by LAVORO INSUBORDINATO
When it comes to labour, Buckingham Palace is like McDonald’s. Both palaces, the Queen’s one and the most global fast food restaurant in the world, hire with «zero-hours contracts». In short, «let them eat cake!», or rather, burgers. It is well known, indeed, that the Big Mac Index devised by the Economist in the mid-80s has become a tool to measure not only the purchasing power, but also the minimum wage, that is what the UK now calls living wage, a way to indiscriminately cut welfare services in exchange for mere survival. The Burgernomics is the sign of the present times, the new Realpolitik of labour that reduces wealth to the relationship between the worker and his or her hamburger.
A wage to survive
The zero hours contract is not a novelty and in 2013 there were already over a million of people hired with them. It is the Trojan horse with which United Kingdom has introduced precarity in 1998 with the National Minimum Wage Act: on-call work, without any guarantees, no fixed working hours, no sick leave, no vacation, like the «voucher system» made in Italy. Everybody has to work, work hard, but just in time, when the boss needs you and without any waste. During the crisis, the zero hour contracts functioned as a switch to activate and deactivate the workers according to the needs of production. It is no coincidence that during the heaviest years of the crisis the unemployment levels in England have remained below the European average. Such forms of «smart» work have then attracted masses of young Italians, Spaniards, Greeks, Poles, and so on, which were promptly accused of being «welfare tourists», as if welfare services were not bought with low wages and the availability to do any work. In this regard, the proposal by the Conservative government in May 2014 to suspend unemployment benefits to those who had rejected the zero hours contract is exemplary. Do not spit on cake, even if it is just crumbs! It is a matter of good manners. The rhetoric of the «foreigners» who get rich by stealing the British welfare state, as we have already said, is therefore a myth: the work of internal and external migrants has been in recent years a net income for the Island’s treasury. What interests us, however, is to realize what is happening now and why many European countries are proposing some sort of national minimum wage or, as it is called in the UK, a living wage, which despite the misleading name, can only be translated as “wage to survive”, aimed at ensuring those minimum conditions necessary to maintain a balance between insecurity and availability of the workforce.
The United Kingdom has anticipated trends of the process of precarization concerning the European labor market that today are becoming the spearhead of reforms like the Italian Jobs Act – inspired by the Albion’s muse already in its English name –, the German Hartz package and the French Loi travail, which in recent months has triggered a mass uprising. Great Britain was also the first to line up against migrants, European and non European, using them as a threat to better precarize the domestic labor market.
The 2015 was for Great Britain the crucial year for economic recovery and precarization: given the inflation and the huge differences between productive sectors, an incomparable rise of the employment rate in Europe matched with a progressive reduction of wages. It was possible because of the increase of what they called youth underemployment, that is the condition of employability which produces an army of precarious workers – British or non British – always available to work, who get in and out of the labour market or who are employed even for long periods with wages that barely guarantee their own subsistence. The daily miracle of the social production is possible thanks to the huge increase of ill-paid jobs mainly in the services sector – and to the end of collective bargaining caused by Trade Union Bill that hits the unions. Millions of men and women live now in a dramatically stratified labour market that keeps their wages low and their productivity high. They are the employable workers always on the edge of poverty, the «casuals» workers who have been the precarious par excellence in the UK for years, but who were also protagonists of important struggles inside and outside the work-places.
The national minimum wage becomes a burning issue when the regime of wage comes definitively into force. Indeed, it justifies itself in front of the disappearing forms of collective bargaining. Furthermore, since it was never really universal but granted only in specific cases and under specific conditions, it is a tool to divide workers and to legitimize a further precarization realized through indiscriminate cuts of indirect wage and social provisions. Therefore, the aim of this wage to survive is to keep under control a potentially explosive situation and, at the same time, to bring about the deregulation of contracts and the financialization of welfare, increasing the number of workers who get the minimum wage. The political neoliberal use of the national minimum wage is not just a British prerogative: in Germany the minimum wage, introduced in 2015, will be applied to all workers by 2017 and actually, in a large number of jobs, it is bypassed without too much difficulty. In both cases, the real political problem is how minimum a minimum wage could be and for how long it could be that minimum. To understand it we must go back to the UK.
One week before May the 1st, Cameron launched a proposal to gradually increase the minimum wage, that from the ongoing level of 6,70 pounds should reach first 7 and then 9 pounds by 2020. Not for mercy but for the real risk to lose any legitimation, the conservative government was bound to promise to loosen the conditions of exploitation. The regime of wage that has developed during the crisis seems to have reached the breaking point. Neoliberalism is forced to correct itself, and not without difficulty. Immediately the «Financial Times» launched the alarm, warning the incautious premier that a too high minimum wage discourages hiring and therefore it would imply a reduction of productivity. The threat is greater in a moment when a new recession of British industrial production seems likely. In spite of this, more than productivity and recession, it is the dismal and dark opposition to the living wage by millions of men and women that is engendering a change of regime. In this scenario – which is not simply dominated by the re-emerging of nationalism, by the sovereign pride and secessionist tendencies – the ghost of Brexit lurks and the possibility of opposing the European wage regime is taking form.
As we have said, Great Britain has been the first to experiment a series of measures that subsequently lavished on the rest of Europe. Together with the reduction of wages till the limit of survival, we have also to consider the rejection of extra-European migrants and the restructuring of the welfare state, that has imposed a specific precarization of migrants coming from other countries outside the European Union, thanks to the establishment of a fixed hierarchy regulating the access to social rights and allowances. The field of tension called Brexit is nothing but a testing ground for a precarization of the European rules regarding labour and welfare benefits. On February the 18th and 19th, the European Council has set out measures to regulate internal and external workers’ mobility that will become operative the day after the referendum, in case the United Kingdom will commit to remain a member of the Union. If you think that Germany is the only country to count in relation to austerity, you are wrong. The special status recognized to the United Kingdom has led to the approval of measures that establish, at the European level, the definitive separation between the access to the labour market and that to the welfare state. This latter was once guaranteed by the coordination of the systems of social security instituted by the EEC in 1958 and it was extended to the workers of third countries in 2003. In two days, to save the shaky Albion, the European Council has formally and practically instituted a European regime of wage. Erasing any support to wage and therefore definitely overthrowing the principle of free movement, it has imposed the absolute dominion of wage over the life of workers circulating within Europe. European migrants with dependent children will be granted aids whose amount will vary according to the cost of life in the residing country of the children, that is the country of origin. More so, initially they will not have access to the allowances that will be granted only progressively, according to the stability of the relationship between the worker and the labour market of the hosting country. The increase of the allowances remains limited to a determined amount of time (7 years). It sounds familiar. In the European regime of wage, precarity, impoverishment and unemployment are produced at the expense of the worker and of her or his wage. However, all this does not seem to solve the problem. The promise to further exploit migrants does not keep the Brexit at bay. The attempt to introduce in France measures in line with the European regime of wage has literally stirred up the rage of the French population. The project to solve the crisis at the expense of migrants, precarious and industrial workers reveals its true meaning of an existential challenge. The economic crisis therefore constantly threatens to become a political one.
For a European minimum wage
Some weeks ago Jeremy Corbyn suddenly discovered the European minimum wage. Even the «comrade» of the Labour Party has realized in the end that at stake in the Brexit there is not just a confrontation with the EU but also the future life conditions of millions of people. According to Corbyn, in this moment Brexit means free market, without rights and social protections. Something which is definitely true, but does not significantly differentiate Great Britain from the rest of Europe. In spite of its previous euroscepticism, Corbyn is proposing a reform of the EU. In sum, now Europe seems to be the solution. Finally!, one would say. Unfortunately, though, his European minimum wage is a sort of «anti-dumping» tool to be played against the migrants, considered that it is measured according to the cost of living in each member State, so that anyone can happily stay at home with it. In truth, it is not clear to what extent this minimum wage can be considered as a truly European measure. This sort of compensation to poverty is exactly the contrary of what is needed now. The real stake is the freedom of movement around Europe, not the existence of measures aiming to force a workers to resist each of them in his or her own space of exploitation and oppression.
The claim of a European minimum wage is a tool to be used against the regime of wage that was imposed in Europe through many labour reforms that are based on the same standards and move in the same direction. It has to be a tool to prevent the loneliness of exploitation to which every individual is otherwise destined. We must impose a common point around which the many individual and collective experiences of insubordination crossing the European space can converge. This minimum wage has to be at least European, because this is the scale of capitalistic exploitation. It is not a matter of claiming a minimum and generalized level of survival, but rather of producing the collective conditions for accumulating the power necessary to fight against the blackmail of wage. The European minimum wage has to be a tool of emancipation, allowing millions of people to escape from the European economy of exploitation. Only starting from the European scale we can dare to escape the logic that makes of wage the price of survival, turning upside down the tendency according to which neoliberal policies are the only properly European policies. Only starting from Europe as a minimum field of common struggle we can see in the Brexit referendum something different and more crucial than the choice of being precarious for the Crown, rather than for Brussells.