Friday, 10 March 2017

Race to the Bottom

So, I finally have a start date for my new library post up here in Scotland, and it's only a little over a week away so I'm pretty excited about that.  I've worked about two and a half years in library services now, in both Walsall and Coventry, and I'm really glad that I went down south and got that experience, as it's allowed me to come back to Scotland and land another good library post almost immediately.

However, at the same time, a certain advert for freelancing company Fiverr has gone viral, and it raises issues about the general societal direction that employment is moving in that I feel need addressed.  Specifically, the issue is with this advert here:
First of all, I'm not specifically attacking this company, because this is something that's happening throughout the so-called 'gig economy', not just with this one company.  But what most people have found so repugnant about this advert is the idea that we should be happy to, if not aspire to, be working as long and hard as possible for generally little return.  The advert's poster figure who 'eats a coffee for lunch' and goes without sleep is trying to glamorise the idea that we should be working long and hard just to get by in our lives.

Now, if you've read any social history from the industrial revolution to more recently then you're aware that for most people throughout industrial-era history it has been the case that life revolves around a job, and that often that job would barely pay enough to make ends meet for the most basic services and goods we required to continue living.  Trade unions and socialist politicians won some improvements over time, but it was really only very recently - certainly not until well into the twentieth century - that living standards really began to improve for the working classes, with the rise of leisure time and disposable income.

Now that automation is replacing more and more of the work that was traditionally done by the working classes, now we are being encouraged back into the idea that leisure time and disposable income aren't things we need, or even want.  Indeed, we're being encouraged to keep working harder and longer, driving the economy on at the expense of the value of our own lives.  As I say, this is in no way exclusive to Fiverr - just consider for example the current court case under way trying to determine whether Deliveroo can really consider its drivers as self-employed or whether they should be considered employees, with all the extra statutory benefits that would bring.

And it's only going to get worse for these people, now that the Tories in Westminster are pushing for increases to National Insurance contributions from these self-employed people, without receiving any of the benefits that employees would receive such as statutory sick pay, or guaranteed annual leave.

The simple fact is that automation ought to be making all of our lives richer and easier.  With machines doing more and more work, it ought to mean more resources and more free time available for all of us.  Instead, a very small percentage of people are taking all of the capital benefits of this process, while leaving the majority of people struggling along in this new kind of insecure, minimally paid work - encouraged to work harder and longer for less - losing out to automation instead of gaining any kind of benefit from it.

I'll talk about this more as time goes on as it's a huge pet policy of mine, but really what's going to be essential to our economy going forward is some form of universal basic income.  The idea, once considered radical but now undergoing trials in a number of countries including Scotland, is that you pay every adult citizen just about enough money to live off - so to cover rent, utility bills, food, etc.  It should be sufficient by itself to meet all of an individual's needs, but its greatest benefit over the current welfare system would come from the fact that it would continue to be paid to those in work, and not just to those seeking it.

This ends the poverty trap where often people are no better off in work than out of work, it eliminates the vast bureaucracy required to maintain the current welfare system, it incentivises spreading out the remaining work more equally so that everybody can work less and benefit from increased leisure time, and it ensures that we avoid this kind of dystopian future foreseen by Fiverr's advert where apparently we're all to be working our entire waking lives to get by, as automation takes up more and more work.

I really got into this policy after reading the below books on the matter.  I particularly recommend Utopia for Realists, which also covers the benefits of open borders and of a shorter working week, but the other two are really good too.  If you wish to buy them, please consider using the links below as it helps provide funds for maintaining this site, or of course consider checking your local library's catalogue to see if they're in stock to borrow for free!

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