Sunday, December 27, 2020

I Do Not Want To Hear How Hard You Think You're Working

Part of an infrequent series on lousy jobs.

From the Times Literary Supplement:

But is it food? The world of cheap produce and its consequences 

If you want to make a roomful of people argue with each other, one of the fastest ways is to express any kind of opinion about “cheap food”. To some, it is perfectly obvious that cheap food is an evil that results in underpaid farmers, degraded land and tortured animals. To others, it is equally obvious that cheap food is the great safeguard that stands between poor people and hunger. To this second group, the attacks on cheap food look suspiciously like “And-where-do-you-shop?” snobbery from those who have never known the anxiety of feeding a family on benefits. But to the first group, most of the so-called cheap food in the world is not as cheap as it seems – the concept ignores the high external costs of industrial agriculture. As so often in heated debates, the two sides are arguing about different things. “Cheap food” has many faces, depending on whether you are a producer or a consumer and also whether you happen to have a shopping list in your hand.
Food retailers know that it is an unusual customer who does not look favourably on low prices – or “everyday value” as the supermarket Tesco has it. The same was true in Victorian London, where anyone who wanted to buy a pound of strawberries or some onions or a nice fresh herring for the lowest price would get it from a street seller called a costermonger. The word costermonger derives from a kind of large round apple called a “custard” (not to be confused with the Asian fruit the custard apple), but by 1850, these humble pedlars were selling not just apples but almost any edible item that a Victorian could want, from oysters to gooseberries, and from bloaters (a kind of smoked herring) to “penny lick” ice creams, which, as the name suggests, cost only a penny.

No one knows exactly how many costermongers there were in London during late Victorian times. Most food hawkers were illiterate and couldn’t fill out a census return even if they wanted to, which they probably didn’t. Given that they were frequently harassed by the police, these sellers tended to be distrustful of authority. In 1851, an official government census put the number of London food street sellers at 3,723, but the reformer Henry Mayhew said this was an “absurdly small” figure. Mayhew’s own research suggested that the true number of those hawking various kinds of fish, fruits and vegetables in London was 35,000, not to mention the thousands of other sellers touting anything from hot baked potatoes and pies to sandwiches and nuts. In the mid-1890s, Arthur Sherwell estimated that the number of London costers who were heads of families was 24,094, but this figure did not include unmarried costers or women; nor, crucially, did it include the thousands of young children on whom the trade depended. By the 1880s, those “penny lick” ice creams tended to be sold by Italian children, indentured to “padroni” who paid them little and made them sleep in cramped dwellings four or five to a bed.

We may not know how many Victorian street food sellers existed but what we do know is that their lives were close to intolerable. In the early 1900s, a middle-class reformer called Olive Christian Malvery tried to live for a while as a coster but quit after a month, exhausted by the 4 am starts, long walks to the market, and days spent touting in all weather. Rainy days were bad news for costermongers not only because they had to stand shivering in the wet and cold, but also because there were so few customers – a couple of days of wet weather could mean starvation. Then again, one costermonger reported that “hundreds of us find the length of even a summer’s day entirely too short for our main purpose, which is to keep the wolf from the door”. As the geographer Sébastien Rioux writes in The Social Cost of Cheap Food, which covers almost a century of British food politics, from 1830 to 1914, “Costers worked up to eighteen hours a day and still starved at the end of it”. Henry Mayhew described an eight-year-old girl coster who was so “pale and thin with privation” that she was “wrinkled where dimples ought to have been”. Her job required her to get to Farringdon Market between 4 and 5 in the morning every day. Her only food, twice a day, was two slices of bread and butter with a cup of tea. On Sundays she got a scrap of meat.

The “unattainable dream” for costers, according to Rioux, was to make enough money to invest in a wheelbarrow or donkey cart rather than having to haul around all of their stock in a heavy tray or basket. The vast majority of them never achieved this goal, given that their average income in the 1850s was 10 shillings a week and a barrow cost 25 to 40 shillings. To be a costermonger was often a last refuge for immigrants, “unskilled” or injured workers, who could not find any other work; but it was not much of a refuge, even by the standards of the rest of the Victorian working class.
In 1904 a doctor called Alfred Eicholz observed that 90 per cent of the costermonger boys he saw in Lambeth, Newington and Walworth were suffering from anaemia and many of them had blight in their eyes and prematurely ageing skin. Adult costers also had severe health problems, both physical and mental. In the 1880s, a study had found that the rate of mortality among costermongers was twice as high as the average across all occupations. Street sellers ranked “tenth for liver disease, eighth for gout, fourth for urinary infections, second for diseases of the nervous system, first for diseases of the circulatory system and first for suicide”.

To respectable Victorian society, the misery and degradation of street sellers was largely seen as a thing apart from the main economy. Costers were part of what were sometimes called the “dangerous classes”, who were regarded as an exception to the rule of Victorian progress. These vendors were often subjected to fines or even imprisonment by the police for obstructing the traffic. In 1893 a social reformer called Helen Dendy argued in a speech at the Economic Club that this street-selling class was “economically dead” and had “no real use” in a “modern economy”. Rioux argues that this analysis was not only judgemental but wrong. “Far from being anachronistic figures, these castaways of industrial capitalism were indeed essential to its functioning.” Rioux’s thesis is that the substantial rise in living conditions in the British working classes as a whole after 1870 would have been impossible without the cheap labour provided by costermongers as well as by other food sellers such as shopkeepers and market traders, many of whom also depended on child labour.

The misery of the costermongers was not an exception to the rule of economic “progress”, but one of the conditions that made this progress possible, argues Rioux. The greatest cause of the costermongers’ suffering was also the greatest thing that they had to offer to their customers: cheap food. Costers operated on tiny profit margins precisely because they competed so fiercely with each other for customers. Rioux quotes John Denton, a costermonger at Spitalfields who noted that “We have to buy cheap, because if we did not buy cheap we could not sell cheap, and if we could not sell cheap we could not sell a quantity, and if we did not sell a quantity it would not pay us”. These cheap prices were a boon to other workers as well as to middle-class housewives, who often frequented costermongers.

The period from the 1870s to the start of the First World War saw a steep rise in working-class living standards in Britain, much of it underpinned by a vast array of cheap imported foods. Thanks to new refrigerated steamships and a growing railway network, such items as butter, eggs and meat could be transported from as far afield as New Zealand and Argentina. The British started to eat butter from Denmark; oranges and grapes from Spain; mutton from Argentina; bacon and cheese from the United States; wheat from Canada. The percentage of meat consumed in Britain that was imported rose from 13.6 per cent in 1872 to 42.3 per cent in 1912. The influx of these new cheap food imports gave many in the working classes a much more varied and tasty diet than before. Eggs were no longer a luxury and as the price of imported fruit fell, many in the cities started eating oranges and bananas for the first time. They could only afford to buy these foods because the costers who sold them kept the prices too low to allow themselves a decent life. By the same token, big shopkeepers kept food prices down by forcing employees to work long hours for low pay. A ninety-hour week was not uncommon for a clerk in a Victorian grocer shop, but these hours still might not deliver a wage large enough to live on, despite the cheapness of food....


A couple earlier stories   

I Do Not Want to Hear How Tough Your Job Is, Ever

I used to use this painting to illustrate a lousy job:

That's Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin. You really have to look at the zoomed view to understand just how awful work can be.

Bad as that depiction is, I have a new example of what some people have to do to earn their daily bread.
From Open Magazine:

Manual Scavenging: The Struggle to Stay out of Pits
THE MEN COME early in the morning at around seven. Some have had tea at home, some haven’t; but once they report for work, most will keep drinking country liquor from short plastic tumblers. It is the only way they can tolerate the feel of excreta in sewers and septic tanks against their bare bodies. Their eyes are floating globs of yellow, their cheeks as sunken as the city’s potholes. They sit on grimy mattresses in a bamboo shack at the end of a street, smoking beedis and passing bawdy remarks at the heroine of a film some of them have seen a few days earlier, as they wait for people to come and offer them work: opening up choked septic tanks, mostly, in this part of north-west Delhi.

The householders come, standing at a distance, telling them what they have come for. Someone among the men whose turn it is to go will nod as he pretends to listen; he is not interested in the full description—he just needs to hear the key word: sewer or septic tank. He will then look the householder in the eye and quote a price, usually a few hundred rupees. The man who has come with the job will make a face but usually relent quickly; nobody wants shit spilling out in the backyard....


HT: Alpha Ideas' Weekend Mega Linkfest