Two decades ago, in a flash of authorial prescience, Barbara Ehrenreich conceived a brilliant idea for a magazine article, which she later adapted into the best-selling book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.
Ehrenreich’s pitch, boiled down to basics, was this: she would take a series of full-time low-wage jobs, in different parts of the US, and then chronicle her efforts to make ends meet. From the meagre earnings that resulted from her considerable labours, she would attempt to pay for her housing, transportation, health care, and – oh, I forgot – her food as well.
It was, as you might expect, an uphill struggle, recognisable to many who are having financial difficulties today.
An unrepentant social democrat at heart, Ehrenreich also hoped to expose the nonsensical thinking that was informing public debate about welfare reform at the time, namely, the notion that earning minimum wage, stuck in a dead-end job, somehow puts you on the road to a better life.
“How, in particular,” Ehrenreich wonders in the book’s introduction, “were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market … going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour?” (The author herself supplies a rather sardonic reply to this economic dilemma. “Maybe I would … detect in myself the bracing psychological effects of getting out of the house, as promised by the wonks who brought us welfare reform.”)
Ehrenreich’s idea and her courageous execution of it are wickedly irreverent – and make for a cracking good read to boot.
But I’d like to go one better by proposing a radical adjustment of the way worker relations are handled in the marketplace. How about a new social policy based not on welfare reform, but on retail reform?
According to reports, 40,000 workers left the hospitality sector in the wake of the pandemic, and Fáilte Ireland has said it is targeting retirees and parents in a campaign to address staff shortages.
I have another idea, namely, a new army of service economy workers recruited from the ranks of the more privileged and the well-to-do, marching under the inspiring banner of the Retail Volunteer Corps. Or the RVC, for short. Lord knows we could use something to rally around these days.
My own plan, like Ehrenreich’s, is simple enough.
Here in Ireland, as in other jurisdictions, economic buoyancy is dependent on the fortitude of strangers – specifically, those folks who through desperation or determination have decided to leave their former lives behind, in Eastern Europe or farther afield, so they might staff the leisure centres, restaurants, hotels, and delivery services that no respectable holidaymaker can do without.
Under my RVC scheme, such workers would get a leg up – or, more likely, a chance to find themselves a second or third job to supplement their income. As I see it, anyone who earns, say, in excess of €125,000 per annum (€175,000 for a couple) should be asked to put in 10 days every two years, gratis, on the retail front lines. Waiting tables, taking reservations, handling customer complaints. Wherever they’re needed, basically, to help keep Ireland ticking over.
The people replaced by these RVCers would receive their normal wages – in effect, they’d be enjoying some extra paid holiday time – but they’d also be free to work an extra shift or three themselves, or perhaps find temporary employment elsewhere.
Any labour shortages would thus be ameliorated if not eliminated.
Just as important, my programme has real character-building potential. After being sniffed and sneered at, jolted and jeered for a fortnight, RVC recruits will start to see things from the other side. The “bracing psychological effects” Barbara Ehrenreich envisioned for herself would kick in across the board and we’d all think twice before launching into a tirade over a delayed restaurant order or a hastily-cleaned hotel room. Also, RVCers will appreciate their Mediterranean or Alpine getaways even more after an exhausting stretch at a busy gift shop or gastro-pub.
And of course, the ultimate benefit is that it costs the taxpayer nothing. Finally, there’s a social programme that pays for itself.
It’s basically a win-win situation. Low-wage workers get more money in their pockets without relying on government hand-outs, and holidaymakers in Ireland are able to enjoy the comfort and ease they’ve rightfully paid for.
Full marks to Barbara Ehrenreich for coming up with Nickel and Dimed. Once my Retail Volunteer Corps gets a mention on the Áras an Uachtaráin website and goes viral, I’ll be sure to give her due credit for helping to make the trials and tribulations of the working poor a thing of the past.