A Conservative MP in the UK recently suggested that the minimum wage might be a “hindrance” to some people who want to find work, and that the “vulnerable” – such as those with disabilities – should be able to work for less than this legally mandated lower limit.
The internet heard about this, and exploded.
People were angry at Philip Davies’s insensitivity, and it’s not hard to see why. After the outrage bounced around Twitter for a while, an official response was posted by mental health charity Mind, as well as a damning riposte in the Guardian (not forgetting the admirably quick-off-the-mark NewsThump).
The people vehemently disagreeing with Davies are clearly concerned about people with disabilities, learning difficulties, or mental illness being discriminated against unfairly, and would be against any legislation implying that such people are less worthy of the basic human rights that we tend to think all members of society deserve equally. And while this is admirable, I think that Davies is getting unfairly swept up with a slew of other bad ideas that are worth criticising.
Simon Perry has highlighted some of the over-zealous criticism better than most, and has tried to clarify what Davies was and was not saying, and why it may not have been as abhorrent as all that.
I think he’s only sort of right as well, though.
Davies was highlighting one of the effects of having a minimum wage: sometimes people won’t get hired for a job they wanted, which they could have got if they’d been able to agree to work for below the legal minimum. This limitation has no doubt closed off some opportunities for people willing to work at very low rates.
So, he argues, some of the “most vulnerable people in society” should have the option of working for below minimum wage, if they find this helpful in getting them onto the job ladder.
It’s not that clear from the articles I’ve read, but it seems that the following ideas are the only ones that can really be read from what Davies seems to be saying:
- People with disabilities or mental illness should accept that they’re often not worth as much in the job market, they oughtn’t expect to be paid as much as the rest of society can expect, and they’re just going to be poorer because of it.
- Everyone should earn at least the minimum wage, unless they want to accept less.
- There should be no minimum wage.
The first option is discriminatory and callous.
The second is either meaningless (there’s no point to a law you have to follow unless you don’t want to) or it’s effectively equivalent to the third.
The third would at least be a coherent idea, but I suspect that if that was what he meant, he’d have said so far more straight-forwardly.
So, in a way, it’s hard to be particularly angry with Philip Davies, as it’s not entirely clear to me what he’s getting at.
But I’m still a long way from being on his side.
Davies would argue, no doubt, that he’s concerned for the rights of the disabled, and the otherwise “vulnerable”, and is seeking ways which might make it easier for them to find a position in the workforce. But his apparent compassion and desire to genuinely help people doesn’t bear up to much scrutiny.
Whatever he meant to say, it’s clear that mental health charities, sufferers of mental illness and disability, and basically everyone else have all criticised him for being insensitive. If he had a valid and compassionate point in there somewhere, nobody got it. People felt he was being unfair and unkind, and at the very least he had expressed himself poorly.
And his response has been to get snippy and passive-aggressive with his critics, dismissing their concerns as “Left wing hysteria”. He’s made no apparent effort to explain why his suggestions are not the unfair and prejudiced ones he made them sound like, but is painting the whole liberal wing as some kind of monolith that’s resistant to new ideas and is just out to get him.
This is not how you behave if your primary concern is caring for people and making positive changes. This is how you behave if you’re responding to any slight on your character with stubbornness and petulance.
And for what it’s worth, I don’t even think it’s a good idea.
Most countries have a minimum wage law, and it’s worth considering why it’s there in the first place. The reading up I’ve done on the actual answers to this complex question has been minimal, because I know what you’ve come to expect from me by now and I hate to disappoint. But I think this is a fair characterisation: it’s a restriction on the free market that society tends to find necessary, in order to save the working class from the natural result of unrestrained capitalism.
A part of me wonders what I’ve become, that I can type a sentence like that with a straight face. Let me try that again without sounding like quite such an unbearable wanker.
If minimum wage laws weren’t there, many people would be working for less than the current limits. (Otherwise the laws would be doing absolutely nothing.) This implies that, if the market were free of this particular restraint, people would end up working for rates of pay currently considered unacceptably paltry. The way a free market would actually value many people’s labour would be so appallingly low, we’ve put laws in place to make sure things don’t get quite that bad for anyone.
The idea of a truly free market may have a certain libertarian appeal, but the vast inequalities between sub-minimum wage workers and their corporate employers should be of grave concern to anyone who thinks a freer market is always better.
While increasing the pay gap even more might open a few doors in the short-term for some individuals, surely what’s more worth addressing are broader problems in the way things are structured. There are keen 20-year-old men and women in the workforce, young and energetic and eager to work, who are having to decide between selling their labour for £4.92 an hour, or not working at all.
There’s a bigger issue in play when so many people are that desperate to keep their heads above water, and Philip Davies is not alone in failing to address this with his proposal.
If the only solution you have is that some people ought to accept even less than the current limits, then you’re tacitly accepting a seriously fucked-up economy with grossly unjust class divides as being either basically fair or sadly inevitable.
Which, unfortunately, seems to be what Davies is doing. This particular gem from the BBC report especially infuriated me:
Mr Davies replied that, irrespective of whether it was “right or wrong”, that was “just the real world that we operate in”.
YOU’RE A POLITICIAN.
You’re an elected member of parliament, entrusted with the responsibility to represent the people and enact national legislation to try to make society run in a functional manner.
If you’re resigned to the way things already are, think that whether something’s “right or wrong” is “irrespective”, and aren’t trying to change the world we operate in, then what the fuck are you good for?
Is it just me, or am I sounding more and more social libertarian every time I try and write about serious things?