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What are you worth?

May 2, 2010

I found an interesting report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) that suggests that what a person gets paid is neither a reflection of how hard they work nor an indiction of their work’s value. The report sets out to explode a number of myths around the question of work, pay and value, pointing out how work that is of high social value is relatively underpaid in comparison to that which produces surplus value.

The report contrives a number of job descriptions and compares their respective pay.

Advertising executive

Senior account executive for whom enough is not enough. Do you have a flair for convincing people they want things they don’t need? The successful candidate must be able to bring research and creative processes together, and suspend his or her social and environmental conscience.

Salary range: £50,000–£12 million

or

Hospital cleaner

Hardworking, caring and conscientious individual required to clean hospital patient rooms, baths, laboratories, offices, halls, and other areas; wash beds and mattresses; remake beds; keep utility and storage rooms in clean and orderly condition; distribute laundered articles and linens; replace soiled drapes and cubicle curtains; disinfect and sterilize equipment and supplies; use germicides and sterilizing equipment; perform other duties as described under ‘CLEANER’. You will not be concerned with the risk of infection from exposure to body fluids and faeces, nor will you care about working with corrosive cleaning products. You will support the equality, diversity, rights and responsibilities of individuals be courteous at all times and maintain patient confidentiality. You must be able to work night shifts and unsociable hours.

Salary: £6.26 per hour

Reading the report I recalled a conversation I had with a security guard at a university. He’d been working there 15 years and only just learned that management had plans to privatise security and domestic services on campus. He was pretty clear about what the consequences of privatisation would be. He’d probably be forced to reapply for his job – the same job – only with worse pay and conditions.

He told me that most of the security guards and cleaners had been working in the university for years. But privatisation, with it’s low pay, staff cut backs and lousy conditions, would in all likelihood mean that many lose their job and others wouldn’t reapply and that the change would lead to a higher turn over of staff. It would mean the end of a stable, reliable workforce.

He told me knew everybody in the university, every nook and cranny on campus, every fire-extinguisher, every fire exit, every room and broom cupboard. If a new student phoned the security desk in distress but didn’t know where they where all he needed from them was a room number or a landmark and he’d be with them in minutes. Not a quality you’ll find in a low-paid, poorly motivated and largely transient work force.

His duties and responsibilities were often onerous and he clearly took them seriously. He mentioned that he had access to just about every room on campus, full as they often are with valuable hardware. That week alone, the first week of term, he had seen dozens drunk and incapable first years back to their rooms. The previous year he had dealt with two student suicide attempts in the halls of residence. ‘How would parents feel,’ he asked, ‘if they thought for one moment that their children were begin overseen by a fly-by night staff at those times when they’re kids were at their most vulnerable? How keen would they be to pay the big university fees then?’

At a meeting with management he had pointed out just how demanding and sensitive his job was at times. and that out-sourced security would lead to a drop in standards. Management were sanguine about this. ‘We don’t need a Rolls Royce security service’, they told him.

The Guardian reported last month that: ‘The average university vice-chancellor now earns more than Gordon Brown, it emerged today, after their pay and benefits grew by 10.6% last year.’

I have know idea what VCs do to deserve that sort of money. But I have a bold proposal: why not privatise the position of VC and I’ll start the bidding for the post. I’ll do that job for half the money, and forgo the perks, like the house, the domestic staff and chauffeur driven car that comes with many a VCs position.

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