Down & Out at Amazon

Who Should Write about the Working Poor?
The Amazon warehouse fulfillment center in Swansea, South Wales (Matthew Horwood / Alamy Stock Photo)

Among the discoveries James Bloodworth made, while working undercover in low-wage jobs in Britain for six months, was that working in an Amazon warehouse entailed walking ten miles a day. Eight hours into a ten-hour shift, and “oppressively tired,” it became difficult for him to find things to daydream about. It was also tricky to know what his rights were, because he never received a copy of his zero-hours contract, but he knew that the two fifteen-minute paid breaks were mostly spent walking the length of the warehouse—about ten soccer fields long—and through security scanners designed to detect petty theft. “I wouldn’t do that work,” a local man told him, unapologetically. “I’d fall out with them over how they treat people.”

In the middle of the longest stagnation of earnings in Britain since the 1860s, with a majority of the poor living in working households, Bloodworth’s book Hired (Atlantic Books, $19.95, 288 pp.) has been hailed by commentators across the political divide. It has put flesh and bones on labor-market statistics, demanding that we look at the reality of the jobs underpinning high employment rates. It has also posed some awkward questions to consumers—What sort of working practices ensure that we receive our online order the next day?—and exposed some ugly attitudes. “A wretched and miserable job does not appall the middle classes so much as the behavior exhibited by a person who does such a job,” writes Bloodworth, who found himself falling into bed with junk food, and craving cigarettes and alcohol.

His is not, he acknowledges, an original or pioneering way of reporting on working-class life. Hired joins a well-established tradition of left-wing journalists exploring the world of low-paid work, most famously The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s account of life in industrial Lancashire in the 1930s. Since the turn of the century, other examples include Hard Work by the Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee and, in the United States, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed.

Reading these books, I was struck by how little some things have changed. What’s new in the reaction to Bloodworth’s contribution is the suggestion that maybe it wasn’t his story to tell in the first place. “I will, of course, be denounced by some for writing this book at all,” he writes, in his introduction. Burning alongside conversations about economic inequality is a debate about access, platforms, and social mobility. More than half of Britain’s top journalists went to elite, private high schools (confusingly called public schools), and the methods writers adopt in attempts to get under the skin of poverty are increasingly subject to scrutiny. “If The Road to Wigan Pier had been written by a Wigan miner, and not an Etonian rebel, this is what might have been achieved,” reads a review printed on the back of another recent book—Poverty Safari (Pan Macmillan, $12.46, 240 pp.), Darren McGarvey’s account of growing up in Glasgow.

Bloodworth’s roots lie a long way from Eton. He left school with few qualifications and did the sort of work he documents in Hired well into his twenties. But he’s happy to acknowledge that, for the purposes of the book, he was a tourist: if things got too bad he could “beat a hasty retreat to a more comfortable existence.” His preemptive defense includes a questioning of where the demand for authenticity can lead (“quietism if treated as an absolute”). In the end, he argues, the sort of change that would free up working-class people to pick up the pen will require an alliance with the middle classes—the people likely to read his book.

It’s striking that similar arguments do not appear in Hired’s antecedents. The authors of those books were quick to disavow claims to authenticity (“It was impossible for me to stimulate fear of any sense of insecurity,” admits Toynbee), but they didn’t anticipate a suspicious or even wrathful response from readers. In fact, the way in which they frame their endeavors tells us something important about the relationship between those who document poverty and those who live it. In 2002, Ehrenreich anticipated that a day was coming when low-paid workers would demand more, a day of anger and strikes. Sixteen years later, the percentage of American workers classified as working poor is even higher, and rage abounds. In the United Kingdom, the majority of people in poverty are in working families. If we did hand them the pen, what might they write? And would we like what they had to say?

 

Of all these authors, Barbara Ehrenreich comes closest to exploring what low-paid, precarious work does to the humanity of the consumer and employer, not just the worker.

If the phrase “poverty safari” suggests the observation of a different species, it is perhaps most fairly applied to Orwell’s work. So far from ignoring the chasm that separates him from his subject, he draws the reader’s attention to it, noting the impossibility of his doing the work of a coal-miner, while describing that work in slightly breathless prose. “It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally,” he writes. “All of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.”

His trip to see the working class “at close quarters” was necessary, he explains, in order for him to clarify his thoughts on socialism. Yet real intimacy with the working-class families with whom he stayed was “impossible” precisely because of the class difference. He was alive to the “impertinence” of “poking into strangers’ houses and asking to see the cracks in the bedroom wall.” But nowhere did he see the need to defend his own authorship. There is not the slightest hint of the idea that his subjects might have been invited to describe their own lives.

Sixty-six years later, Polly Toynbee, a journalist at the Guardian, expressed contempt for Orwell in Hard Work, her own account of life on low pay. She had little time for his “self-loathing.” Yet she shares with him a belief in the essential alienation of the middle class from working-poor life. The latter are “invisible” she declares; she will shine a light on them. Arriving back home after spending Lent working in low-paid jobs and living on a housing estate, she feels “nothing but sheer relief…. I am glad I know more than I did about life on the other side, but gladder still, more than I can say, that I was born on the lucky side of life.”

While she writes of feeling “ashamed” of articles she has written about efforts to get the unemployed into work (“without realising the huge financial quagmire people had to cross”), and admits that she cannot explain the chasm between her own salary and that of a nurse, she also emphatically disavows any “fond notions that the life of the poor of the earth is in some way morally superior or closer to nature than that of the well-off.” She concludes that, “If the low-paid had some secret answer to the getting of happiness, the well-off would have grabbed it long ago.” It’s striking that her prescriptions are heavily focused on Westminster, on a relationship mediated through the tax and social-security system.

Of all these authors, Barbara Ehrenreich comes closest to exploring what low-paid, precarious work does to the humanity of the consumer and employer, not just the worker. She notes, for example, that a cleaning business is designed to avoid “sticky and possibly guilt-ridden relationships,” because the customers communicate with management rather than the cleaners themselves. She won’t employ a cleaner herself, she explains, “because this is just not the kind of relationship I want to have with another human being.” Her attempts to remain detached while scrubbing a floor, despite the suffering of her colleagues, are short-lived, overridden by empathy. “The only thing I’m squeamish about is human pain,” she reflects. “I’m sorry, I tried to ignore it, but it undermines my efficiency when I have to work alongside people who are crying, fainting, starving, or otherwise visibly suffering.” She concludes that “guilt doesn’t go anywhere near far enough” as a response to what she’s discovered: “The appropriate emotion is shame—shame at our own dependence, in this case, on the underpaid labor of others.”

It’s a theme that Bloodworth picks up on fifteen years later, as Britain begins to unwind its worker protections in pursuit of a “flexible” economy. “The fact that a growing number of British people are unwilling to be treated like animals by unscrupulous employers is often viewed as shameful, when it really ought to be considered a sign of progress,” he observes: “The conventional response is to disparage and ridicule the very idea of the English working class having any standards at all.” Made to feel by his fellow workers as “a strange being from a distant and alien social class,” Bloodworth holds the mirror up to the reader, who is also a consumer and a voter.

In television’s clandestine adventures in the workplace—shows like Undercover Boss—the moment of reveal is the climax of the experiment. But Ehrenreich describes the reactions elicited by her own moments of reveal as “stunningly anticlimactic.” Faced with the incredulity of friends who ask whether she can really expect to go unnoticed, she asserts that low-wage workers are “no less likely to be funny and bright” than those who write for a living: “Anyone in the educated classes who thinks otherwise ought to broaden their circle of friends.” She also nicely skewers the idea that writing is a particularly exclusive profession. When her husband tells her uncle, a valet parker, that she’s a writer, his reply is “Who isn’t?” After an ill-tempered encounter with a colleague, Ehrenreich expresses disappointment that “the original Barb, the one who might have ended up working at Walmart for real if her father hadn’t managed to climb out of the mines” is “meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I’d hoped.”

 

Books in this genre serve an important purpose, introducing readers to working conditions that may shock them, and perhaps triggering empathy or even shame.

It is, it seems, easy enough for middle-class writers to be absorbed into the world of low-paid work. It’s also easy for them to leave it behind, with relief. What of travel the other way? McGarvey, a poet who grew up in one of the most deprived parts of the United Kingdom with a violent, alcoholic mother, begins Poverty Safari with the observation that “people like me don’t write books—or so my head keeps telling me.” He goes on to introduce the reader to the currency in which he’s had to trade, reflecting that “the only way anyone would listen to what I had to say was if I prefaced my opinion with personal testimony about my dead, alcoholic mother and what a difficult childhood I had.” This, he realizes, is “the sort of window dressing that is required before the great and the good become willing to take lower class people seriously.”

Last year, McGarvey won the Orwell Prize for Books, awarded to those who come closest to Orwell’s ambition “to make political writing into an art.” Reading Poverty Safari, I thought of Orwell asking to see the cracks in the bedroom wall, and his observation that “everyone was astonishingly patient and seemed to understand almost without explanation why I was questioning them and what I wanted to see.” McGarvey shows us the cracks, and much more. We hear about alcoholism, drug abuse, and a violent, chaotic home. He’s learned that this is what is demanded in exchange for a platform. He’s also realized that some of the passengers on his safari will try to control the route.

“The testimony about my childhood was fine but they were less keen on the observations I started to make as my understanding of poverty, its causes and impacts, deepened,” he recalls, of his early encounters with the press. “I was learning that even the harshest childhood experience wouldn’t get you a free pass to cast a critical eye on the structures around you.”

McGarvey asks us to question what it is we want when we demand authenticity. He’s familiar with “the people who pay wonderful lip service to giving the working class a voice, but who start to look very nervous whenever we open our mouths to speak.” Poverty Safari, like J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, says things about personal responsibility, and the left’s engagement with it, that leave the author wondering whether he’ll be condemned as a heretic.

I doubt whether he would be among the fiercest critics of the undercover genre. One of the most moving undercurrents of his book is his growing gentleness, his willingness to ask hard questions of himself, to believe the best of those he might once have dismissed, to confess as much as to condemn. But in offering us such a personal, intimate account of poverty, he also challenges us to consider why this is what we demand of authors with direct experience of it, what it might cost them, and what we will offer in return.

Orwell’s writing, particularly his sharp observations about antagonism between the classes, made his own editor feel uncomfortable. Today, his comments on the “proletariat” are likely to cause the reader to cringe. But his observations about the possibility of encounter, of intimacy, remain compelling. Why are low-paid workers still described as “hidden” and “invisible”? And does our connection to them exist only in transactional terms, mediated through the social-security system, or conversations conducted via agencies or helplines?

When Toynbee, who described herself as “profoundly anti-religious,” turns to the Bible, it is to quote from the Gospel of Luke: “The worker is worthy of his hire.” But Scripture has other things to say about our relationships with our neighbors, wisdom that goes beyond the exchange of labor for pay. At a tent revival in Maine, Ehrenreich rages against the preaching. She longs for “a rousing commentary on income inequality” and leaves “half expecting to find Jesus out there in the dark, gagged and tethered to a tent pole.” In fact, churches and movements of faith have historically been at the forefront of campaigns to secure better pay and conditions for workers. In the United Kingdom, Clean for Good, a cleaning company started by a small church in the City of London, is challenging people to ask, “Who is my cleaner?”—and promising contracts that deliver a living wage, training, and paid leave.

Books in this genre serve an important purpose, introducing readers to working conditions that may shock them, and perhaps triggering empathy or even shame. They may also result in better policies. For the most part, Bloodworth’s book has been well received, and it has even prompted some to change their consumer behaviors. In September, he teamed up with Bernie Sanders to produce a short film in which he drew on his testimony from the warehouse. Amazon has since announced wage increases for hundreds of thousands of workers in both the United Kingdom and the United States. If the architect of the British benefit system had known that low-paid workers tend to be paid weekly not monthly, and that very few can afford to wait a month for their first paycheck, there would be less terror surrounding current reforms of Britain’s welfare system, exposed for its inhumanity in Ken Loach’s award-winning 2016 film I, Daniel Blake.

Perhaps it’s better to temporarily experience this world than to avoid it altogether. McGarvey himself has expressed regret for attacking a young artist who embarked upon a year-long “durational performance” to learn about life in Glasgow. She was, he concluded, “a decent, fragile human being who had acted with good intentions.”

“My aim was never to get drawn into an ego-driven squabble over the ‘authenticity’ of my approach,” writes Bloodworth. “I simply decided that going undercover would be the most effective way of learning about low-paid work, and I still believe that to be true.” Unfortunately, he’s probably right about that. The question McGarvey poses is not whether middle-class writers have the right to engage in what Ehrenreich celebrates as “old-fashioned journalism,” but why the experience of low-paid workers is still mostly invisible to the kind of people who might buy and read books like the ones reviewed here. That this experience can be made visible to us only by means of undercover journalism is itself a sign of deep alienation.

Published in the February 8, 2019 issue: 

Madeleine Davies is features editor at the Church Times in London.

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