I came across Unison’s ‘Decent Jobs for All’ campaign today after seeing it mentioned in the letters pages or something like that. Whilst I applaud the aims of the campaign I can’t help but feel ignored. There is so much political focus on work those of us who can’t work get ignored, our status as unable to work seen either as faking it and thus we should be forced to work (or gently guided if you see yourself as more of a fluffy lefty, but it usually amounts to the same) or charity cases who deserve pity.
This line from Unison boss Dave Prentis is especially stinging: “It ends discrimination against women, young people and migrant workers. Decent work with decent wages means people can live with dignity.”
This may be true but what about those who can’t work? Those who face ever increasing discrimination and demonisation from across the political spectrum? Where do we fit into this? Where is our equality? The citizen’s income is an idea I support as it places those unable to work on a more level playing field, with equal entitlement to the same basic income as those able to work, no special pleading for special benefits. Though those who need help with extra costs due to disability will be entitled, but the key point remains that everyone is entitled to the basic income, there is no marking out of the ill and disabled as ‘special cases’ who have to plead and jump through dehumanising and increasingly Kafkaesque hoops to be granted even the most basic levels of subsistence. I also question the necessity of paid employment, something which is outlined excellently by Latent Existence. Until more political movements, including feminism, move beyond the idea that everyone can and wants to access work and that work is what we should be aiming for, I will feel ignored, erased. If we continue to present being in paid employment at a level you can support yourself without state help, part time work is stigmatised and people are encouraged to ‘find more hours’ or risk loosing benefits payments, and the limits for ‘permitted work’ whilst claiming disability benefits are strict and inflexible, further asserting that fact that work is something you should do all the time or be grudgingly supported if you can’t work. The reality for many is that work is something you want to do WHEN you can manage it, which is often sporadically, the choice of being able to work when you can and to be supported when you can’t is not an option.
When work is seen as the marker of a ‘good’ citizen who ‘contributes’ to society, when work is seen as both a financial and moral necessity; we stigmatise those who can’t work. We increase tensions between those with disabilities who can earn a wage being held in higher esteem than those who don’t, creating a case of ‘divide and rule’ which [lays neatly into the hands of the government ideology of slashing benefits, the old ‘if they can work why can’t you?’ supercrip trope is used to stigmatise those who cant work but whom society feels should be working, particularly those with ‘invisible’ illness or fluctuating conditions. Or we deprive people of agency by casting them in the role of the poor little disabled person we should all pity, who we infantilise and whose existence depends on the charity of others, who should fit into the meek, submissive ‘good crip’ stereotype. Of course the accepted definition of ‘work’ is narrow, it means earning a wage to support yourself and ‘contributing to society’ means a narrow financial contribution through taxes. This belittles the contributions many disabled people who can’t work in the sense of being in regular paid employment, make in many different ways through volunteering, art, activism, being a friend, parent, spouse, partner all the myriad ways in which human beings contribute to society but do not earn a wage.
Paid work is not the only way to contribute to society and some people will never be able to undertake paid work yet are just as important to society; just as contributory, just as vital, just as HUMAN as those that do undertake paid employment. To focus on paid work as the main way to contribute to society is to erase the experiences of millions.