(A piece written for ‘The Grind‘ journal – August 2014)
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve begun this sentence. Every time I begin to feel I know where it’s going, I hear something that baffles, disgusts or appals me – examples of absolute idiocy everywhere it seems. So where to start? Let’s begin with something you already know.
The world is full of idiots. It is us and them. They want it to be us and them and us and us and us and a million more divisions. Divisions of nation. Of sides, of opinion, of wealth, of every tiny opportunity there is. But it is simply us and them.
In a new town, I have recently begun the full-time job of finding work. Spending hours and hours re-writing, re-formatting; submitting the same information over and over, to fit the whims of each potential employer. I have learnt that a more fruitful task would have been to fill a filing cabinet with personal statements, wheel it to the top of Ben Nevis, and empty the contents in to a thunderous storm.
However, this week I all but completed three days of, what was mistakenly referred to several times by the company Director as, training. Like the other 7 ‘interviewees’, I had given up 3 full days to be there. One man, unemployed for 2 years, had driven over 20 miles each day to attend this ‘interview’. Another had taken time away from a family trip to London. Everyone else had spent money either on buses or petrol. They offered us free water, instant coffee, custard creams and a basket full of sherbets.
We were required to complete a ‘quiz’ at the end of each day. Enough correct answers and we’d be on their books and blessed with the otherwise unattainable zero hours contract (which would come at some undefined point in the future when the PVG, we were required to pay £59 for, finally went through).
Let me paraphrase one of the quiz questions for you:
Your client’s cooker catches on fire. Do you:
- Push them towards the fire and run out of the room screaming.
- Find some petrol, and suggest your client try to put the fire out with it.
- Remove your client from danger and call 999 immediately.
My exaggeration is slight.
On the final afternoon we, the interviewees, decided we’d go for lunch over the road. This we did, spending more money that we hadn’t earned, but enjoyably so as we prepared ourselves as comrades of sorts, for the final afternoon. We returned to the ‘training room’ and sat down. A few minutes later the company Director appeared, with his associate. Until this point, despite frequently bursting in and out to pickup printouts and shuffle pieces of paper in to the hands of our ‘interviewer’, they had not once addressed us.
“Have you had a great time?” the Director asked, clapping his hands together in a way that befits someone with a background (as his is) in managing global property funds. Only a fool asks such a question. “Don’t sound too enthusiastic…” he tailed off, before beginning a shambolic power-point presentation it appeared he had neither practised, nor thought too much about.
Finally, it was the turn of the sidekick. He stood tall, leaned back, smiled and, clasping his hands together, he began to tell us how valuable we were. It was ‘people like us’ that made the company’s name. We all shuddered. Across the table came the question, ”How do you justify paying such low wages?”. “It’s the going rate” the Director comfortably chipped in. His associate then went on to explain that if we were there for the money, we were in the wrong place. They wanted people that really cared. We were to think of ourselves as “paid volunteers”. We were “special”, he announced.
At this point I looked up and the word ‘special’ seemed to hang in the air like a turd and when I heard him suggest that we were in the wrong place were we there for the money – the money that his less than living-wage, zero hour contract promised – I felt the need to reach out, pick up the turd and throw it back at him. I was not alone.
“Are we ‘special’ enough to pay for three days of ‘training’?” I asked. “So special, you don’t pay our expenses, you don’t buy us lunch, you pretend that this is part of the interview and then refer to it as training? You make the ‘quiz’ so insultingly easy that we can’t possibly fail and have the nerve to suggest we might be here for the money?”
The reply was obvious; wave after wave of “we understand”, hands extended sympathetically, “yes, yes, we take onboard what you are saying”. The kind of thing we all hear, everyday; we are bombarded with empty phrases, promises, apparent concerns. But these two idiots kept it coming, as though we couldn’t see they were lying. As though our need to earn, left us devoid of sense. As though the fact that more than 71,000 of us in Scotland needed to use a foodbank last year, that 1000s have gone on strike this month across the UK, as though the benefit cuts and welfare reforms which force so many of us to be tossed back and forth by zero hour contracts week in and week out – as though all of that (and an awful lot more), means they can throw together a quiz, a presentation and a few custard creams and it all be “the going rate”.
“The margins are tiny”, the Director told us, having already excitedly exclaimed that the population of over 65s was set to increase by 90% over the coming years. “If the margins are so tiny, why are you wasting your time here? Why not do something else?” I asked. “Because we care”, he added a little too slowly.
“Thanks for the free biscuits” I said as I picked up my bag and walked out. Within seconds, I heard the door go behind me. A minute later, 3 of the 8 of us were out on the pavement. We stood there, exhilarated! Of course, we knew that we’d shot ourselves in the foot. So were we the idiots? We knew beforehand that we weren’t to be paid. We sucked it up – we knew we had to. Why? Because ‘the market’ said so. What option did we have, unemployed and with rent looming?
There is little now that I can actually do with the experience. I am considering including a new section on my CV entitled, ‘Occasions I Told People To Get Fucked’. But of course, this has little economic value; possibly even a subtractive one. It has, however, reminded me that no amount of money can buy the feeling of saying ‘NO’ when you need to say ‘NO’ (or, obviously, in light of events on the horizon, ‘YES’ when you feel the answer is ‘YES!’).
So, I had wanted to tell you how inspired I was recently to see Mark Coburn and Julie Hyslop talking about the work of Greater Maryhill Foodbank; by hearing that ‘vigilantes’ have removed anti-homeless paraphernalia on St. Vincent Lane in Glasgow; by the protestors and those on strike across the UK; by the World Development Movement’s resistance to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, set to increase corporate control over precious resources; by the Brazilian artist Paulo Ito’s mural of a starving child; by Jacques Peretti’s The Men Who Made Us Spend; by the women protesting in the face of police brutality in Phnom Penh (a place I visited earlier this year) where 20,000 people have been displaced so that the PM can build a play den for himself and Cambodia’s rich. I wanted to share my despair over the so-called Coal Rollers (people burning coal from the back of their SUVs in the US, in protest against Obama and lefty environmentalists). I wanted to sit foodbank and poverty statistics, side-by-side with those that show, during the same period, the UK’s richest 1000 have never seen such a rapid increase in their wealth. I wanted to tie all of these and more, neatly together somehow and present them to you. But I realise you probably already know the truth they highlight – that people with money, really don’t know what to do with it.
But while these idiots give us the reason to protest, to write, to rebel, to create art – we give each other the inspiration. In the digital world this is perhaps even truer than ever; when you can influence and inspire others without even knowing it. Of course, we are encouraged to argue amongst ourselves over, for example, who should and shouldn’t be striking; our efforts and energy expended not on the problems and their examination, but on the vitriolic harpooning of those brave enough to put their “bodies upon the gears…the wheels…the levers”, as a far braver man (Mario Savio) than I once said. It is seeing others still pushing for change, still resisting, still creating and suggesting alternatives, that keeps us inspired, energised and ultimately sane.
“If a man is thought-free, fancy-free, imagination-free…unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally interrupt him” (Thoreau)
To find out more about the people and organisations I mentioned above, have a look here:
Mark Coburn (@indycyclist) has been raising money for, amongst other things, Greater Maryhill Foodbank – managing to raise in excess of £5000 to support the work they do. Here you can find a recent article on them.
Or watch a video of them discussing the issues and the situation that hundreds of people face, not just in the Greater Maryhill area, but around the UK.
The World Development Movement campaign for economic justice and an end to poverty. Their more recent work has focused on the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership, set to have a huge impact on the way corporations use our planet for their own ends. Here’s more on the campaign. If you’ve not already seen it, here’s an article I wrote on corporations and their quest for profit.
August 24th: Just a brief footnote to the above – I heard this week that the interviewer herself resigned. She was the manager, trainer and only member of staff with relevant experience in the field.
Not long until the C*m**nw**l*h G***s start here in G*****w.
Exciting stuff isn’t it? Well, no not really and here’s why.
Local businesses have been warned that they may face legal proceedings if they use any official branding. Fair enough – it’s someone else’s copyrighted artwork. But they can also be prosecuted if, between the 23rd of July and the 3rd of August, they use, amongst other generic terms, 20*4, Glas***w, Go*d, Sil**r or Br*nz*.
A quote from Alan Matthew (a partner with Miller Hendry of Dundee) explains:
“…we expect to see many businesses and organisations attempting to take advantage of the incredible hype surrounding the Commonwealth Games…[they] are entitled to show support and enthusiasm for the Games so long as this is done in a way which does not associate promotion of the business or organisation with the Games.”
What does this mean? Well, several things. First of all it makes a nonsense of the claims that the purpose of the Unmentionable Event (UE) is, in part, to regenerate and revitalise local communities. Go to the UE’s website and you will find much talk of ‘legacy’. It describes its values thus:
“Ours is an inclusive organisation which epitomises the values of integrity, responsibility and endeavour and in which all our people are valued.”
‘All our people’ clearly not meaning the local tax-payers; be they individuals or businesses. If it were true, then they would behave with ‘integrity’ and ‘responsibility’ and would allow people to use the terms they have hijacked for a 2 week period. If they were ‘inclusive’, if they wanted to create a real ‘legacy’, then they wouldn’t even contemplate threatening local businesses with legal action for having the name of their city and the year in which we are living, written on a board outside their shop, while the UE is on. Making these threats is like supermarkets who throw out food, rather than giving it to hungry people. It is because it will not benefit them; they would suffer no loss from giving this food away, but the simple fact they will not gain, is reason enough not to engage in such practices.
This is a somewhat cynical take on things, you may think. But let me explain why it is nothing more than a simple, objective truth.
Corporations are required to put the interests of their shareholders before anything else. Shareholders, being what they are, are interested in one thing and one thing only – profit. So, when a corporation invests time, resources and money in doing something that is not increasing profit, it is breaking the contract it has with its shareholders.
You may have noticed over recent years, companies have become very interested in the environment, in sustainability, in recycling and so on. This is not because they suddenly saw the problems ahead of us all if we don’t take these things seriously; they have known this for decades. What has changed is that the balance has tipped; it is now more likely to be commercially advantageous for them to present an image of concern, than to be indifferent. That is to say, shareholders now require a certain amount of window-dressing, to avoid ‘bad press’ and thus boycotts, loss of sales, loss of value and ultimately loss of profit. It is ONLY when the threat of losing value occurs or is likely, that corporations are obliged to react.
This is not an opinion or a cynical, anti-capitalist, lefty view. In fact, if you imagine that the only thing that matters is your own business and its survival, it makes complete sense. Why would you spend money on something that will bring you no return and possibly reduce your profits?
Unfortunately/fortunately (depending on your point of view) there are many more things that do matter, than the survival of individuals; be they corporate or human. We share finite resources, finite land, air, sea etc. But, while increasing profit is the prominant aim of corporations (or indeed humans), the fact that the outcome of that aim damages us collectively, is of no concern. Once the customer base becomes so damaged or impoverished, that it can no longer afford to buy the product/goods that generate the profit, then (or just before then, if the corporation is clever enough) and only then, the company will act in order to ensure its own survival. This act would no doubt be dressed-up as actual, genuine concern for something external – but let us remember the obligation they have to shareholders. To increase profit. Until profit is threatened, they will not react.
So let’s get back to the Unmentionable Event. Why is all this relevant?
If we see the UE as a vehicle (a vehicle which we have paid for) then the ‘sponsors’ are the passengers. We bought the car. We paid for the fuel. We pay the road tax. And the insurance. We even fight amongst ourselves on the roadside waiting for the opportunity to clean the windscreen. In return, they paint their names on the side for all to see and sit back, sunning their right forearms, while their friends stretch out in the back.
In keeping with the tradition of the commonwealth, I have to give the UE credit. Just as the commonwealth has always done, they are using the common, to generate wealth with the threat of punitive measures to anyone that dares to ask for a slice of it.
Cynical? No. Why? For the reasons I have outlined.
Corporations – the likes of the Big Petrol company and the celibate media empire – do nothing unless it increases their profits. They pretend to be our friends. They use cartoon characters to get us on board. They line the streets with colourful flags. They know that doing so, fools enough of us in to buying their products.
“But they can’t be all that bad if they’re getting involved with such a positive event surely?” Nonsense. These are the kinds of institutions that would push your granny into the road if someone gave them a fiver. Not because they wanted to, but because they had an obligation to maximise profit.
The major car company sponsoring the UE, gives us one perfect example of this. In the early 1970s they discovered one of their cars had a potentially lethal defect. They did a cost/benefit analysis that determined it would cost more to recall the cars than it would to pay compensation in the event of injury or fatality. Why would they do this? Because of the obligation to shareholders to maximise profit. And what happened? People died. They paid the compensation. And carried on with business.
“But they create jobs”
But why shouldn’t they maximise their profits? A company that doesn’t make profit, is not a company for very long. And of course, “they create jobs”. Yes – this they do. I can’t argue with that. They create lots of jobs. But mainly ones with zero-hour contracts. Ones that take all the profits out of local communities and put them in to large tax-avoidance schemes. Doing this leaves communities vulnerable, because they then rely on large corporations for income. This of course strengthens the standing of the corporations, who are then able to bargain with governments for tax reliefs, improved trading conditions and so on. This means more of the money we earn, is taken from us in tax, to create an even friendlier environment for them to trade in. The UE taking place in G***g*w, like the UE in Brazil, the UE in London and all the rest of them, are free-rides dressed up as sporting events. Whatever benefits local communities do get from these mammoth events, pales in to insignificance, compared to the profits made by the sponsors. How do I know this? Simply because, they do nothing, ever, for us. They never will, because of that simple obligation to profit.
I am no party-pooper. I am all for encouraging people to get fit, to be healthy, to get involved with community and to unite as people. But, not as adverts.