Last night, some of the wealthiest people in Britain paid £15,000 to go to a fundraising gala for the Conservative party. To put that into context for those outside the UK, my annual salary is £15,000, and income tax is paid by those earning over £10,000.
Once at this gala, party donors spent £220,000 for a week-long stay in a 17th-century fortress in Spain and another £210,000 for a statue of Margaret Thatcher, among various other prizes in a silent auction. For these people, the Conservative slogan "We're all in this together" used to justify harsh austerity measures is simply that - a slogan. The recession did not affect them; a study in 2014 found that the UK was one of three EU countries where the wealth gap increased. In fact, the richest got richer as property values rose and quantitative easing inflated the assets of the already super rich . The rich-poor divide in Britain continues to grow and the middle class continues to shrink. Meanwhile, the wealthy individuals at the fundraising gala dinner at a 5* hotel point to an apparent economic recovery which has been felt by no one except them.
Furthermore, this increase in income inequality, so often shrugged off as an unfortunate consequence of the economic crash, is actively encouraged by the very policies constructed by the wealthy elite to help "solve" economic difficulties. The national minimum wage was raised to £6.50 per hour for adults over the age of 21 in October. While it's not the living wage, many hoped that it was a sign that even despite the austerity measures, the UK government was taking notice of the increasing poverty surrounding minimum wage jobs. Unfortunately, the government also increased the ability of companies, most of which owned by the very same people at the extravagant gala, to dodge paying workers the minimum wage.
Workfare, a government scheme which was supposed to trailblaze a route out of poverty, holds welfare benefits (specifically those on jobseekers allowance) back from recipients unless they agree to unpaid work, often in positions that offer very little in the way of useful training or skills, sometimes even in dangerous or degrading environments. For the Tories, it's win-win; they continue to pay the benefits individuals were already entitled to, and can even save money on withdrawing payments to those who refuse, and the companies get free labour. When the scheme was first launched by Boris Johnson, to much fanfare, the idea was that it would become a route into employment, with companies hiring individuals after their unpaid work was finished. Of course, this hasn't happened. Companies continue to recycle those on workfare, hiring virtually nobody since the scheme was launched. Two independent reports have found the scheme to be an absolute failure, yet it continues, backed up by the usual rhetoric of the lazy unemployed.
Even more minimum wage loopholes are allowed, or actively encouraged. Apprenticeships, once a hailed route into vocational trades for young people, came back with a flourish - an appealing low wage for businesses, encouraging them to hire the young and inexperienced, particularly school leavers. Many middle Englanders were pleased; it seemed, to them, to be a return to the days where you could leave school on the Friday and pick up a job on the Monday. But traditionally apprenticeships were there to train tradesmen, to give young people a useful skill which would ultimately turn into a career, whether in mechanics, butchery, construction or childcare.
The reality is that the majority of apprenticeships advertised are not like this. It is suddenly acceptable to have an apprenticeship in retail - mostly in discount stores such as Poundland which do not provide training and do not encourage high quality customer service. A few years ago, these positions would have been regarded as normal jobs - now, without changing in the slightest, they are able to massively reduce the wages. Every day, a promoted Facebook post appears on my newsfeed, advertising apprenticeships through an agency profiting from this new culturally acceptable employment route. Hundreds of people will tag friends and relatives, only a handful will point out that it's below minimum wage. The wage for an apprentice (aged 16-18) is £2.73, but housing benefits may be scrapped for those under the age of 21. For those most vulnerable and least likely to enter higher education, i.e, children who have grown up in care or from disadvantaged families, this means live with your parents (which may be impossible) or live in the worst relative poverty in the UK since the Victorian era. For those aged older than 19, they are legally only able to be paid this for the first year of their apprenticeship; after that they are supposed to be paid minimum wage.
How do companies get round that? By offering them zero hour contracts, of course! It is expected that this year will see 1.5 million people working on these contracts, which mean that employees work only when required by their boss, with no guarantee of a set number of hours. They are regarded as exploitative by most, and for good reason. I myself was briefly on one while working at a popular tourist attraction, and while I got full 37 hour weeks during the summer, by the winter my hours were cut down to 12. I would never know when those 12 hours would be; a popular defense of zero hour contracts is that they are flexible, but all it meant was that I couldn't find another job, as I didn't know when I would be available.
Now, I am fully employed, by a good company. But my £15,000 annual salary, average for my area but low for a graduate, only just covers my costs, leaving me struggling to save money. An unexpectedly high bill last week ate up the £300 I had been saving for driving lessons, so while I am able to live quite comfortably day to day, I feel rather stuck in this position and conscious of my lack of safety net should I lose my job or some other crisis occurs. So, somewhat foolishly, I listened to the usual rhetoric spouted by conservatives and the wealthy, and decided that I just wasn't working hard enough. There were very few evening or weekend jobs in my area, and though I applied for them, I rarely got a response. When I did, it was always the same - I was over qualified.
I felt frustrated, but in a recent documentary on BBC, The Super Rich and Us, the CEO of freelance.com appeared, advocating for fewer regulations, greater power for market forces, the usual libertarian/conservative rhetoric. He also called for the abolition of the minimum wage. I rolled my eyes, and moved on. Even so, the option of freelancing, which I'd always assumed was for already established professionals, played on my mind. I was already doing casual freelance work on Copify, earning perhaps £100 on a good month, but most days there simply wasn't any work on there, and it took up to three weeks for money to come through. So, I signed up for freelance.com. Here, this website charges you to take its own tests (my hard earned qualifications are useless), charges you to get yourself noticed, charges you to bid on more than a bare minimum of projects, charges you for everything it can think of, and the result?
Well, nothing. I cannot compete with individuals willing to do my work for $1 per hour, and I cannot afford to take the multiple tests necessary to bid on various projects. Within seconds of a project being posts, there are dozens, if not hundreds of bids from across the world. This is expected - globalisation has only increased demand, particularly for jobs, and the supply of employment is too low. Freelancing, apprenticeships, zero hour contracts - these are all supposed to meet the demand by deliberately lowering the cost. But people are not commodities. This is not sustainable. But if you try to point these inequalities out, there comes the usual shrug. "It's a job." they say. "It's better than nothing."
But it's not just a job. It is deliberate. It is combined with propaganda and rhetoric and policies that actively demonize the working class, that tell you that if you just work harder you will succeed but then deliberately reduce the rewards gained from your hardwork, that allow property prices to continue to rise and refuse to build new social housing, pushing workers away from cities and jobs and into the hands of companies happy to exploit the free labour given to them by Workfare. It's deliberate that those on benefits are taxed for the luxury of having a spare bedroom while entire multi-storey luxury buildings in central London go unoccupied for most of the year, nothing but an asset for the rich.
The people at that gala dinner live in another world. Perhaps they are not consciously trying to make the poor poorer, and just cannot see past their own privilege. The sort of privilege where they are spending life changing amounts of money for the honour to go to a dinner and spend life changing amounts of money. Perhaps they genuinely mean it when they say that we are all in it together. Perhaps they're even being honest when they say they would leave the country if we taxed them more, or closed tax avoidance schemes, even though the UK is now regarded as a better tax haven than Switzerland or the Cayman Islands. Perhaps not.
But either way, the gradual chipping away at the minimum wage, the most basic protection against poverty in this country? That is deliberate. That is not a coincidence. With one hand they are making more people increasingly reliant on the state, and with the other they are taking away the safety net. The austerity cuts that have hit the NHS, the police force, schools and welfare have been justified because of the economic crisis. The 'wealth creators' continue to insist that their wealth will trickle down, yet their wealth rises and ours shrinks. The economy is back on its feet, they inform us, business is booming. That we keep getting poorer is a coincidence. The wealth will trickle down soon. It will. Honest.
Mullins refuted the idea that the gala was inappropriate while austerity measures were still taking place. He told journalists gathered outside: "At the end of the day, it's businesses who are going to get the economy back on its feet.
"That's where all the money comes from for the NHS, for schools, for education. The money comes from taxes and taxes are paid by businesses."