Exploitation through capitalism affects millions in the UK

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Exploitation for profit is often seen as being confined to pre-1900 Britain, or in modern times to the Third World. It is now only done by ‘us’ to ‘others.’ However we should not ignore problems caused by the free market in our own society. The pursuit of profit creates unpleasant conditions for British workers, and exploitation is a daily reality for millions in the UK.

Call centres, a symbol of our consumer society, epitomise the unfairness of capitalist economics. Having spent time working in a call centre, I can testify to unpleasant conditions first hand. Employees sit in teams and are watched over by a leader, who monitors the constant flow of data – sales, call length, the time taken for breaks – from their desk. At any point the leader (or more senior management) can tune into the call of an individual employee, hunting for breaches of protocol. Compliant employees, headsets plugged into computers, watched over by attentive bosses monitoring rising profit: this imagery makes it is easy to fall into dystopian clichés.  More pragmatically, we should question whether it is really necessary for a corporation to count the number of toilets breaks taken by an employee, or for team leaders to arrange meetings with workers who arrive back from their break a minute late.

The financial compensation and benefits for working in such an environment are usually underwhelming. Employees often earn, as I did, less than the £13,900 annually considered necessary (by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation) to live above the poverty line. Poor wages are aggravated by the lack of paid sick-days, as well as the requirement to take holidays at times that suit the company, rather than the employee. Such demands – proper salaries, paid time off for illness, and holidays at times required for childcare – were part of the agenda of labour reformers a century ago. Yet the same problems persist in modern Britain.

This absence of employee rights must be seen in the context of the lack of unions in the private sector. Only 14.4% of the private sector was unionised in 2013. Unions that do exist in the public sector are ineffective and dismissed as ‘dinosaurs’; relics of an age when the aim was equality rather than ‘equality of opportunity’ – a prop that allows the poor to be blamed for being poor. Unionisation of the private sector would not create equality between workers and bosses. It would however deliver the means to create a proper standard of living for employees, something which we cannot take for granted despite the gargantuan profits generated by corporations each year.

The lack of employee protection in the private sector partly stems from traditional perceptions of the services industry. Services jobs now make up the majority of the workforce: 81% of employees worked in this sector in 2011. The break-up of heavy industry since the 1980s has exacerbated existing post-war trends towards a growing service sector. Consequently more and more people have had to seek employment within services. This also means that our attitude towards many such jobs has become outdated.

Unlike myself, employees in parts of this industry such as call centres are often no longer students or other individuals looking for a stop-gap; many will be there for the foreseeable future, and often for their entire working life. Our attitude needs to shift in recognition of this reality. Subsistence level pay and a lack of unionisation cannot be dismissed by arguing that these conditions only apply to a minority of (mainly temporary) employees: the opposite is true.

Across the political spectrum there should be more awareness of the exploitation inherent in our society. Those on the Right must acknowledge that hard work in such jobs is often not rewarded, either with decent pay or protection from the whims of the market. The Left must not lose sight of the problems created by capitalism in Britain as they look critically at exploitation in the Third World.

Nor should the Left limit their on our society to populist banker bashing. Britain is torn with inequality, just as it was a century ago. Reformers may have chipped away at the ugliest gargoyles on the façade of capitalism, but the structure of exploitation remains unchanged. While we may not see immediate alternatives to the current capitalist free-for-all, we must not ignore the vast inequalities created by our economic system, and do all we can to alleviate such evils.


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