Friday 17 October 2014

Some more equal than others?

Some years ago, it was not uncommon for pubs to employ people with mild learning disabilities as potmen to collect empty glasses. They may not have been paid very much, but it gave them something purposeful to do and increased their sense of self-worth. This is something you don’t seem to see any more. Partly, no doubt, because pub tables are no longer groaning with empty pint glasses the way they used to be, but also, I suspect, because the introduction of the national minimum wage meant that licensees felt it was no longer economic to employ them.

This was brought to mind by the recent furore over Lord Freud’s comments that it might be preferable to allow some disabled people to work for less than the minimum wage than for them not to work at all. Many of his critics seem to have missed the point that personal worth is not the same as economic worth. Of course people are all equally valuable as individuals, but it’s a fact of life in every society that some people are paid more than others because their economic contribution is greater. Wayne Rooney earns more in a day than most of us do in a year, but that doesn’t mean he works any harder or is any better a person.

The comment was also not directed at disabled people in general. Although it was not always the case in the past, it is universally acknowledged now that people with physical disabilities lack nothing in mental acuity compared to the able-bodied. But few would deny that there are people with learning disabilities who may be capable of a limited amount of straightforward work under close supervision, but whose capability falls well short of that of a non-disabled person. Given that, to employ them and pay them the full minimum wage would be an act of charity, not a rational business decision.

This point was recognised by Mencap when the minimum wage was originally introduced in 2000, when they argued that that a special category of therapeutic placements should be introduced for people whose capability was well below that of non-disabled staff. If the government wanted to preserve the principle of the minimum wage, they could top up their payments to that level, which would probably be offset anyway by a reduction in benefit payouts.

This would help in giving disabled people more of a sense of purpose and self-esteem, and it may be that experience of work would improve their abilities and self-confidence and allow them to earn more. That is surely preferable to leaving them languishing on benefits because you think they’re not just good enough to work at all. The very fact that people are paid gives them more incentive and motivation than unpaid activity. As the article says,

Steve Beyer, deputy director of the Welsh centre for learning disabilities at the University of Wales, said studies showed that people with severe disabilities could benefit "very considerably" from work in terms of motivation and skills development.

He said: "For many people, the alternative is going to a local authority day centre. Although good examples do exist, there is plenty of research around to show that day centres are generally segregated and that they provide at worst a lower level of activity, a lower level of development and a lower level of interest."


  1. Or ... our approach to paying people needs to change. Living wage let a lone minimum wage. Less money for those at the top and more for those at the bottom. This all comes about as we are trying to wedge people into a broken system. Change the system.

  2. You could use this as an argument for a basic citizen's income - but that wouldn't work unless it replaced the minimum wage and the vast majority of welfare.

  3. Sounds like a bit of a cunt this Lord Freud. Bet Dave wished he’d bugger off to the kippers with the rest of the nutcase wing of his outfit. The thing about the world of work is that it’s changed a lot over the decades. Sitting on your arse in front of a computer is what most jobs are about these days. Many disabled people would be of equal economic output as anyone. Why give crap employers the excuse to pay them less?

    If there are people whose economic output is less per hour than the minimum wage there is a nicer more dignified approach than paying them less.

    Didn’t the last labour government subsidise Remploy to provide subsided jobs for disabled people? Lowering the cost of employment whilst maintaining the dignity of disabled people?

    Sounds a more dignified approach. Rather than ask disabled people to work for less and then topping them up with welfare, subsidise employers willing to offer them work (reducing the per hour cost) and expect them to pay a decent wage. Cost to the taxpayer the same but with a greater degree of dignity to the disabled.

    And pubs may be piss poor at their social responsibilities in no longer giving pot collecting jobs to the slow lad, but at least the supermarkets are up there doing there bit with plenty of jobs collecting trollies, packing bags and stocking shelves. Though I thought it a bit off last time I was stocking up on cheap lager to see that they didn’t give a team of dwarves some ladders and expected them to balance on each other shoulders to get to the higher shelves

  4. "Sitting on your arse in front of a computer is what most jobs are about these days"

    As I said, fine for people with physical disabilities, not so much for those with substantial learning disabilities.

    "Rather than ask disabled people to work for less and then topping them up with welfare, subsidise employers willing to offer them work"

    Which is what I said - if government wants it to happen, subsidise the employer, not the individual.

  5. And as Milton Friedman once said: "The minimum wage law is most properly described as a law saying employers must discriminate against people who have low skills".

    If you have to pay £7/hour as a minimum, why hire someone with learning difficulties if you can get someone without for the same rate?

  6. Yo, Stigler, do you not think hiring employers will always discriminate against those with low skills. i.e. isn't it the case that at any hourly rate the employer will choose the better skilled applicant. Doesn't Friedman's argument assume that no better skilled applicant will present at any rate less than the minimum wage? And isn't this patently nonsense?

  7. But (a) the rate offered will affect the mix of applicants. Skilled individuals will not apply for low-paid jobs if there are higher-paid ones available.

    (b) there will be some people whose abilities are such that they won't add enough value to cover the cost of employing them

  8. Stringers,

    Yo, Stigler, do you not think hiring employers will always discriminate against those with low skills. i.e. isn't it the case that at any hourly rate the employer will choose the better skilled applicant.

    No, because employers will consider the value of the person for the cost. You could hire a heart surgeon as a school nurse. He'd be better at being a school nurse than a regular school nurse. But he'd also cost far more, so wouldn't deliver value.

    Doesn't Friedman's argument assume that no better skilled applicant will present at any rate less than the minimum wage?


    And isn't this patently nonsense?


  9. Yo Stigler! You're short of two "because [insert nonsense]" there.

  10. @mudgie, yes of course, but human abilities being a bit of a continuum, like, the "argument" holds at any pay rate. Until there's only one unemployed person left. Silly.

  11. With millions queueing up to get into Britain and work for even less than the minimum wage,what chance of any fair deals in low skilled employment.
    Lets not forget our lefty,liberal
    elite ,who would let the flood gates open
    Anyway we have no shortage of slow learners and half wits inside and outside our remaining pubs allready
    Non Leveller

  12. The Conservatives must be using your Forum as some sort of Think Tank. Amazing, absolutely amazing, that such crass thinking is still alive and well in 2014.

  13. It's not the conservatives who will be the cause for concern in the "London" Labour Camp, it's the traditional regional working class voter seeing through the
    Fabian Bourgoise Elite and their
    parasitical media luvvies.
    Lambeth and Bloomsbury chatterers and assorted quango trough dippers.The only reason Labour holds on is by keeping their voters at Pre Victorian levels of

    Ex Shop Steward
    Bin there and adsum

  14. If you look at bar wages, any question regarding the minimum wage would be one of does it act like a ceiling or floor. Does it prevent exploitation by enforcing a floor that cannot be fallen through or does it create an unreasonable expectation that you can staff your establishment at that standard piss poor rate?

    Bar staff add value. However you dress beer up with effective marketing it is a product of commodity ingredients and available cheaply to drink at home. The fact that people are willing to pay 3-6 times the commodity price just to drink it in a bar, with fairly minimal service, suggests the pub adds value to the experience of drinking it.

    Yet bar staff in Britain is a poorly paid job involving unsocial able hours and often dealing with drunken customers. Why isn’t it better paid? Where are the career waiters like you see in Europe? I can visit a European city and notice the waiter is the same guy that served me when I first went in there over 8 years ago. Most of the boozers around where I live in the UK have staff that have been there less than a year.

    It may be good that bar work offers an opportunity to people making their first step into the world of work. People in a transition from education to work and from parental dependency to independence. But it’s not a job to be doing 5 years hence. Mudgies rose tinted view of the British Pub in reality lacks one of the things associated with it. The old lady Betty Turpin character that’s buried 6 husbands, cooks a mean hotpot, has no bad language in her pub and worked a bar for 40 years, and knows how to pull a proper pint. The barmaid is 18 years old and earning a bit extra before graduating and chasing a decent job and if she’s still doing it next year she will consider herself a failure.

  15. That's a great post and a sensitive treatment of a difficult issue. I think the problem with Lord Freud's comments are that the Conservatives are suspected - with good reason in some cases - of seeking to undermine the entire concept of the minimum wage, and therefore coming from a Tory this rings alarm bells for some.

    In any case weren't a lot of potmen just paid in kind - i.e. their beer and something to eat?


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