Saturday, 18 January 2014

Beggars Belief

Daniel Finkelstein hits the nail on the head with his recent opinion piece in the Times about the Channel 4 programme Benefits Street - this is not so much 'poverty porn' as an indictment on successive governments of both left and right which have done little to tackle these problems for years.  

From the highly paid refuse workers who refused to collect the residents' rubbish - to the police and others who were apparently powerless too help the exploited Romanian workers - the State did not come across too well.

As I said in a recent post on Wage Slaves - the whole business beggars belief.

Benefits Street is a challenge for the Right

By Daniel Finkelstein

As this brilliant TV programme suggests, vulnerable people need help to break the cycle of dependence

Instructions on how to steal a satellite navigation system without your crime being detected: 1. Wait for a delivery van to arrive in your street. 2. Watch until the driver gets out of the cab and approaches a house. 3. Creep up on the other side of the van and try the door. 4. If the side door is locked, see if you can jump in through the back and steal the sat-nav. 5. Have your entire attempt filmed by a documentary crew who may show it on prime time television.

I may not be Raffles, the gentleman thief, but when I honed down my master plan in advance of implementation, I think I would decide to leave out part 5, which perhaps marginally increases the risk of someone working out who did it.

However, in addition to not being Raffles, I am not Fungi, either. Fungi is one of the characters whose life is one those chronicled by the Channel 4 series Benefits Street. A documentary crew has spent a year on James Turner Street in the Winson Green area of Birmingham. The first episode spent much of its time following Fungi, witnessing his drinking, chronicling his drug use, listening to him outline his philosophy of life and filming some of his rather pathetic attempts at petty crime, his abortive attempt to steal a sat-nav among them.

The documentary series has been heavily criticised, characterised on the left as “poverty porn” that picks on the powerless. And it has also been suggested that it uses extreme cases to make a right-wing case for an assault on welfare recipients. I think every part of this criticism is completely wrong.

Benefits Street is an extraordinary piece of journalism. With great diligence and professionalism, the makers of the programme have captured the difficult lives being lived in so many houses on James Turner Street. Just for example, Monday night’s footage of successive groups of Romanian immigrants, their struggle to live, and their exploitation by slave labour groups, was jaw-dropping.

It is true that you can read about these things, and true that it tells an ancient story that many know and live with, but it is quite another thing, quite an achievement, to capture it on film so that it can be carefully discussed and analysed.

It is reasonable to argue that the title was poorly chosen, because showing a few people’s lives doesn’t tell the whole story of the welfare state. Yet anyone who feels entitled to dwell for long on the criticism that not everyone is like the residents on film must be among the tiny minority that has never told an anecdote to make a point or given a vivid example to help an argument along.

I hope as many Times readers as possible watch Benefits Street and I hope the people who made it and screened it win awards.

The reason I offer my acclaim is not because Benefits Street confirms every prejudice I had before watching it. On the contrary. I think the programme poses a serious challenge to people of all political persuasions, but perhaps most of all to people like me on the centre right.

I can see why those of the left felt on the defensive after the programme begun to air. On screen appears one individual after another who is clearly physically able to work, but doesn’t. It’s hard not to feel irritated when encountering the feeling of entitlement combined with one of defeatism.

By contrast, it is moving to watch the Romanian field workers as they strive, determined to make their way. It is moving when one finds part-time work and announces that “having a job gives you the courage to believe it’s all possible”.

Certainly what is seen on screen supports arguments made on the right about ways in which the welfare state fails and can support a helpless dependency. Yet it would be a very shallow interpretation of Benefits Street that only reached that conclusion.

While it is true that the State seems to be supporting some feckless lives, the point is made even more strongly that withdrawing that help doesn’t end that fecklessness. Centre right language about empowerment and independence and self-sufficiency seems incredibly remote from the lives of people like Fungi or the couple with young children, Mark and Becky.

It may be wrong, it is wrong, to expect hard-working people to finance the errors of others, the bad partners they choose or their turn to drink or crime. Yet saying that isn’t enough. Because it also seems wrong just to leave those people to make those mistakes and blight the lives of their families and their communities.

Yes, the State is helping to trap people in poverty, a system that costs billions while still failing. Yet at the same time, for the people filmed by Channel 4 the immediate problem was much more the absence of the State than its presence. The failure to clear the rubbish from the street, for example. Or the terrible, shaming, failure to protect the Romanian workers from exploitation, with the police able to do nothing and the immigrants forced to flee for their lives.

Paying people money to do nothing much is neither right nor sustainable. However, watching residents struggle to understand the terms of their rental agreement or how to avoid eviction, and seeing them turn to others for assistance who are almost as deficient in understanding as they are, it is made obvious that these people need more help as well as less help.

Without intense support and advice, without community workers to bring help right into the home, telling people to stand on their own two feet is just rhetoric designed to make the person using it feel comfortable. The challenge for the Right is that independence doesn’t begin automatically when dependence ends.

Wage Slaves (14 October 2013)

Here's a great piece of investigative journalism from the Sunday Times that is in the best traditions of the UK press -  I thought at first that the GLA stood for something to do with Greater London, but the acronym stands for the Gangmasters Licensing Authority - a rather depressing and inappropriate title if you ask me.

In this day and age it's almost beyond belief that employers or 'Gangmasters' can be allowed to operate in this way - and with tens of thousands of workers involved apparently, you would think that this area would be ripe for a big, well resourced trade union recruitment campaign - aimed at preventing this kind of terrible exploitation.

If I were in charge of Unite or the GMB, I'm sure I would spend less of the members' money on the pursuit or politics and/or big financial donations to the Labour Party - and much more on the bread and butter issues that ordinary union members support and relate to - such as equal pay and the kind of workers exploitation highlighted by the Sunday Times.

I had a quick look at the GLA website, by the way, and the Unite and GMB unions are both represented on the GLA board - along with the TUC.      

Beatings and 17-hour days’: the life of Britain’s food slaves

By George Arbuthnott

Migrant fruit workers say they are forced to live in cramped conditions

WORKERS employed in food factories and farms that supply some of Britain’s biggest supermarkets are forced to do shifts of up to 17 hours for little or no pay, an investigation by The Sunday Times has discovered.

The workers — most of them from eastern Europe — are lured to Britain with promises of good wages but are then made to labour as modern-day slaves.

Police and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), which was created in 2006 to prevent the exploitation of workers in the food production sector, are investigating a suspected human trafficking ring that is alleged to be exploiting eastern European workers in food packaging factories that supply at least three of the biggest supermarket chains.

The probe was triggered in part by the testimony of a Slovakian man in his twenties who fled a meat processing factory. The man claimed he had been forced to work for three years for just £2.80 a day.

“I was being told to work double shifts sometimes seven days a week, but he [the gangmaster] was only paying me around £20 a week. It was like a kid’s pocket money,” he said.

He recalled one occasion when, after fainting due to illness and exhaustion, he was ordered to work a double shift as punishment. He said he and his co-workers slept in cramped conditions in a two-storey house, were given little food and had their bank accounts controlled by the gangmaster.

Another inquiry is being carried out by a charity-funded team of former policemen into claims that Polish workers at a fruit-packaging factory have been forced to work for less than £2 an hour. The factory is owned by a company that claims to supply five leading supermarket chains.

The Sunday Times can also reveal Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda have stopped dealing with a Kent-based gangmaster after an earlier investigation by police and the GLA into claims that workers were being exploited.


It is claimed that Polish fruit-packaging workers were paid less than £2 an hour (Lya Cattel)The labourers, who mostly come from Lithuania, said they had been forced to work shifts of up to 17 hours for no pay and that they were beaten or threatened with fighting dogs if they objected. Police have made two arrests but no charges have so far been brought.

In another case, the GLA revoked the licence of a female gangmaster in London after she was found to be paying migrant workers less than the minimum wage and housing them in substandard accommodation. Her firm’s website states that it provides staff to suppliers of Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda.

Sainsbury’s confirmed the firm had provided staff for its suppliers but had since ceased to do so. Morrisons and Asda declined to comment.

While there is no suggestion the supermarkets are involved in or are aware of the exploitation of people working for their suppliers, critics say they could do more to ensure their promise that such firms would follow best practice is kept.

The Sunday Times is campaigning to raise awareness of modern-day slavery in Britain. Last week Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, described the problem as “intolerable” and Theresa May, the home secretary, told the Tory party conference that thousands of workers across the UK are being exploited.

According to the Serious Organised Crime Agency, 83 potential trafficking victims were forced to work in the food-processing industry in Britain last year, up from 38 in 2011.

However, many experts believe the true figure is far higher. An inquiry in 2010 by the European Equality and Human Rights Commission suggested one-fifth of almost 90,000 workers employed in the meat and poultry-processing industry in England and Wales had suffered physical abuse. The UK food and drink industry is estimated to employ up to 400,000 workers.

Paul Broadbent, the GLA’s chief executive, said: “The traffickers are locking people up for six, seven hours a day and then making them work 16 to 17 hours.

“The victims are absolutely trapped because they are financially tied to these people. Every conceivable fraud and deception is committed and they rule with an iron rod.”