Last week’s WEA lecture “Economic (in)justice: building power from the grassroots” was powerfully delivered by Dr Abi Rhodes from “Journey to Justice”, a national human rights education charity which galvanises people to take action for social justice through learning about human rights movements and the arts.
A prominent theme of the evening was the need to change the narrative around economic inequality, poverty and injustice. Society is too quick to blame financial misfortune and poor health on a perceived failure to take individual responsibility – rather than identify the real structural failures of society itself.
Value judgments around work and poverty often ignore skyrocketing living costs, the unaffordable nature of housing, tax breaks for the rich and cuts to social security, all of which mean that the socio-economic structure of society forms a barrier to equality and the opportunity to live an economically secure life.
Dr Rhodes provided insight from explainers (experts in their field), interviewed as part of the organisation’s Economic (In)Justice project, as well as people who are taking action to alleviate poverty in their community. Her observations, taken from explainers Professor Robert Beckford and Dr Charlotte MacPherson, on the rise of the gig economy were particularly interesting. While many young people benefit from the flexibility of zero hours contracts, for too many others the insecurity is crippling.
In work but in poverty
Individuals and families don’t know how much they might earn in a day or in a week, let alone that month, patching together different incomes to make ends meet. What has society come to when young people with jobs must rely on food banks, accept food parcels from parents or loans of money from friends to get by? During the pandemic too, according to Dr MacPherson’s research, young people were blindsided by the furlough scheme, as they might have contracts for just 10 hours a week, when ordinarily they worked 40 hours through overtime.
In his interview, Professor Beckford argues that the gig economy is just the latest chapter in a history of increasing exploitation of the workforce. What has caused it? The relaxation of labour laws and diminishing of workers’ rights by successive governments, and also the myth that private individuals always do better when there is less government security.
She quoted Professor Beckford in calling for a reframe about how we talk about the gig economy. “It's not gigging, it's exploitative. Gigging used to mean doing something on the side, something that is often thought of as creative and artistic.
“The economic and legal changes, married to a fake belief system about what human beings are likely to do if they're left to their own devices, have led us into a predicament where we call insecure, dangerous, uninsured working practices something sexy like the gig economy.”
No surprise that the session spurred lively debate in the chat room and Q&As at the end of the lecture!