Monday, November 10, 2014

Are low-paid, outraged workers ready to fight back?

Wages have been falling for years and inequality is growing. But the dissatisfaction of workers may finally force a revolt

Del Boy does a bit of dodgy dealing
Del Boy does a bit of dodgy dealing. Some workers claim they have to do the same because wages are too low to live on.

It was all going to script until the rich guy in the pinstripe suit said young people should “get off their arses”. I was in a television studio for Channel 4, trying to explain French economist Thomas Piketty’s inequality thesis to a befuddled audience. But something snapped.

Wages as a share of UK GDP have fallen by around 10 percentage points since 1973. And we’re now in the seventh straight year of falling real wages. That means, when you tell young people to “get off their arses”, they have a strong incentive to move into the grey economy. If wages stagnate, yet everyone with money can demonstrably make money in the financial and property systems, the logical thing to do – if you are an 18-year-old on the streets of a British city – is dodgy stuff.

When I pointed this out, the audience exploded. One man yelled: “We all have to do dodgy stuff. Wages are not enough to live on!” – and he reeled off a list of dodgy activities he had taken part in. On top of this, he insisted, the entire country is run by corrupt people on the make, so why should ordinary people do different? He got the loudest cheer of the night from an audience that had just been let into the guilty secret of modern Britain: we are poorer than we think.