Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Review – Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain

James Bloodworth spent six months working in low-wage, low-status jobs in the United Kingdom and tried to get by on the meagre proceeds. The result is a compelling and sometimes shocking account of working in the some of the worst jobs in Britain, writes Christabel Cooper

He first heads to Rugeley in Staffordshire, where he reports there was considerable excitement when Amazon first chose the town as the site for a new ‘fulfilment centre’. Initially locals applied for jobs as pickers at the warehouse, but quickly found the abysmal pay and conditions intolerable, with most workers now Romanians bussed in each day in from other nearby towns. Amazon itself comes across as an inhuman machine, accepting the workers shovelled in by exploitative employment agencies, and usually spitting them out – exhausted – after a few months (‘releasing’ them in the slightly sinister corporate euphemism).

Bloodworth goes on to take jobs as a care worker, at a call centre and finally does a stint as an Uber driver. His time in the care sector is an indictment of a system which attempts to look after an ageing population on the cheap. The punishing schedule of visits often leaves little time to do important tasks properly, offering an inadequate and even dangerous service to elderly people. Bloodworth found himself on a zero-hours contract. These not only impose uncertainty on workers, but that they also hand employers a huge power advantage – complain about anything, and your hours get cut.

🎙 Peter Kellner on productivity

The events of the book take place a few months before the Brexit vote. It casts a long shadow over the narrative. Bloodworth is particularly good at describing ‘left behind’ towns, where decently-paid and fulfilling employment can be hard to find. He finds considerable resentment of immigrants, but he also makes it clear that migrants are among the most exploited workers.

Two of the towns Bloodworth lived in had been impacted by the closure of coalmines. He tries hard to avoid romanticising the past, repeatedly pointing out that mining was a physically exhausting and dangerous occupation. But he often invokes a lost sense of community without fully examining how intrinsically patriarchal and insular some of those old communities were.

For Bloodworth, the widely accepted creed of ‘meritocracy’ is key to society’s continued tolerance of an underclass, which suggests it is fine for some people to be right at the bottom, so long as they ‘deserve’ to be there. But he also criticises the class warriors of the hard left, who see the working classes purely as weapons in a struggle against the bourgeoisie. In a telling passage Bloodworth states that there would be far fewer appalling workplaces ‘if the left was a bit less fixated on … the slogans, the thundering speeches and the whiff of “revolution” – and a little more interested in the boring stuff’.

Hired is a wake-up call to all of us. The cheap products and services that we enjoy can come at a terrible human cost.


Christabel Cooper is a member of the Progress strategy board. She tweets @ChristabelCoops


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Christabel Cooper

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