Iain Duncan Smith is wrong to deify shelf-stacking

By Alex Bryan

‘The rich will do anything for the poor but get off their backs’ – Karl Marx

In the aftermath of Cait Reilly winning her case against the Government’s ‘back to work’ scheme, Iain Duncan Smith has clearly been in a bad mood. Reilly, who had been made to work in a Poundland in order to receive Jobseeker’s Allowance, only won her case on a technicality, and as such it seems likely to be no more than an embarrassing delay in implementation. As well as pledging to ensure that the scheme would still be implemented, Smith attacked Reilly, saying that ‘there are a group of people out there who think they are too good for this kind of stuff’.

This is to all intents and purposes a simply bizarre thing to have said. Shelf-stacking is without a doubt a mind-numbing, de-humanising job. As modernisation swept through society, liquidating those jobs so repetitious that they could be done by machine, the retail sector retained the humble shelf-stacker, prized for the simple act of being human. With supermarkets dominating our collective shopping experiences more extremely than ever before, shelf-stackers play a central role in the smooth operation of retail nationwide. Like lawyers, it seems there will always be work for shelf-stackers.

But is this really something to be celebrated? The way that Iain Duncan Smith talks, you would think that shelf-stacking is a noble art, a heroic existence, or if not then at least a job with inherent worth and value. It is none of these things. It is the ruthless cynicism of capitalistic employment laid most bare; a job that would only ever be performed for money. But, alas, such employment is necessary for the machinery of society to function correctly. This is different to saying that we should not regard such jobs as beneath us as humans. We are in the privileged position of having capacities which allow us to do extraordinary things, to think, to be creative. Shelf-stacking does not enhance these capacities; indeed it does not even require their use. It is rote, it is mechanical. And what human really wants to be a machine?

The point Iain Duncan Smith is making is of course not a philosophical one so much as a social one; he is saying that if you are unemployed and get (or are forced, due to the conditions of benefits payments) to take a job staking shelves, then you should take it, do it, and be thankful to have it.

But there is still a point about human nature to be made here, and it is about aspiration. As Minister for Welfare, it should be one of Smith’s prime objectives to improve social mobility. To do this whilst simultaneously saying that people should be satisfied by stacking shelves seems contradictory. We should be encouraging people to aspire to more than just having a job, we should be encouraging people to improve themselves and to make the most of themselves. No one fulfils their potential by stacking shelves at Poundland.

There is also an element of snobbery in the Welfare Minister’s comments. One suspects that he would regard himself as, if not ‘above’ working as a shelf-stacker, then certainly overqualified and more useful in other areas. He would be right. He would be wrong though to think that for people with no qualifications and few prospects that shelf-stacking is anything more than a job which pays a wage.

This article is not an attack on shelf stacking. It is instead an attack on the suggestion that such work is befitting of any human being, and on the implication that it has any value beyond that of its wage. If Iain Duncan Smith wants to talk up jobs, then he should focus on jobs which build self-esteem and enhance a person’s life beyond giving them a wage.

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