Managers who have long defended their huge pay have a cheek asking staff to work for nothing
- guardian.co.uk, Thursday 18 June 2009 23.00 BST
There's a cheery cliche popular with top entertainers and sports stars: "I love this job so much that I'd still do it if they didn't pay me." But people only say this if they know there's no risk of it happening. Those British employees now being asked to come in and work for nothing would never have thought to make the offer.
The novelty of the economic crisis has been a series of schemes encouraging staff to take unpaid leave, salary reduction or to work for a month without money as an alternative to being laid off. In the most high-profile example, British Airways has won substantial pay cuts from its pilots while encouraging other staff to work gratis for part of the year.
In some cases – principally, the highest-paid radio and TV presenters – the victims of thrift simply have to accept that their losses will be widely viewed as a necessary market correction. In the same way, the only rapid way for MPs to begin to restore public confidence would be to vote through a self-flagellating pay cut.
But the obvious objection to this popular gateau analogy is that the plates were not equally filled before the redistribution began. As BA staff have pointed out, a hairshirt month for the airline's senior management still leaves them with as much annual cash as the lowest names on the payroll would earn in a decade. At different ends of the corporate pyramid, there is a vivid difference between putting on hold plans for a second holiday house and being unable to pay the mortgage on your only home.
Even without the understandable fear that those who insist on keeping their contracted wad may later be punished with redundancy, there is something fundamentally queasy about presenting as equality a scheme in which the impact varies so widely.
The biggest obstacle to these pain-sharing schemes is the instinctive psychological and moral resistance that most people have to the idea of working for nothing. From Dr Johnson's frequently-quoted advice that only blockheads write for anything but money to the Roman Catholic catechism's warning that one of the highest sins of all is to "defraud labourers of their wages", respectable economies have been built on the concept of turning brain or muscle power into spending power.
One of the great shames of the past decade – most prevalent in the media sector – has been the practice of using young people on unpaid or barely-paid "work experience", sometimes extending for months or even years as tolerated slave labour in a post-union world. So we should flinch at the idea that such sneaky cheapskating may now become an accepted corporate tactic.
Inconveniently for the managers now promoting the benefits of allowing the bank account some downtime, the captains of industry are lengthily and noisily on record with the idea that there is a direct relationship between income and incentive.
For decades, these bosses have argued against higher taxation on the grounds that a reduction in take-home rewards would result in the drivers of society idling at their desks because there was no longer any point in making money. Yet now they have harnessed precisely the argument previously used against them – that work can have a larger purpose than personal gain – to propose what amounts to a recession tax on their employees. People who refused to earn less for the good of society now preach the beauty of taking a cut for the company.
At the risk of encouraging my employers and enraging my agent, I probably would be prepared, having had some very good and lucky years, to do much the same work next year for less than the fees paid this. But I would agree to this from the visceral, Dickensian fear of all employees that the workhouse looms as the alternative, and would nurse the angry suspicion that the superiors benefitting from our sacrifices were not suffering as much themselves. When the upturn comes, will they raise the payments or smirkingly continue with a cheaper workforce? (The BA pilots have at least been given shares as the price of their privation.)
Horrible as high unemployment is, an economy that suffers it is at least being honest about the gap between supply and demand and the failures of its systems. A state that reclassifes salary as charity is simply disguising its failures. Except for the super-rich who can do it as a populist gimmick, there is nothing to be said for working for nothing.
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