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Book Review: Life in Low Pay Britain by Polly Toynbee

by Suleman

Born on 27 December 1946, Mary Louisa Toynbee is a renowned journalist and columnist, a social democrat, and a liberal pursuing change. She gives an account in this book of the brutality still deeply embedded at the basis of British life. She reveals her intention to live and work within the minimum wage because she witnesses many people suffering and working for less than the set minimum wage. According to Toynbee, it is hard to find people working within the set living wage. These poor working conditions lead to people’s victimization by the economy and are forced to take any job even below the minimum wage. This book primarily uncovers the brutality of the British life, airs the unheard voices of the economic victims, reveals the unnoticed faces of the suffering British lot and finally portrays the social injustice in the whole of Britain.

Polly Toynbee takes time off her lucrative job and delves into the world of a minimum wage worker for a whole month, bringing a series of jobs ranging from hospital porter, lady for dinner, cake parker, telemarketers and even a caregiver for nursing homes have details right away about how to live under the minimum wage. There are several surprising results that were withheld from the British public at the conclusion of this investigation (Toynbee, 2003, p12).

Book Review: Life in Low Pay Britain by Polly Toynbee

Polly discovers that working under the minimum wage is enforced poverty. She states that it is hard enough for people who receive these small wages to stay on the ladder and climbing up can only be a fantasy. Minimum wage workers are drowned in a state of everlasting poverty that they are unable to recover from. Minimum wage workers are left to be victims of the scorching economy that demands many of them, according to Polly Toynbee (Toynbee, 2003, p52).

Polly Toynbee also deals with the topic of externalisation and how it has affected the minimum wage worker. A third party, such as the private sector and contractors, have been granted historically public sector positions (Toynbee, 2003, p67). These general jobs such as hospital portending, public sector cleaners and caregivers, have all been outsourced. This is a move by the British government of hindering the formation of unions that will help fight for the minimum wage worker’s rights.

The private sector and contractor are only driven by one objective of making a profit, they do not care about the worker. This has created the worker’s exploitation to reach their goal (Toynbee, 2003, p98). The private companies and contractors only expose the workers to wage cuts even below the recommended minimum wage, they increase the workloads of these workers and finally take the fundamental rights of the minimum wage worker away. There is no value for these minimum wage workers working through agencies and contractors in both the private and private sector, they are mistreated and mishandled (Toynbee, 2003, p102). Outsourcing also means that the number of people working in the public sector cannot be clearly defined. There are some advantages that individuals who work in the public sector enjoy pensions, holidays, sick pay and overtime; outsourcing will result in these fundamental advantages being reduced to a minimum.

Polly Toynbee also states that the system is geared towards making it hard for people to get these minimum wage jobs. Polly makes it evident that getting a position under the minimum wage offered no training, no benefits and most significantly, no security of tenure. The jobs are sometimes dangerous and dull and do not stimulate any workers’ innovation due to low motivation. The “working poor” work way above the recommended working hours for so little pay and terrible conditions. In the end, the workers depict a lack of excitement in their jobs.

Another effect of working under the minimum wage, as revealed by Polly Toynbee, is that most people (a third of Britain’s population to be precise) are cut off from the everyday life due to the low wages. Polly further reveals that the roles traditionally performed by women such as cleaning and nurturing are the worst for a minimum wage worker to be in as exploitation is rampant in these fields. The private sector thinks that these roles should be done for free or at low wages. This has led to a lack of motivation on the part of the workers doing these jobs and care for both the elderly and children who have been on low levels (Toynbee, 2003, p179).

Working on minimum wage also means that banks will not touch you. Banks cannot give a loan to an individual on minimum wage. This has left many workers to the hungry loan sharks who exploit the minimum wage worker by offering them a loan at hugely inflated interest rates. The worker is left to suffer paid the interest itself is a burden (Toynbee, 2003, p187).

Working under minimum wage means that the individual is always in constant debt. This is manifested as Polly is forced to borrow money on her first day at work. The British minimum wage has made it hard for the people to afford the necessary essential commodities, therefore plunging them in eternal debt.

Concerning the gender pay gap, there is an instilled philosophy in the owners of the means of production that most of the minimum wage workers should be women for the smooth running of society. They are to cleaning jobs, all the nurturing ones and all the low paying jobs. This is a form of gender discrimination that dominates most of Britain. Polly completely disagrees with this notion that only women should occupy these roles under low pay and poor working conditions for the smooth running of society.

Polly Toynbee likened inequality in Britain with a caravan crossing the desert with the poor people bringing up the rear. She finds out that it is difficult for the poor to match the rich because of the broad economic gap between them (Toynbee, 2003, p247). Polly is faced with a huge “No Entry” sign on some ordinary pleasures and to satisfy their basic needs they are tempted to get in to debt to buy a faction of what the affluent take for granted (Toynbee, 2003, p249). Toynbee recognizes that it is challenging to rise from one’s social placing. She dismisses Britain’s belief that inequality is comfortable and stock based on the speculation that people can change their position through their efforts.

The purpose of raising the minimum wage is to improve the living standards of the poor, but implementing the policy will have a far more disastrous impact on the lives of the poor than the good it is envisioned for (Toynbee, 2003, p169). The first negative impact of raising the minimum wage will be to make it hard for inexperienced workers. They usually dominate the minimum wage bracket to find jobs. This will be because most businesses will eliminate those minimum wage positions or opt for more mandated for the new wages. This will make job availability a problem for the poor.

For a long time minimum wage, jobs have been training grounds for workers to gain better future roles. The inexperience would take advantage of such opportunities to acquire new knowledge that they would apply later. Raising the minimum wage would automatically limit such options for the inexperienced lot as companies would either scrub those positions or hire individuals qualified for the salaries.

Another danger of raising the minimum wage will be the resultant rise in living costs. Raising the minimum wage will also mean that the price of quality goods and serving will be directly affected as the companies’ cost in the production of the goods will be passed to the consumer. The same poor people will have to pay more for the necessities as they will be victims of the producers’ wrath.

Raising the minimum wage will further harm low-income families. In the past, families that had been beneficiaries of public assistance would witness the increase of minimum wage move them out of that bracket. The cost that had previously been taken care of by the general set structures will in turn fall on them, as they would no longer qualify for assistance. This will result in people working a few hours and not being dedicated to their duties just because they want to stay in that bracket.

A more negative impact of an increased minimum wage is that people will be plunged into a new tax bracket. This is a severe result of raising the minimum wage, as they will be forced to cough up more significant percentages of their new wages to meet the tax demand. It can be summed up that the intent to help the poor is good, but increasing the minimum wage is not such a wise path to take. The best way to help the poor would be to reduce the barriers that hinder job creation. The regulations that have been a burden for creating small businesses should be reduced so that new jobs can emerge.

Increasing the minimum wage must work hand-in-hand with some other factors to ensure that poverty is eradicated. Just increasing the amount of money coming into each family will not be enough to eliminate poverty. First of all, raising the minimum wage is a way to make work pay, and this can only happen if the worker has some money left in their pocket at the end of the day. It is no use to increase the wages, and at the same time, one suffers the cost of living through the necessities’ high price. Therefore, for there to be a sense of increasing the minimum wage, several critical moves must accompany this policy. For the low workers to benefit from increased minimum wage, the benefits and tax systems must be changed to suit this new state. A more friendly tax system and a sound benefits system should align with increased minimum wage to be sanity in this objective. Another move that should accompany raising the minimum wage is to reduce the cost of living such as housing cost and childcare cost. The government in their action to help the poor should find a way to share the resultant high cost of living with the people. The companies will act to recover what they will lose because of increased minimum wage and the government should not impose the burden on the people. A measure that will also complement raising minimum wage would be to create some king of route for progression. Workers should be helped to move up the ladder in a systematic way. A final move that will see the impact of minimum wage has a small effect on increasing the quality of part-time jobs. The working condition and pay in part-time employment should be looked at and improved so that the poor worker can cope with the effects that minimum wage will produce.

Polly Toynbee sees raising minimum wage at whatever cost will at least free some people from absolute poverty. In her book, the message is that, for the policy of increasing minimum wage to work, the poor must be paid more for their unmeasured efforts and the rich should suffer by being paid less. According to Polly, all these moves aim to end poverty- The greatest of all evils and worst of enemies (Toynbee, 2003, p261).

 In conclusion, Polly has shed light on the social exclusion rampant in Britain characterized by the separation of the low minimum wage worker from the rich. She also reveals how outsourcing can only be more detrimental to the minimum wage worker. Finally, she examines how gender inequality is manifested by the exploitation of women and the notion that their oppression is necessary for the smooth running of society.

  • Toynbee, P. (2003). Hard work: life in low-pay Britain. London, Bloomsbury Publishing.

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