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On November 9, 1830, a hundred farm workers descended on a farm in Kent in the south of England and destroyed a threshing machine with saws, axes and axes. At Burnham Overy in Norfolk, workers destroyed another machine while shouting, “This prevents an honest man from getting a job.” The country was in the throes of riots, where farm workers smashed threshing machines, burned barns, sent threatening letters to farmers and demanded higher wages. By the last 10 days of November, write historians Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé, “virtually ignited virtually the whole of southern England”.
The workers are reacting to transformations in the world of work that have left them desperate. New threshing machines save labor by a factor of five to ten, displacing many workers who usually relied on manual threshing to keep them going in the winter. Farm work has become more comfortable and insecure. ‘It’s cheaper to hire day laborers. . . than keeping servants in the house, especially since they are always sent home on a rainy day, ‘wrote a contemporary observer.
We are at another moment in history where work is becoming insecure and unsafe, at least for some. Last year, Amazon Flex executives hang their smartphones in trees outside charging sites in an apparent attempt to gain a split-second advantage while delivery tasks went to the nearest. On some farms in Scotland, raspberry pickers were sent to sit in their caravans without payment if it rained or if their productivity rate was too low.
The idea of a universal basic income – a policy where the state pays a monthly amount without conditions to all – is often proposed as a solution to these problems. If technology makes work scarcer, unpredictable or more dangerous, say lawyers, should give our people a basic income level that is independent of the labor market. Otherwise, they can be just as angry and desperate as the machine breakers of the 1830s.
But an UBI would not only be a response to the changing labor market, but it would also give it shape that is difficult to predict.
In the case of the Swing riots, some historians have argued that a well-intentioned welfare system actually aggravated the condition of farm workers. In the mid-1790s, magistrates in Speenhamland in Berkshire decided on a local system of poverty relief that would increase the wage of the lowest paid to a minimum income based on the price of bread. The system has spread, but according to the economic historian Karl Polanyi it was a ‘fool’s paradise’ because it encouraged farmers to pay lower wages in the knowledge that public funds would make the difference. As the cost of the system increased, its generosity was sharply reduced. “[The] “Right to live” eventually devastated the people for whom it was apparently meant to help, “he wrote.
It is important to emphasize that this is not the only version of the story. Other historians dispute the idea that the Speenhamland system impoverishes people. They say the system of poverty relief, which differs greatly between congregations, is better seen as an inadequate solution to the problems of the century rather than a contributor to it.
Still, it is worth considering how employers would react today to the introduction of a UBI. We know that employers do respond to welfare changes. One academic paper suggests that the UK tax credit for working families, introduced in 1999, has led employers to reduce wages somewhat for recipients of the supplement, with an effect on those who do not receive the benefit.
If a UBI abandons employers completely from the idea that a job should be something one can live on, it may be easier to hire people on a casual or volatile basis for fewer hours. Campaigns for a “Living wages” and “living hours” may lose steam. Even minimum wages can be philosophically attacked. You would argue that it would not be a bad thing if it gave employers more flexibility while people still have income security. But variable income is not the only problem with an unpredictable job: it also affects your ability to arrange childcare, plan a life outside of work, and maintain relationships.
On the other hand, UBI supporters argue that it could have the opposite effect. People with a fixed income floor they can rely on can get away from poorly paid jobs or not fit the rest of their lives. Employers will be forced to compete for staff by offering attractive salaries and conditions.
Which of these scenarios would be more likely depends on the generosity with which the UBI is set up and the macroeconomic context in which it operates. Unfortunately, trial schemes such as those in Finland we can not help much with this question as they are too small to influence employer behavior.
Meanwhile, there are other things we can do to improve the future of work. The first step should be to recognize that not every problem is the result of technological change. The raspberry pickers that are sent back to their caravans without payment if they pick too slowly, for example, are not the victims of an algorithm or machine. The farmers treat them this way because the law allows it.
UBI is worth more debate. But there is a danger of seeing job insecurity as an inevitability to which we must adapt, while in some cases it is merely a regulatory failure to which we must respond.