DAVID CAMERONS ANSWER ON MR AND MRS. BRITAIN’S SENSE OF WELL BEING
BY GLEN MANEY – COMEDIAN (not a pun!)
David Cameron apparently wants to conduct a “well being’ survey because he wants to know how people feel in Britain today. I think that with the current round of austerity cuts the results would have been obvious. Unless you’re a high ranking banker ,you probably aren’t terribly happy with your lot. I thought that would be obvious. Unless of course you’d lost touch with the people and in touch with reality. It appears to me that that often happens to most Members of Parliament. Whether it’s greed or power that corrupts and blinds, or an instruction to go against everything you believe in and stood for from your party’s high command that causes this blindness, I really couldn’t say, but whatever the cause it seems to me to happen in more cases than not.
As a stand-up comedian I read a lot of papers and survey the net news and of course it concerns me that we are fed for the most part, the version of events that certain media influences want us to have. Versions that the average man or woman in the street never ever question. Versions that enter our living rooms via our beloved televisions and which we digest without a thought on the credibility of the report. There are a couple of quotes about the television that have always stuck with me “All television is educational television. The question is: what is it teaching?” Nicholas Johnson and my favourite from the legendary Groucho Marx “I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.” Sadly my retort today in answer to Groucho is “who wrote the book? And why?”
So with my cynicism where the results of any Government findings are concerned I thought I’d go meet the people and find out what really is going on out there for Mr. And Mrs. Joe on the street. How do they really feel? How are we as a Nation dealing with life under the coalition?
I thought a good starting point would be the employment market. I went to the Job Centre and had an interview. Yes, pretty much as I thought. In the West of Scotland it’s 20 people going for every job vacancy! I was told that an employment agency might be the best place to start if I didn’t mind what I did.
I contacted an employment agency called “Prime Staff” in Glasgow and left my details. Three weeks later I was called for an interview and was told that whilst they couldn’t guarantee work for me on a daily basis, if I didn’t mind them calling me at 7.30am in the morning and if I was then prepared to start at 8am, they could start me at a place called “Houston’s” in Renfrew. This company packaged bottles of all sizes from small to large spirits usually in a production line environment.
My start day arrived and I got my 7.30am call saying “I might” be needed. I got dressed and made my way to the company offices where I waited until 8.15am. I was then issued with safety shoes, the £15 for which I was told would come out of my first weeks wages and shown to a production line. I was told I was on £5.80 an hour which is incidentally 85p an hour more than when I worked in a factory last, which was a mat producing factory and was back in 1982! Yes, almost thirty years ago!
After an alarmingly short safety talk which took all of five minutes, I was shown to my seat on the production line. The two supervisors running the line were Scottish but the other nine workers on the line were Eastern European, predominantly Polish. I sat there not understanding a word that was being said. They seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was a lot of banter and laughter and I smiled back when there was a glance in my direction. I made a mess of my first few attempts at packing the bottles at speed as I hadn’t been shown, but a kind Polish female in her early thirties showed me and her broken English was certainly better than my Polish and I soon got the hang of the methods and technique required.
Before I knew it, it was tea break and I sat on a table on my own. There was a table of Scottish workers and four tables full of migrant workers talking in an Eastern European language. I was soon joined by a Polish male in his mid twenties who smiled before taking a seat. His English was very good and I learnt that he’d been in the country two years and had just moved up from a factory job in London. He told me that he shared a three bedroomed house with six others and they all shared the rent. He was a trainee Doctor in Poland but he was so much better off over here working in a factory than he had been back in Poland. He told me that his wage in Poland equated to about £1.95 an hour, so that even with the higher cost of living in Britain, if you shared a house etc, you were far better off and could afford to send some money home to your family and save! I remember thinking that I didn’t resent this thoroughly nice co-worker at all. I would have done exactly the same in his position. No, I resented the British Government who had been one of the few European Government to sign the Lisbon Treaty and agree to all the terms. Notibly,
Article 62 1 (a) will ensure that there are no controls on persons, whatever their nationality,when crossing internal borders’. Article 62 1 (c)will allow the EU to control external borders via its own ‘integrated management system for external borders’. Furthermore, Article 63 (1) will give the EU the power to decide on who and for how long residents of non-EU states, even those from the Commonwealth, will be able to stay in Britain. The European Union will also determine the border checks that those people face.
I was seeing first hand what our Government’s decision to open our borders to EU Nations was doing at ground level. I’m the first to agree that the UK was built by immigrants and at one time or another most of us or our families were in fact immigrants to these shores. In times gone by and even now we need an influx of skills that we are low on. What I didn’t understand though was why a Government would make such a decision at a time when 20 people are going for one factory job that with all due respect even the most unskilled worker from these Islands could perform with extreme ease? It seemed madness.
For the next three days I spoke with my Polish friend and I liked him. He was just doing what we’d all day and at great personal sacrifice to make things better for his family. I actually admired the Polish. I also spoke to a lot of Scottish workers who told me that they were outnumbered 3 to 1 by Eastern Europeans and that the company’s attitude was, “well these workers will do it and for minimum wage so if we make changes to your contract and you don’t like it. The door is over there !”. A sad bi- product of a labour market that has too many people for vacancies is that companies can use this to their advantage in that they can extract maximum effort with reduced reward and people will put up with it for fear of losing their job. This is what is happening in Britain today, that was obvious.
On day three I got a call saying I wasn’t needed back and the nice Prime Staff lady apologised. An order hadn’t arrived as quickly as the company had anticipated and the company were cutting back on their agency workers. Nothing personal. She said she’d try to get me placed somewhere else. I got my three days pay less the cost of my safety boots that I wasn’t going to use again. So with £90 or thereabouts in my pocket I left thinking that I remembered that if you ran a company who met health and safety regulations you generally supplied people with the equipment to do that. It struck me that it was just another way that companies were saving money by using agencies instead of employing people directly. Agency workers have very few rights, that had become apparent to me.
Five weeks later I got a call from Prime staff again and they were offering me a placement at a clothing supplier and retailer called M and Co., you may have seen their stores in the high street. The position was working in their warehouse in Renfrew.
The first morning was a culture shock. Having to ask to go to the toilet and on one occasion seeing one of these requests refused was hard to adjust to. A few weeks later a notice was put on the company notice board saying that” the company” could see no reason why anyone should “need” to go to the toilet half an hour before a break or half an hour after. Or indeed, within half an hour of the start or finish of the working day. Who were these company experts who knew when people would and wouldn’t need to use the toilet? Had the company decided to use an agency to supply three quarters of the warehouse staff in order to save money to invest in a multi-million pound medical study of bodily functions! They had obviously had an actuary work out the chances of a female worker starting their period or a worker contracting a stomach bug within half an hour of the start and finish of the working day. Incredible!
On my second day I watched “pickers” who had worked non stop be “shouted at” by junior management for exchanging a few words. We really were back in Victorian times and these poor agency staff had no union to protect their rights and no leg to stand on if they said anything back. It was unfair and it was degrading. To my mind it was an affront to the very human rights of the people who worked there.
Again M and Co had a large Eastern European contingent in their work force numbering approximately 50% of the agency staff employed there. I was amazed that there were people who had been employed there within the agency set up for over four years without being offered a full time job. So they were good enough to work there on minimum wage but not good enough to be employed. Not that the full time workers got paid a lot more, but at least they had basics like sick pay facilities to fall back on if they were genuinely ill, unlike the agency staff. This resulted in a couple of people I witnessed being in the hold of flu and still attending work, one coughing uncontrollably as he went around the aisles picking clothes. His explanation for spreading his germs was that he needed the money although he was embarrassed by his coughing and constant expulsions of phlegm. We really were back in the dark ages. Mr.Cameron wants to know how people are feeling? No need. They’re feeling down trodden. They’re existing. They feel let down by his Government and those that have gone before and feel that things like the rise in University fees have condemned their children to the same existence. No matter how you package it. Working class children from working class families just see the top line of the debt that they WILL accrue by trying to better themselves at University and more often than not will decide against.It’s more a mental state than anything else, but it’s there.
The next week was my most annoying when I watched a West Indian Scotsman, called David, a young lad with a baby on the way, fired for taking a call on his mobile, against company rules from his worried and heavily pregnant wife. He’d told me earlier that she’d had a couple of problems and he was worried. He took the call and at the end of the day was called to see the Junior management. He was told he wasn’t needed the next day. Apparently it wasn’t his first indiscretion but I found it strange that I’d witnessed many Polish workers on their mobiles but nothing appeared to be said. The comedy phrase “Is it coz I’z black” sprang to mind and although I’m not normally big on everything being blamed on the colour of one’s skin or their religion when they commit what is sometimes an outrageous act, I think on this occasion David, it probably was! I could see no other reason. I’m sure that had he been employed and took the case to a tribunal, they’d have found his attendance and his productivity, picking times etc, to have been no worse than many others. Sadly David was, agency staff. He didn’t have a leg to stand on!
I had seen enough and so ended my experiment. I’d seen good hardworking people and to be fair, some not so hard working! Having their rights stripped. Working for very low pay and becoming more stressed and demotivated. It was sad to watch.
In a strange quirk of fate as I left the warehouse on my last day I bumped into a friend who worked at Tesco in Paisley. He’d hurt his back at work. This was a genuine injury and I’d watched him struggle along the road at the weekend. I asked him how he was and he said “furious”. He explained that he’d phoned in sick because he was in severe pain and was going to the Doctor’s. His manager at Tesco had called him begging him to come in and do light duties. This he eventually agreed to, as he couldn’t get comfortable anyway. At the end of the shift he was given a verbal warning for reporting in sick when he could have worked! This man felt he’d been dealt with unfairly but viewed his own Union as so “in the company’s pocket” that it wasn’t worth joining. I KNEW that this was a genuine case and again I thought of those Victorian work houses and how we were slipping back to a not so great period in history.
Our conversation about Tesco continued and he told me that Public Holidays were being eaten up in their new contract and for example they weren’t actually getting a bank holiday for next years royal wedding! I’ll be getting on to Tesco to clarify this stance. He told me that although he had shares in Tesco it sickened him the way the staff were treated and how Tesco management were just profit driven without any care for the people they were managing. Sound familiar? Like a Government without a care for the majority of people they are Governing?
I contacted lots of my Facebook friends and asked them about their work experiences. I spoke to a nursing home worker on the Isle of Wight, who said that they were under staffed apart from inspection days! The staff (predominantly East European) were stressed and over worked, but too scared for their jobs to say anything. They felt “lucky” to have a minimum wage job.
It seems the minimum wage is becoming the norm rather than the rule?
I spoke to a friend in the Car Sales industry where I’d spent a little time myself. He said they were treated like dirt and had seen people who weren’t trained, dismissed on the spot because they’d answered back managers who were swearing at them in staff meetings. He’d seen people fired without reason and stated “everyone is fed up” and that “wages have fallen. Sales have fallen and the manager’s answer is shout louder or sack them!” That’s not man management it’s called bullying where I come from?
I went looking for answers on Britain today and sadly I found them. As I watched the riots in Egypt this week I thought to myself, I wonder at what point, the “normal” working class people of Britain will snap? I wonder at what point the stress will become too much. I wonder at what point their treatment will be met with a backlash, the likes of which has never been seen before in this country. Do you know what single answer I came up with ? SOON.
Now it’s back to comedy. I’m going to TRY to make people laugh. I’ve learned one thing in the last few months. The British people certainly need something to smile about. Myself and my peers, may as well try to be that reason. They’re not going to get many others!
How do people feel Mr.Cameron ? Guess.
Date: February 9, 2011