Packing boxes in an Amazon fulfilment centre could be the job of your dreams.
I don’t mean right now: not unless you have a particularly traumatic kind of dream. Please don’t move to Kettering on my recommendation and then sue me for the blisters you’ll get, trudging up and down miles of racking in search of obscure consumer goods, a pedometer tracking your every move. Right now, in the baking summer of 2018, this is probably in the top ten worst ways to spend your waking hours.
But I believe it wouldn’t take much to fix those warehouse jobs and make them satisfying, meaningful work.
If you’re one of the people who gets a bit misty eyed about the jobs of the past, how fantastic they were, and how they’ll never be replaced, I can hear you scoffing at the notion that putting stuff in boxes could ever be meaningful. Those who hark back to the pit villages and steel towns that gave working men a sense of pride and identity will tell me that putting stuff in boxes isn’t ‘man’s work’.
Work is worth more than a wage
But those people are wrong about where meaning comes from in the workplace. True, some jobs are meaningful because of the direct impact they have in the world – some people save lives, educate children or create works of art. But there’s no such direct meaning in bashing coal off a rock face. Mining is gruelling, physical labour, but if that were enough to create meaning then the warehouse jobs could match it, exhausted limb for exhausted limb.
Perhaps miners spent their days picturing the collective fruits of their labour: families cosy in front of the grate, or factories and power stations whirring into action with coal-fired engines. But if this was what mattered, a warehouse worker could find this kind of meaning too, after all, every package is a story – a child’s new lego, a lawyer’s new folders, a start-up’s new laptops.
So let’s be realistic. No amount of sentimentalising about families using coal or opening boxes could make up for the day-to-day reality of a terrible job. The practical impact of coal in the nation’s life wasn’t the reason that mining jobs were loved by the communities in which they played such a central role.
What do people really miss? It’s pretty simple: a decent wage, sufficiently large and sufficiently predictable to support your family, and a sense of community and belonging, that came as much from the working men’s clubs and the unions as from the mine or the factory itself.
The problems at the bottom end of our labour market are not because the work itself is menial or difficult – they’re because the jobs are structured to exploit, to weaken rather than strengthen community and solidarity. And rather than focusing on how to rectify this, we wallow in a sense of fatalism.
Of course we can take action to regain what has been lost, and even do better than in the past. Nobody really wants back the opportunity to breathe toxic air and be crippled by pneumoconiosis. One advantage of a warehouse is that it isn’t full of coal dust.
Why we can't ignore the working-class identity crisis
We often hear that the towns and villages around major distribution hubs hold the jobs offered in these warehouses in contempt and workers have to be bussed in every morning from the cities. This is a huge contrast to the esteem in which the pit or the steel mill would have been held. Those who run these warehouses and factories should be aiming higher, making the jobs they offer worth having, worth keeping, and worth aspiring to. High staff turnover, and rock bottom motivation cannot be good for business in the long run.
We have to start with wages. We need a new approach to the minimum wage, so people are paid extra if they take on unstable jobs, or if they sacrifice employee rights like sick pay and holidays. At the moment the minimum wage creates a huge incentive to shift people off payroll to self-employed or worker status. I’m glad those flexible employment options exist – lots of people love them, and the economic theory suggests they should result in more work being available in total.
But everywhere else in the economy, if you shift risk, you pay a premium to do so. Normally, freelancers earn more per hour than employees because they take all the risk of finding work and covering holidays and periods of sickness – but if you’re only at the minimum wage that doesn’t apply. ‘Self-employed’ workers not receiving these employee benefits should therefore get a higher minimum wage. And people on unpredictable hours, like zero hours contracts, should get extra too, to compensate them for taking on the risk.
It’s just as important that employers support workers’ efforts to organise themselves collectively, to exert their rights and gain influence within the company. It’s a sense of purpose, status and value that brings meaning to a workplace.
If employers are frightened of traditional unions, they should get ahead of them, rather than exhausting their workers so much they don’t have the time or energy to organise. Some gig platforms are now offering access to bespoke insurance or income protection programmes, which is a great start – employers should do the same, or facilitate unions and co-ops that offer this kind of support.
Work is changing, and fast. We can’t go backwards, so instead of dreaming about the past, we should be proactive in securing what’s most valuable in the workplace: purpose and belonging. Proper pay and a lasting community of colleagues are as achievable in the modern workplace as they ever were in the past – that is, if government is willing to regulate and employers to aspire to be something more than the lowest common denominator.