of the trade unions to impose various ludicrous forms of working to rule, we have achieved this by bringing in private employment agencies which consider themselves obliged to impose their own highly objectionable forms of working to rule.

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