Britain isn’t working?

I was confronted this morning with the news that Jeremy Hunt thinks Britain needs to work harder. Apparently, the point of the tax credit cuts is to send an ‘important cultural signal’ about hard work. He said, “Are we going to be a country which is prepared to work hard in the way that Asian economies are prepared to work hard, in the way that Americans are prepared to work hard? And that is about creating a culture where work is at the heart of our success.”

I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about the hard work women and men do to cook, clean and care for their families. Nor the hard work of school governors, charity shop till-staff and volunteers who run lunch clubs for older people who might otherwise never get out. No, I think he was implying that people who get paid wages so low that they can’t keep a roof over their families’ heads don’t work hard enough.

Jeremy Hunt needs to realise a few things:

  • The minimum wage is too low, and it will still be too low when it is slightly increased later this year. As Len McCluskey said, Hunt’s remarks are insulting to the millions of people “juggling two or three jobs to put food on the table”, especially when you remember that hunt is the richest member of the Cabinet.
  • The whole of life involves hard work, not just the economic employment bit, and if his party wants the community spirit, family ties and gender equality it sometimes seems so keen on, a lot of people will need to work to make it happen, and they can’t do that if they have exhausted all their energy working in the workplace.
  • Working longer hours usually means less, not more, productivity. Nobody does their best, fastest work or has their best ideas when they are exhausted. Long hours of intensive work will reduce, not increase, productivity.
  • As Health Secretary, he might also have an eye to the poor health – from stroke to depression – caused by overwork.

This speech, and the whole ‘strivers and shirkers’ line we have heard so much, is a cynical way to pit the insecure against each other, demonise vulnerable people and blame them for situations they didn’t want to be in. Ask Redcar.

How much more constructive it would be to make speeches to unite not divide celebrating the unpaid and paid hard work of Britain, and make policy to regulate for a truly living wage, and support shorter working hours for those who want them.

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