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Opinion

John Bird: The low-wage economy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea

“Only when our islands become successful in creating new industries that create new wealth, and not just low-paying food-stops, will working people get the wages that can enable them to rest easy; rather than ‘overtime’ themselves into early graves”

When I order tea I always ask for an extra teabag. I like it strong. I always say the same thing as if to justify or explain my request. That my Irish mother made such strong tea you could walk on it.

If you do this on the countless occasions that I do, you’ll find it often creates tension between server and customer. And on too many occasions, the serving staff member will say, “We’ll have to charge you double for the extra teabag.” So if the little pot or cup is £1.50, you’ll end up paying £3.

Sometimes they may compromise and charge, say, £1 or even 50p for the second sachet. But even if you get away with 50p for that extra bag, which costs between 1p and 3p each to the owner, you’re paying a vast amount of cash for your second bag.

It’s between 1,600 and 5,000 per cent profit on 50p for the second bag, depending on the cost of the tea, and the bag, to the proprietor. But imagine if you had to pay for the tea twice – that could work out at around 15,000 per cent profit.

I drink Co-op tea and they always include a story about someone who picks the tea getting a fair crack of the whip, in terms of wages and conditions. I like that about tea and coffee; the move inexorably towards better conditions for workers

Sometimes they may let you have the extra teabag for free because they know the ridiculous situation when you’re paying through the nose for little or no extra effort. Of course, for the first teabag, it is understandable that you should pay for the boiling water, the cup to be bought and cleaned, the staff wages, the business tax, the rent, the wear and tear, the convenience. But all the costs are loaded in the first teabag. The second really comes unencumbered with cost, other than the price of buying it, and the need to store it until used. The person serving isn’t given extra money for the second teabag. Their wages don’t suddenly inflate because Johnny Bird has walked in and demanded politely an extra teabag, with his silly little story about his Irish mother.

Tea, increasingly, or the box you buy it in, will tell stories of social justice and fair trade. Tea, like coffee, has become a big battleground for establishing good trade deals that don’t leave the picker and processor or grower worked into the ground for naught. I drink Co-op tea and they always include a story about someone who picks the tea getting a fair crack of the whip, in terms of wages and conditions. I like that about tea and coffee; the move inexorably towards better conditions for workers.

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Unfortunately there aren’t many bucks spare around for anyone who is involved in the catering trade. You may not even make a reasonable wage serving in restaurants and cafes, with owners often looking greedily at extras given to workers by customers like me. ‘Tips’ are often a battleground and recent examples of companies who’ve tried to grab tips to help pay staff wages keep cropping up.

Of course the owners, especially of chains, will probably be the only ones who live high on the hog because of their creating new eating houses. Everyone else, with some exceptions, will get by with a limited wage for long(er and longer) hours worked.

That’s why it’s not always inspiring to hear how someone has invested, after gentrification, in a new area with low-wage restaurants and other low-wage jobs. Of course you can always say, “Well, at least it’s a job”, although all too often it’s not leading anywhere. Often it’s not the beginning of an upward wage rise into a more stable and liveable wage.

Last week I read in The Guardian that Halifax is turning into the new Shoreditch. But if you look at the prosperity indicators, – its cafes and restaurants and pubs largely – they don’t create the kind of wealth that finds its way into people’s wages packets. Profits are largely made by keeping wages down. ‘Be a proprietor’ might run the best advice, not someone who does all the hours for a low wage.

As Margaret Thatcher said after she had closed down the often-high wage-giving economy of traditional industries, “We are a service economy”. Which really meant, for the many, a low-wage economy.

Then again, if you were in the right service industry, like finance, you could well swell into a millionaire, or other kinds of well-remunerated financial beasts. Then you don’t have to be the proprietor, just the dealer.

Only when our islands become successful in creating new industries that create new wealth, and not just low-paying food-stops that are light, clean and sound, will working people get the kind of wages that can enable them to rest easy; rather than ‘overtime’ themselves into early graves.

And of course, with the Fourth Industrial Revolution hard upon us, we’ll need even more jobs for many people – young and old – who will lose their livelihoods to machines and artificial intelligence.

More gentrification and posh caffs and expensive eateries might bring some low wages into an area, say, New Shoreditch (Halifax), but it ain’t going to stir life up much. I suppose with Shoreditch having so many beards, they will make their way north, and help create some new work around trimming, grooming and cutting? Alas, Halifax cannot live on such trimmings alone.

It may need some connection with the mill industries of the past, the factories and workshops, but for up-skilling and new learning, not down-skilling and low waging.

The reason you pay for the second teabag through the nose is because that’s where the stocktake takes place. It’s the only part of the serving equation that can be measured.

And the poor serving person has to make sure the gov’nor doesn’t accuse them of pocketing the money for the odd cuppa.

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