Hired: Undercover In Low-Wage Britain by James Bloodworth

The Blurb On The Back:

Zero-hours contracts and the gig economy have redefined the relationship between companies and their workers: for many, careers are low-paid and high-risk, a series of short-term jobs with no security and little future.  In this essential exposé, James Bloodworth goes undercover to investigate how working life has become a waking nightmare.  From the Orwellian reach of an Amazon warehouse and the high-turnover rate of a telesales factory in Wales to the time trials of a council care worker and the grim reality behind the glossy Uber App, Hired is a clear-eyed analysis of a divided nation and a riveting dispatch from the very frontline of low-wage Britain. 

You can order Hired: Undercover In Low-Wage Britain by James Bloodworth from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

James Bloodworth is a left-wing journalist and broadcaster who spent 2016 working undercover in 4 low paid/gig economy jobs: an Amazon warehouse order picker; a home/domiciliary care worker for Carewatch UK; a call centre agent for Admiral insurance; and an Uber driver in London.  It’s a troubling, timely and powerful look at Britain’s left-behind cities and the grim existence of those in low income work that highlights working class discontent.

Bloodworth weaves his experiences working for these companies in between doing profiles of each of the cities/towns where he’s based for the role (Rugeley for Amazon, Blackpool for Carewatch UK, Swansea for Admiral and London for Uber) and drawing on his own working class background to draw a contrast between opportunities available to him when he was younger as compared to those available to modern youths.  He comes at this very much from a left wing bent, but regardless of your politics I don’t think that should be used to dismiss the situation that he reports on.  

There is an extensive set of notes at the end of the book, which makes clear the interviews and sources that he draws on here and while I might quibble his proposed remedies (more union organisation and an improvement in social safety nets being the two main themes) I don’t think you can argue that this is a fair representation of parts of Britain.  Certainly, I think that that Bloodworth’s engagement with people helps to provide an explanation for why events such as Brexit have come about and Bloodworth does a fair job of representing working class concerns about immigration and the paradox of how immigrants are blamed for depressed wages and lack of jobs but at the same time people admit that they don’t want the jobs that are available because they’re low paid.  The anger and despair that people feel at the powers that be is tangible and for me some of the most interesting interviews in the book are those Bloodworth does with the retired – those who remember a better time and want to go back to it.

A lot of the media attention for this book focused on Bloodworth’s experiences at Amazon and Uber and he clearly has a lot to say about both companies.  Amazon in particular comes across as a genuinely dystopian hell scape with its monitoring of employees, security checks and unrealistic targets – the more so given the aggressive media campaign its released in recent months to try and counter the image.  Immigration clearly plays a big part in Amazon’s operations here with many of the pickers and packers being from Eastern Europe and I will be interested to see what Brexit immigration controls do to their model given the lack of interest among locals in taking a job there because of the poor conditions.  

Uber also comes across particularly badly with Bloodworth making the interesting point about how customer feedback plays a role in preventing drivers from acting in their own best interest because of the way review figures can be used to drop them from the App.  It was especially interesting to read Bloodworth’s experiences at the same time as TfL announced its decision not to extend Uber’s licence and action is being taken against it for VAT collection. 

Unfortunately Bloodworth has less to say in the two middle sections of the book in terms of his working experiences at Carewatch and Admiral such that he focuses more on the towns where he’s based than the jobs he’s doing.  I thought that this was a wasted opportunity in the case of Carewatch given that the low-paid, highly controlled role he was doing also ties in with the poor economic situation of many of the elderly people he would have been helping, which would have brought an added dimension to the book.  I also couldn’t help but feel that he was a little disappointed at how Admiral at least tried to make working at the call centre a decent experience and while I completely agree with his view that the “forced fun” sessions could have been as effective had Admiral paid a better wage and that the perks of the job could be removed as easily as they were given, it still felt churlish given that Admiral alone seemed to recognise that employees were human beings.

Criticisms aside, I thought that this was an engrossing and highly damning book about the state of Britain today and definitely something that you should read if you’re interested in trying to find out why we are where we are.  

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