One of the ways we can start making changes today that will help everyone in the future, is to stop turning a blind eye to unfairness. We put up with so much by normalising it, whether it be sexism, racism or seeing some small act somewhere that is just blatantly mean or wrong. We often shrug our shoulders and accept that ‘it’s just how it is.’ If we do that, how can we ever expect things to change?
It’s time to stop that stuff, even if it makes us feel a bit hot and sweaty, or embarrassed about making a scene. As my ex husband used to say. ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen?’ Well, almost all of the time, not much really and quite often, really good stuff can happen.
I’m setting the scene here for something that happened yesterday. A friend of mine has a thirteen year old son, who a few months ago decided he wanted a job. He went out on his own, did all the grunt work and got a job as a paperboy.
Regular readers will know what I think of paper rounds. I will resist going into my usual bitter rant about how it scarred me for life etc. What I will say is that it is a hard, thankless task, and you earn every penny you make.
This young man has been getting himself up every morning, cycling to the next town and doing his paper round before going to school. At this time of year it is particularly grim and it will get grimmer, but he’s been doing it with no complaints.
Yesterday when he went to get paid, he was short changed. He was only given £10 by the newsagent. The chap explained this by saying that he was docking money because he had received some complaints that people were not happy at the time their papers had arrived and he had taken money off for those papers. My friend’s son gets up at six to deliver the papers and apparently the newsagent thinks this is too late and is trying to get him to start work at six.
Some of you may be thinking, so what?
Here’s the thing. There are child labour laws in place to protect young people who want to work. Not just ones to do with not sending children up chimneys any more or being unable to force four year olds through the works of a spinning jenny. We’ve moved on from that, thankfully. These days there is clear legislation on when you can expect a child to start work and for how long. There are also laws about how much you can pay them, and this chap is breaking both those laws. I expect he, like many other people who offer this kind of ‘casual’ labour, think it’s alright, because there are lots of people desperate for jobs and this boy is replaceable. I expect he thinks its alright because other people are willing to turn a blind eye because any money is better than no money.
Except that what does this say about us when we let this happen? It’s easy, when we’re hungry and have bills to pay to accept shitty conditions, longer hours, zero hours contracts and being paid less than we should because we’re between a rock and a hard place, except that doing this emboldens employers and makes a mockery of legislation that is there to protect us. It’s part of the reason big businesses do what they do and get away with it. It’s part of the reason people work like dogs in hard jobs and still have to visit food banks. I know it’s not easy to stand on principle when we’re hungry. But sometimes this is where we have to start.
I’m not for one instant saying that my friend is going to allow his son to starve, by the way. I’m extrapolating this newsagent’s small acts of law breaking into the bigger picture. This is not acceptable. It is not and never has been fair to exploit children and this applies to every other vulnerable group who is put in this kind of position by greedy people who are interested in profit over anything else.
This newsagent has made a big mistake doing this to my friend’s son, because my friend is not the type to let this rest, and nor should he. Now, more than ever, it is time to stand up, to call those who exploit people to account and to stop propagating the myth that the reason people do not have money or have to have help to survive is because they’re lazy or stupid or aren’t trying hard enough.
Look at where it starts. It starts when we bend the rules for thirteen year olds who work long hours doing shitty work for very little money and that money is docked illegally. It starts when they are pressured into working longer and harder hours for money they already have a right to because the person holding the purse strings believes nobody will hold them to account, because they’re desperate enough for the money to turn a blind eye, and because we as a society shrug and say ‘that’s just the way it is.’
It needs to end, and it ends when we stop shrugging and start being brave enough to call out greedy, unscrupulous people who think it’s ok to prey on vulnerable people who don’t always have the means or the voices to fight back. It ends when we stop looking away and speak for them.