No Paninis for Poverty Pay

by Rebecca Prentice

Throughout the UK yesterday restaurant and food delivery workers walked off their jobs to protest low wages, zero hours contracts, and unpredictable work schedules—including those from Brighton’s two JD Wetherspoon restaurants, The Post and Telegraph and The Bright Helm.

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Writing in The Guardian, Owen Jones and Katie Southworth describe these strikes as part of a new era of youth trade union activism. Young people have borne the brunt of austerity and rising university fees, and make up a large portion of workers in the food and hospitality sector. Young people contend with ‘flexible’ zero hours contracts, precarious and poorly-paid work, as well as a lower minimum wage for under-25s. Their reinvigoration of the trade union movement demands recognition of their lived realities: that behind their employers’ booming corporate profits are workers struggling to meet basic needs on low wages and erratic hours.

One of the key features of this labour movement is its focus on the living wage, which is really about a right to a (good) life. At a rally in support of the workers in Brighton yesterday, speakers from Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU)Unite, the Labour Party and Green Party linked the struggle of the city’s restaurant workers with that of the Fight for $15 movement in the US—which has had remarkable success since 2012 in pushing for minimum wage increases, particularly in New York and California.

‘Overworked, underpaid, we demand a living wage!’

Chant on the picket line outside The Bright Helm, October 4, 2018

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A call for the living wage makes a claim to more than bare life; it lays claim to a richer life where labour is sufficiently rewarded to enable access to education, secure housing, healthy food, and the possibility of forward planning. In calling for a ‘living wage,’ workers push against both a capitalist logic of maximum extraction of the value of their labours, and against the logic of ‘expulsion’ that simultaneously denies them the social benefits enjoyed by previous generations.

A wide variety of unions showed solidarity with the striking workers at a rally and on the picket lines in Brighton yesterday, including the University and College Union (UCU), whose strikes to protect academic pensions last spring were well-supported by students: the same group of people who do bar, cafe, and restaurant work. Raising wages for younger workers; protecting pensions for retirement—these aims can link workers across generations to lend each other support and solidarity.

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Rebecca Prentice is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Sussex where she also convenes MA courses in Anthropology. Her co-edited book (with Geert De Neve), Unmaking the Global Sweatshop, was published in 2017.

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