For years we have been warned that Government policy was returning us to Victorian era working conditions. While things are clearly different in many respects, such as no child labour and greatly reduced physical risks to name but two, there is evidence that in the social sphere this has now happened in some areas of Britain. But it is not in terms of the palpable outward employment conditions that this manifests itself nost starkly, but in the attitude of the various layers of worker, supervisor and owner.
JD Sports: Queuing to get in and out of ‘Prison’
Following the revelations of working conditions at retailers Amazon and Sports Direct the December 14th Channel 4 News special report on working conditions at JD Sports confirmed what we already suspected. Oppressive working conditions in many major retailers are the norm rather than the exception with practices which are at best borderline illegal. The report contained shocking footage of low wage workers being forced to queue for hours in the cold to get in and out of the Rochdale distribution warehouse. Employee contracts state that such queueing had to be undertaken in their time thus reducing the actual wage rate per hour for the job below the statutory minimum. With the cost being borne completely by the worker there is no incentive for the company to either improve its practices or review its draconian security arrangements.
Aside from the physical hardship there were two particularly disturbing aspects of the report involving the attitudes displayed by both the agency staff (supplied by Assist Recruitment) and their supervisors. As the lowest rung of management the floor supervisors themselves can be earning only a little more than the minimum wage agency staff who comprise their charges. Yet on a number of occasions in the report, bourne out by subsequent anecdotal reports, the supervisors could be seen behaving in ways both oppressive and, at times, inhuman . The second disturbing aspect was the use of the word ‘prison’ to describe conditions at the Rochdale warehouse. I consider these two aspects are related and create a toxic environment of working conditions which are similar to those of Victorian mines and factories.
The 1971 Stanford University Experiment
In 1971 a notorious psychological experiment was carried out at Stanford University in California by Philip Zimbardo. Funded by the US Government via the Navy its aim was to study the the evolution of norms and the effects of roles and social expectations in a simulated prison (actually the basement at Stanford). The details of the setting up, running and conclusions of this highly controversial experiment are beyond the scope of this blog and I can give only the briefest of outlines. Further information is freely available including this helpful website associated with a documentary film of the experiment. and this very readable desription.
The results of the experiment are hotly disputed with the intentions and behaviour of Zimbardo himself coming in for criticism. But this is how he described the outcome:
How we went about testing these questions and what we found may astound you. Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.
Many of the prisoners acquiesced to the psychological abuse and at the request of the guards, some readily harassed fellow prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The Stanford experiment has been taken to show that we all have an innate capacity for tyranny and oppressive behaviour. But as Maria Konnikova describes in this New Yorker article the results of other experiments, including one conducted by the BBC, imply very different conclusions:
Taken together, these two studies [Stanford and BBC] don’t suggest that we all have an innate capacity for tyranny or victimhood. Instead, they suggest that our behavior largely conforms to our preconceived expectations. All else being equal, we act as we think we’re expected to act—especially if that expectation comes from above. Suggest, as the Stanford setup did, that we should behave in stereotypical tough-guard fashion, and we strive to fit that role. Tell us, as the BBC experimenters did, that we shouldn’t give up hope of social mobility, and we act accordingly.
The Government can act to end the oppression
So what does this imply for the Rochdale workforce and innumerable other oppressed workers. The clue, of course lies in the final sentence of the Konnikova quote. The rigid Victorian class system with zero social mobility gave people no choice but to conform to their preconceived expectations. The warehouse conditions at Rochdale JD Sports (including having loud music on a continuous loop) reinforces a psychological acceptance of the role assigned whether it be agency worker, supervisor, manager or owner. The root cause is poverty and the degrading conditions people will endure to get work.
There are numerous steps which could be taken to correct these conditions. Proper unionisation which allows workers access to representatives external to the organisation is vital. Likewise, the provision of sufficient properly paid alternative employment in the area to allow employees to walk away and force oppressive employers to improve conditions. It is often forgotten that competition works both ways! Finally a whistleblowing system which is secure, confidential and has recourse to external agencies. The operation must be under the personal responsibility of a board member and has the potential to carry a custodial sentence if the rules are not strictly adhered to by the company. This last task in particular is easily achievable for a government which wants us to believe they are on the side of working people.
The outcomes of the Stanford experiment and subsequent studies are well known so why Government agencies aren’t checking for these oppressive effects in places such as JD Sports is a question they must answer. But the elite are often successful in setting the poor against the poor and not just against immigrants. Claims of promoting social mobility are hollow when set against support for an economic system using hopelessness as a psychological trigger for companies engaged in a race to the bottom.