When enough is never enough

Companies are curbing employee perks to offset them having to pay the living wage. When it comes to profits, is enough ever enough?

Gregor Samsa woke up one day and found his body had changed.

His back was hard, his belly looked like a dome, and he had an awful lot of legs. Overnight he had transformed into a gigantic insect.

Gregor Samsa is the main character in Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis.

The main characters in Kafka’s stories all suddenly find themselves in a nightmare they can’t wake up from. No other could bind nightmares in book form like the Prague-born author.

Kafka’s work was a critique on the world at the time. It was intended to hold a mirror to society. A society which he believed was turning colder, more distant, more impersonal.

Mind you, Kafka lived long before the dawn of neoliberalism. I can only imagine how grotesque a creature Gregor Samsa would’ve turned into if his creator had lived in our day and age.

Profits over people

I’d love to write a Kafkaesque novel about the flaws of neoliberalism. Unfortunately, to borrow an Oscar Wilde phrase, I am too fond of reading books to care to write them.

So these words will have to do.

I would like to hold a mirror to our neoliberal world and the reason is the introduction of the living wage.

Actually, it’s the reaction of businesses to the living wage that makes me want to do that.

Waitrose has stopped paying overtime and Sunday rates to offset increases in workers’ pay.

Waitrose made £305.5 million in profits last year but I’m sure its top executives need the money more than their employees.

Tesco, Morrisons and B&Q have similarly made cuts to Sunday pay.

Caffè Nero saw its profits increased by nearly 11% but still felt the need to cut employee perks following the living wage.

And the list goes on and on.

It all strengthens my suspicion that big business doesn’t see its employees as anything but an expense weighing on their profits.

It’s outrageous that legislation is even needed to make companies making millions in profit – in some cases hundreds of millions – pay a decent wage to their employees.

This is why trickle-down economics is a myth. When a company makes extra money it never flows down, it only goes up.

When it comes to profits, enough is never enough in the neoliberal universe. Companies always want more, more, more.

Never comes a point where a CEO says: ‘Well, that’s a nice, healthy profit. Let’s reward our employees with a well-deserved pay rise.’

The neoliberal mindset will always put profits over people.

Keynes off, Hayek on

From the post-war years until the 1970s, Keynesian economics was the dominant economic theory on which policies were based. The theory ran into a dead end during a period of stagflation – high inflation and high unemployment at the same time.

Neoliberalism swooped in under Reagan and Thatcher to take its place.

The laissez-faire economic theories of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, on which neoliberalism was modelled, have now had several decades to show their worth.

Maybe this is the time to stop and think who these policies are really working for.

What we have is rising inequality, companies more powerful than states, and banks that extort bail out money from ordinary taxpayers.

Neoliberalism only seems to work for a select number of people.

Which invites the question: Even if we wanted to change the doctrine, would we be able to? Are “the people” still in control?

Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk writes in his book Swimming with Sharks that he isn’t so sure:

“Democracy increasingly seems like a system in which voters decide which politician will execute what the financial industry dictates.”

Chancellor George Osborne has given £15 billion to companies through corporation tax cuts, but it’s quite clear none of that money will find its way to their employees.

Responding to the news that companies are cutting employee perks to compensate for the living wage, Osborne said it made him “angry”.

I doubt his anger will lead to any measures to make business realise their social responsibility though.

Maybe we have woken up to a nightmare after all.

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