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Hard Work: Life In Low Pay Britain

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Could you live on the minimum wage? Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee took up the challenge, living in one of the worst council estates in Britain and taking whatever was on offer at the job centre. What she discovered shocked even her. In telesales and cake factories, as a hospital porter or a dinner-lady, she worked at breakneck pace for cut-rate wages, alongside working Could you live on the minimum wage? Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee took up the challenge, living in one of the worst council estates in Britain and taking whatever was on offer at the job centre. What she discovered shocked even her. In telesales and cake factories, as a hospital porter or a dinner-lady, she worked at breakneck pace for cut-rate wages, alongside working mothers and struggling retirees. The service sector is now administered by seedy agencies offering no prospects, no screening and no commitment. Most damning of all, Toynbee found that despite the optimism of Tony Blair's New Deal, the poorly paid effectively earn less than they did thirty years ago.


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Could you live on the minimum wage? Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee took up the challenge, living in one of the worst council estates in Britain and taking whatever was on offer at the job centre. What she discovered shocked even her. In telesales and cake factories, as a hospital porter or a dinner-lady, she worked at breakneck pace for cut-rate wages, alongside working Could you live on the minimum wage? Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee took up the challenge, living in one of the worst council estates in Britain and taking whatever was on offer at the job centre. What she discovered shocked even her. In telesales and cake factories, as a hospital porter or a dinner-lady, she worked at breakneck pace for cut-rate wages, alongside working mothers and struggling retirees. The service sector is now administered by seedy agencies offering no prospects, no screening and no commitment. Most damning of all, Toynbee found that despite the optimism of Tony Blair's New Deal, the poorly paid effectively earn less than they did thirty years ago.

30 review for Hard Work: Life In Low Pay Britain

  1. 5 out of 5

    Sho

    I'd read Nickled and Dimed but that's very American, so I was really pleased when I realised that there was something similar based in the UK. This was just as shocking as Barbra Ehrenreich's book - but no, actually it is more shocking. And the reason is that in the USA we know there is a very very barely there social welfare safety net to catch people when they fall out of the bottom of society. But in the UK, that social welfare paradise where the shamelessly unemployed all watch their Sky cha I'd read Nickled and Dimed but that's very American, so I was really pleased when I realised that there was something similar based in the UK. This was just as shocking as Barbra Ehrenreich's book - but no, actually it is more shocking. And the reason is that in the USA we know there is a very very barely there social welfare safety net to catch people when they fall out of the bottom of society. But in the UK, that social welfare paradise where the shamelessly unemployed all watch their Sky channels on a 55 inch flat screen TV. They holiday abroad with their 7 children by 5 different fathers and smoke and drink enough for a whole battalion of soldiers. So the kind of in-work poverty that Nickled and Dimed describes could never happen in the workers' paradice that is the United Kingdom, it's just not possible. And if you believe that last sentence, which is possibly the biggest load of tripe that I've ever writtten, read this book. It describes how Polly Toynbee, arch Guardianista and solid member of the upper (middle) classes lived on the minimum wage in a squalid council flat for the duration of Lent. To say it's shocking would be an understatement. Unfortunately it's now 11 years since this was written. We've had another boom and the huge, worldwide, financial crash of 2008 since then. If you, as I do, read the Guardian and the Independent and basically have your eyes open, you can see that what Toynbee wrote about under the last "Labour"* government pales into something resembling government largesse compared to what is going on under David Cameron and the (and I can barely contain my anger at even writing this name) Iain lying bloody bastard Duncan Smith. Toynbee describes some of the jobs she did during that time - the care home and the cake packing factory are descriptions I will never forget. I would like very much to read a follow up on this. If the Clapham housing estate ever got its makeover, or did the estate agents swoop in and persuade the tenants to sell them their right to buy? Have the care workers unionised? And if that cake company is still in business it will be a wonder. Highly recommended, not only for students of the social sciences like myself *sorry - Blair was not a member of any labour party I recognise

  2. 5 out of 5

    magdalena dyjas

    I was apprehensive to start with, thinking that maybe it will be a book about middle class author amusing herself by "playing house of a poor". I'm glad this book was nothing like that. Polly Toynbee moves into a council flat, works a plethora of the lowest paid jobs, and tries to survive the life lived by so many. She's compassionate towards people she meets along the way, and she's angered by the social injustice of the colossal income gap and all its consequences. I just wish every member of I was apprehensive to start with, thinking that maybe it will be a book about middle class author amusing herself by "playing house of a poor". I'm glad this book was nothing like that. Polly Toynbee moves into a council flat, works a plethora of the lowest paid jobs, and tries to survive the life lived by so many. She's compassionate towards people she meets along the way, and she's angered by the social injustice of the colossal income gap and all its consequences. I just wish every member of the cabinet and every well-off person in Britain could've gone through the same fact finding exercise as Toynbee did (or at least read this book); and i would've loved someone to write a similar book now, almost 20 years later...

  3. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

    This is a very readable account of some of the problems people can face on benefits in the UK, in a system that makes it very hard for people to succeed. I admire the author for writing this book as few people with such a comfortable life as she has would seriously attempt to live in the world she describes. That she has such a comfortable life has benefits for the narrative as she is able to draw parallels and comparisons with her own existence against many people's more difficult lives and sho This is a very readable account of some of the problems people can face on benefits in the UK, in a system that makes it very hard for people to succeed. I admire the author for writing this book as few people with such a comfortable life as she has would seriously attempt to live in the world she describes. That she has such a comfortable life has benefits for the narrative as she is able to draw parallels and comparisons with her own existence against many people's more difficult lives and show how much difference there is. In this position she is able to highlight the innate problems of the system and dispel one of the prevalent myths that poor people just manage their money badly, as it is impossible for her to live without getting into debt. On the other hand, as she freely admits within the book, the life she attempts to replicate is not really her life and she will undoubtably have missed some of the experiences people have in that position. She has no real urgency or desperation as she will soon be going back to her ordinary life. This is not to criticise the writer, who did a brilliant job with writing the book, but it would be good to see real accounts of people who have to navigate benefits and low paid work, and to understand all of the ways different policies have a real effect on people. This book is now out of date, having been written in 2002, and it would be useful to have an updated version. I would imagine there would have been some improvements in that time, (perhaps technology may make applying for jobs while in work a little easier) but I also imagine many things have got much much worse, if food bank and homelessness figures are anything to go by. Any book that can help promote understanding between different people is a worthwhile read, and this book can certainly do that. If you would like some insight into poverty in Britain, this is a good place to start.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Tito Quiling, Jr.

    This was a fast read, and considering the bulk of the chapters focusing on different low-paying jobs that the author went into and got a glimpse, I found the experiences quite helpful especially if one tries to make it in such an expensive city. While it wasn't explicitly stated, the author embarked on a social and economic experiment treading on housing loans and social security welfare, even ways for some non-natives to look and get jobs. I liked how the narrative steps right away into the pre This was a fast read, and considering the bulk of the chapters focusing on different low-paying jobs that the author went into and got a glimpse, I found the experiences quite helpful especially if one tries to make it in such an expensive city. While it wasn't explicitly stated, the author embarked on a social and economic experiment treading on housing loans and social security welfare, even ways for some non-natives to look and get jobs. I liked how the narrative steps right away into the present situation, following the series of events, before delving into a more serious tone by inserting facts concerning several administrative inconsistencies. The linear approach to the entire book makes it easy, and quite enjoyable to read. Although, the smugness in the voice of being a middle-class was apparent to me. In addition, perhaps I wasn't able to grasp the point of getting a space in the one of the most rundown areas in the city, but having it in the narrative was a bit of a throwaway, lending itself in the opening and closing chapters, an another one in the middle when the author meets a neighbor.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Sarah u

    Not for a long time has a book held my attention like this one has these past 48 hours. I would like to say I enjoyed it, but then I'm not sure that is the right word. A self-confessed well-off Guardian journalist lives on the minimum wage in a council flat to see what things are really like on the other side of the fence. Perhaps this book should be read by the ministers who set the minimum wage or work in the department for work and pensions. Even better, perhaps they should spend a couple of m Not for a long time has a book held my attention like this one has these past 48 hours. I would like to say I enjoyed it, but then I'm not sure that is the right word. A self-confessed well-off Guardian journalist lives on the minimum wage in a council flat to see what things are really like on the other side of the fence. Perhaps this book should be read by the ministers who set the minimum wage or work in the department for work and pensions. Even better, perhaps they should spend a couple of months doing what Polly Toynbee did ten years ago. It could make a huge difference.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Hurst

    Though written in the early part of the Labour years the book still resonates and the issues raise are still there. Many of the paltry safety nets have been taken away and the scandals the book raises are even more acute today, though thankfully the Minimum wage has seen an increase.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Anne

    In 'Hard Work', Polly Toynbee a middle-class Guardian journalist takes up the challenge thrown to her to live life as one of the many 'working poor'. She adopts the lifestyle of an ordinary, middle-aged woman from a run-down council estate in East London. Polly doesnt find it difficult to get employment, but the jobs are thankless, jobs that few people will lower themselves to do and the wages are so low that she is in debt from day one. Even getting to interviews, getting to work, supplying hers In 'Hard Work', Polly Toynbee a middle-class Guardian journalist takes up the challenge thrown to her to live life as one of the many 'working poor'. She adopts the lifestyle of an ordinary, middle-aged woman from a run-down council estate in East London. Polly doesnt find it difficult to get employment, but the jobs are thankless, jobs that few people will lower themselves to do and the wages are so low that she is in debt from day one. Even getting to interviews, getting to work, supplying herself with a decent pair of work shoes puts into debt. Many jobs pay less than the minimum wage, and of course the banks wont touch her - but the many loan sharks operating on the estate are glad to loan her money - at hugely inflated interest rates. All of the jobs, without fail are hard work, dirty, boring and often dangerous. Polly is offered no training, no benefits, no job security. This book highlights many many problems with today's society - although written in 2002, I am sure that most of these problems still exist - if not more. Our Government seem obsessed with getting people into work and training, yet the Government has contracted out most of it's public services, for example, hospital portering, public sector cleaners and care givers. By outsourcing this work they have given over this very important work to mainly uncaring employers who are only interested in making as much money as possible and not interested in the people that carry out the work for them - these workers that are being exploited day after day are mainly women, and mainly mothers. Politicians have no idea of what is happening in low-paid Britain - this book highlights the disgusting state of the 'working poor' - people who work far and above the recommended working hours every week for so little pay and in terrible conditions. These are not people who are living off the state or scroungers - these are people who want to work and who want to provide for their families. On the cover of this book, Will Hutton writes: 'Every member of the Cabinet should be required to read it, apologise and then act.' How I'd like to imagine that this has or will happen - sadly I doubt it, and this country will continue to exploit it's people - whilst speaking out about other country's human-rights issues. This is a hard-hitting book that makes the reader realise that oh so many things are hidden from view - it's time that those in power took stock of the state of their own country before spending millions on invading other nations.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Mark Hebden

    This is a devastating portrayal of the way those who earn minimum wage are leading a life of enforced poverty. The Guardian journalist, Polly Toynbee lives for a month on minimum wage/benefits and makes some startling discoveries. The minimum wage is a lot lower than the European “living wage” (although the book is now several years old, this is still true). There is no value or self worth given to staff working through agencies or contractors, whether they are based in the private or public sect This is a devastating portrayal of the way those who earn minimum wage are leading a life of enforced poverty. The Guardian journalist, Polly Toynbee lives for a month on minimum wage/benefits and makes some startling discoveries. The minimum wage is a lot lower than the European “living wage” (although the book is now several years old, this is still true). There is no value or self worth given to staff working through agencies or contractors, whether they are based in the private or public sectors. The system is geared to make it as difficult as possible to get a job in the first place, and once a job is attained, all support is cut off immediately. When the author takes her first minimum wage job, she has to borrow money on her first day, so she is in debt from day one of the experiment. This is as well as her job being neither enjoyable, nor stimulating, though some of the people the author meets along the way make up for the lack of excitement from the work. Private companies are stepping in and taking over roles traditionally performed within the public sector through outsourcing, this leads to a culture of corner cutting and profit making by the huge corporations that employ low level staff. The staff have their wages cut, workloads increased and basic rights taken away. Politicians understand little and seem to care less. A third of society are cut off from what most people call a “normal life”: acceptance in to our materialistic circle of coffee shops, restaurants and designer stores; the middle class lifestyle. The most hard hitting discovery, if you can call it that, is that the roles traditionally performed by women are the worst jobs to be in. Those of caring, cleaning and nurturing, performed by women, even more by mothers, and even more than that by single mothers, who are exploited at every point in the journey. There is still an attitude that pervades society that these tasks should be performed for nothing, or next to nothing. The level of care provided to the elderly, or children, is worse as a result of the lack of motivation provided for those doing the job. It’s a superb book and one that, (as always) won’t be read or paid attention to by the people that matter. It never comes across as naval gazing since Toynbee tries to immerse herself in the world of poverty as fully as possible and provides the reader with a brief understanding of what it is like to be working class in modern, uncaring Britain.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Clare Macdonald

    Though this was written in 2002, it could easily apply today. Polly Toynbee took a variety of low paid jobs (cake factory, cleaner, dinner lady, care home, call centre) and tried to live on below the minimum wage. The cost of actually getting a job to these lowest paid workers is astronomical - asked to make return journeys countless times for application and interviews - and puts them in debt before they even start. All this at the same time that the highest paid in our rich society, get even r Though this was written in 2002, it could easily apply today. Polly Toynbee took a variety of low paid jobs (cake factory, cleaner, dinner lady, care home, call centre) and tried to live on below the minimum wage. The cost of actually getting a job to these lowest paid workers is astronomical - asked to make return journeys countless times for application and interviews - and puts them in debt before they even start. All this at the same time that the highest paid in our rich society, get even richer. It really makes my blood boil! Polly lived in a run down council flat for the duration of the project - a truly depressing experience. I can't imagine how it must feel to be trapped in a downward spiral, never seeing how to progress upwards. It's time the richer in our society we're taxed more and a decent living wage paid to the lowest paid - those who do crucial jobs.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Brett Hetherington

    Toynbee spent time in various jobs where, amongst many other shocking discoveries, she found that all across their National Health Service, private agencies were originally used to solve short term staffing but quickly became dependent on them. The agencies were quick to realise this relationship of dependency so colluded to keep pushing up their fees without paying staff any more than sub-living wage rates. As a result, public service ‘managers’ were completely unable to manage their teams beca Toynbee spent time in various jobs where, amongst many other shocking discoveries, she found that all across their National Health Service, private agencies were originally used to solve short term staffing but quickly became dependent on them. The agencies were quick to realise this relationship of dependency so colluded to keep pushing up their fees without paying staff any more than sub-living wage rates. As a result, public service ‘managers’ were completely unable to manage their teams because they were all being directly employed by companies outside the system. bretthetherington.net

  11. 4 out of 5

    Rose

    Toynbee is just a bit too annoying in this book and comes across as very sheltered and naive. Nickel and Dimed was better. Still, some interesting parts, like the agency work in the NHS, and she does a good job of exposing the "benefit trap" that stops people moving off benefit into work. Toynbee is just a bit too annoying in this book and comes across as very sheltered and naive. Nickel and Dimed was better. Still, some interesting parts, like the agency work in the NHS, and she does a good job of exposing the "benefit trap" that stops people moving off benefit into work.

  12. 4 out of 5

    E

    Interesting book and shows just how much things haven't changed (at least for the better) in 10+ years since the book was written. Gives a brief oversight and highlights some of the problems faced by people in low pay jobs but by its very nature doesn't go into any great detail. Great for raising awareness.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Susie

    Really enjoyed this book, despite being on a reading list! Toynbee writes articulately and interestingly, formulating arguments which are easy to understand and hard-hitting. You simply cannot read this book without your worldview changing somewhat, especially if you're from her target audience Guardian readers!

  14. 5 out of 5

    Alan Fricker

    A depressing read but worth it. Makes you look again at the question of the working poor. Slightly irritated by the way the author kind of enters into the spirit of the exercise and then completely ignores things when a bit too inconvenient. All be it that she is straightforward and admits it.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Louise

    It's now 10 years old so is a little outdated, but apart from that a very good look at surviviving on so little money and what it's like. Shocked she didn't know Crazy Georges though,maybe that's because we're totally different.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Carol Ferro

    Insightful and thoroughly researched, even a decade on this book has lessons for those who believe in meritocracy. The living wage discussion is still pertinent, as is the lack of social mobility and workers rights.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    A provocative narrative on the reality of living on minimum wage (circa 2003 at least). Toynbee's various jobs in the book added weight to the argument that for most people in bottom rate jobs, simply staying on the ladder is a struggle in itself- climbing up it is fantasy. Living Wage, anyone?

  18. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    this is the British equivalent of Barbara Ehreneich's Nickel and Dimed. it is interesting to read the part about working in a hospital, which outsources jobs so that they are non-union and low pay (so much for socialized medicine)

  19. 5 out of 5

    Bianca Moreira

    Depressing but very informative read.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Maria

    A lefty perspective but a well researched book that does a good job of making you question your perspective about the value of work, money and acquiring stuff.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Luke

    Essential reading for anyone born in or who lived through the 19 90s a era when third world conditions became normalised in the United Kingdom

  22. 4 out of 5

    John Leach

    Shocking look into life for the low-paid. Polly Toynbee is a bit smug though.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Rosie

    Dated in parts, surprisingly relevant in others. Journalist Polly Toynbee explores what it takes to live on the British minimum wage (at the time it was £4.10/hour, with a living wage of £7.39/hour) while living on an estate in Clapham. Her experiment highlights how the system is rigged against those at the bottom, who often face no choice but to go into debt and take jobs which pay even less than the legal minimum wage. Toynbee manages to deal with the topic sensitively and never seems like a t Dated in parts, surprisingly relevant in others. Journalist Polly Toynbee explores what it takes to live on the British minimum wage (at the time it was £4.10/hour, with a living wage of £7.39/hour) while living on an estate in Clapham. Her experiment highlights how the system is rigged against those at the bottom, who often face no choice but to go into debt and take jobs which pay even less than the legal minimum wage. Toynbee manages to deal with the topic sensitively and never seems like a tourist in the world she describes.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Violet

    Very good. I mean, it is still an affluent middle class woman who plays poor for a bit to see how they live and work... But she does ackowledge that and she treats the topic with kindness and compassion. It is depressing to think that this book, published in the early 2000s, has not aged much.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Emily Moran

    I enjoyed this book, it was interesting to see what is was like to work certain jobs like working in a care home or dinner lady and more. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in society or the UK or what different low paid jobs are like :).

  26. 5 out of 5

    Chris Oakes

    This book is a stark reminder of the issues facing modern British society today all equally prevalent 15 years since this book written.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kevin Pease

    Completely out of date, even though only written in 2003. The author whines and whinges her way through everything, yes, life can be a struggle but this book wont help. Is it always someone else's fault?

  28. 5 out of 5

    Issy

  29. 4 out of 5

    Dave Mills

  30. 5 out of 5

    Vilma

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