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November 24, 2011 / politicsbitesize

Two hundred years of inequality

Image of Nottingham Lace Market

Image of Nottingham's Lace Market today

For centuries people have protested about poor working conditions, unequal pay and corporate greed. For example, the Luddite movement began a campaign of civil unrest in the early months of 1811 directed at the introduction of automated looms installed by factory owners in Nottingham. Their objection to the new equipment was born out of a desire to retain skilled textile jobs, which were being lost due to the employment of unskilled workmen to operate them. For over three weeks the irate workers broke into many factories and destroyed their mechanical replacements. The movement spread to the counties of Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Lancashire and Derbyshire and continued until 1817. During this time parliament passed a Frame Breaking Act, which resulted in the sentencing to death or transportation of numerous people involved in the machine-breaking disturbances.

The backdrop to this conflict was the prevailing austere economic conditions that followed the Napoleonic Wars. Two hundred years on we face different threats to our livelihoods than the ones faced by the Luddites but certain aspects remain the same. Discontentment is growing as the rising number of unemployed ordinary workers is juxtaposed with the hefty increases in bonuses given to the people at the top.

The High Pay Commission is an independent inquiry charged with examining pay scales across both the private and public sector. In their final report, Cheques With Balances: why tackling high pay is in the national interest, they consider the huge discrepancy in pay over the last thirty years, which has ‘seen wealth flow upwards to the top 0.1% away from average workers’. After a year of exploring the unequal distribution of pay the Chair, Deborah Hargreaves, in her Foreword to the report states:

‘Our investigation has led us to conclude that excessive top pay is deeply damaging to the UK as a whole, and action is urgently required to address it … It is clear that we must open up top pay to more scrutiny from a cross-section of society … The public is rapidly running out of patience with a system that allows those at the top to enrich themselves while everyone else struggles to make ends meet.’

The lack of patience Ms Hargreaves refers to has been demonstrated through the Occupy movement that has spread so quickly throughout the world since October this year. But it was back in Italy three years earlier that tolerance began to wane. In 2008, big trade unions in Rome, Naples, Milan and Florence took part in a one-day general strike wherein the slogan ‘No. We will not pay for your crisis’ was born. The 99%, like the Luddites, have discovered that the system they live in is deeply unfair and that the greedy profit makers at the top care only about money and not their employees.

A call for change to a society that favours the few is being demanded by the many and a halt to inequality needs to be sought. As Naomi Klein stated in her address to those in Zuccotti Park, there needs to be a change to ‘the underlying values that govern our society’. Unlike two hundred years ago the British government has taken note of protests by the people and the findings of the High Pay Commission are being considered by parliament. However, this doesn’t mean that the system will change – the fight still needs to be fought.


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