FOR centuries those who were certain that they knew best comforted the struggling, the doubtful, the poor and the not-so-poor with the promise that the meek shall inherit the earth.
Any review of that calming, compensatory assurance must conclude that it is very much a work in progress. Exploitation and abandonment seem the growing, reconquering forces of our age. The great, uplifting ideas of social protection, built at great cost after two world wars, changed our world in a way that seemed a permanent advance for humanity. Not so. In a little over three decades, the greed and nastiness made possible by neo-conservative politicians in thrall to, and too often in the pay of, the market have pulled that safety net from under millions of people. Globalisation, and the rise of what seems a new kind of oligarchy, unfettered even by the questionable paternalism of another time, drives the shift away from a kind of universal American Dream.
Today we report on one example of exploitation that could not even be considered unless the victim was regarded as sub-human, as a chattel to be abused without consequences. Sultana Anwar, a Pakistani domestic worker, took a case before the Employment Appeals Tribunal arguing that her employers, Irish-based Pakistani doctors Mr and Mrs Tahir Nazir, had so misused her. The EAT ordered the doctors to pay her €66,794 following her unfair dismissal action. Disturbing as this case may be, it is even more disturbing that it is probably just the tip of a very dark and toxic iceberg.
Another iteration of that exploitation is the sorry reality faced by many food producers who have little or no option but to accept the below-cost-of-production prices set by multi-national supermarket chains. That these chains routinely post multimillion profits but pay some of their staff so very poorly that they must depend on welfare income supports to survive seems at least bizarre, if not just plain wrong.
Just yesterday, Fáilte Ireland published details for last year. The agency record that for the first time, Ireland crossed the 1m milestone for North American visitors — Europe generates 39% of our overseas holidaymakers, followed by Britain at 32% and America 24%. These are very welcome figures, but just last week, one arm of the tourism industry, the restaurant sector, warned that we need around 30,000 chefs to sustain the industry. Restaurateurs made all sorts of suggestions — most involving taxpayers’ cash — about how this difficulty might be resolved, though none addressed the unattractive pay scales offered to chefs.
The same disheartening challenge faces young teachers or nurses, asked to work longer for less than older colleagues. The privatisation of essential services the State should be proud to support and offer those who need them is another strand in this clash of philosophies. History is a series of cycles and the only real question is how long will this one last, and how it will end. It is difficult to recognise the catalyst for upheaval the moment it arrives but the we’ve-had-enough outrage seen in London since the Grenfell carnage may just be it, or at least its precursor. The meek may not inherit the earth but they always, sooner or later, wake up.
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