I don’t usually write about the politics of nationalism here, but bear with me, I have a point much closer to home to make. Anyway, this week saw the release of the UK government’s plans for post-Brexit immigration rules, alongside ongoing violence and protests against the Indian government’s new two-pronged citizenship reform: the CAA and the NRC.
If you want to know what your government thinks of you, watch how they manage the borders. Watch how the undocumented are treated. Watch how the poor, black, disabled and other vulnerable and oppressed are treated. Ask yourself how the marginalised become marginalised, who’s doing the silencing, and who stays silent when mob violence erupts.
You can read about what’s happening in India in more detail here. It is dangerous and heart-breaking and complex and many believe it to be a betrayal of the founding principles of the nation. But it’s also very revealing of who matters to the government. To simplify enormously, the CAA is a means of granting citizenship to all ‘non-Indians’ of all faiths except Islam. And the NRC is a bureaucratic measure that neatly separates the undocumented of their citizenship. So you can be Hindu (or Sikh, or Christian, and so on) and undocumented, and still be certified as Indian. You can be Indian and Muslim if you have the official documentation to prove it. But if you’re undocumented, and Muslim – in other words poor and Muslim – you are no longer Indian.
Less crudely, but with no more honourable intentions, here in the UK, the proposed post-Brexit immigration rules will remove the right to work here for anyone who is considered to be ‘unskilled’. It’s a points-based system, but in this case, ‘skilled’ points are gained by earning over £23k, having a job offer from an employer, working in specific shortage professions, and having a PhD (!). In practice, then, if you are self-employed, or earning less than £23k, you count as unskilled. Unskilled.
I don’t think I’ve earned over that threshold in my whole working life, yet. And I’ve been self-employed for most of it. But apparently entrepreneurial independence only counts if you earn enough money. At least the PhD would count for something, but it would count for twice as much if it was a STEM subject, of course. Luckily the UK government is not (as yet) considering stripping citizenship from people. Except they also are, if you’re a criminal – but only if you’re Muslim, or have Caribbean heritage.
Meanwhile, there’s this little story, much closer to home, from my dear friend Norman Blair, about a venture offering boutique, high-end yoga experiences in the heart of London, that hasn’t paid its teachers in months. I’m sure regular readers can guess the average income of the teachers involved, who would undoubtedly count as ‘unskilled’, while the free-wheeling entrepreneur who failed so spectacularly at running a profitable business is wealthy enough to start another one tomorrow, and probably already has. People in the comments, when the story is shared here and there, are lining up to tell similar stories. We are so often told that we need entrepreneurs to manage yoga studios and brands, and they can manage the business side of things properly on behalf of both students and yoga teachers. I’m sick of seeing yet more examples of this leading to exploiting teachers, and in some cases, unsafe teaching for students.
Most of my work is with ‘unskilled’ people. Most of my friends, and (barring a few lucky and modest exceptions), most of the people that inspire me, would count as ‘unskilled’ if they needed to prove their right to work in the UK. They all do incredible work, with great dedication. They are care workers, craftspeople, researchers and writers, and of course yoga teachers. And in every case, they have to fight over and over again, for the resources to do the work they do, and above all, to get fairly paid.
I’m taking about the care worker this week who told me she was leaving the profession because she can’t bear watching the service she works in being run into the ground any more, and she literally can’t afford to start again in another unit.
I’m talking about the craftspeople I know who charge less than minimum wage for what they sell, have their copyright regularly appropriated by predatory companies, and get no support to deal with this systemic and endemic issue. Meanwhile, sales and social media platforms make millions because they are always finding ways to pay as little as possible to the actual creatives at the heart of what they offer.
I’m talking about a whole cohort of highly trained PhD graduates with some of the most interesting and innovative research I’ve ever seen, who can’t find so much as a temporary teaching job. We certainly can’t find research grants. Meanwhile, those colleagues with contracts are working 50-hour weeks or more, and struggling to find time to research, write, even to read.
So much, so gloom, so doom. What’s the point?
The point is this.
For what it’s worth, I want to remind you that your worth is not measured by the amount of money you can extract from other people, any more than it is measured by the poverty you were raised in, or the accident of where you were born.
I feel that’s worth repeating, because of a sort of daily erosion of value – a creeping, insidious message to anyone who doesn’t work in a profession that extracts value from others, that what you do is nice, but it isn’t really valuable. Not enough to be worth paying for.
The fact is that people will and do pay for what you offer. But those extractive professions keep skimming off more and more in the middle. Not all entrepreneurs running studio chains, but enough of them. Not all media and online sales platforms, but enough of them. Not all Vice Chancellors and Health Service Commissioners, but enough of them. The rise in income inequality skims off more and more from those who care and those who create, and gives more and more to those who don’t. And as there’s less and less left for everyone else, the lie repeated, over and over, is that it’s because refugees and immigrants and people of colour and poor and disabled people are taking more than their share.
Besides this, everything I’ve described here specifically discriminates, not only against the marginalised, but against everything we’re told that our late-capitalist societies reward: striving to better your circumstances; serving others; showing compassion; making something new and beautiful for the world. Working for modest reward. Being happy with just enough. Being dedicated and focused over years.
I think we have to really ask ourselves who we share values with, and, above all, stand up to be counted with them. Are we really happy to continue to be ruled by millionaires hoping to become billionaires, who judge others according to the lowest pay they will accept to do what they love? Or do we have more in common with dedicated, passionate, creative individuals, whatever the circumstances of their birth, knowing that it is our former rulers who forced so many refugees and undocumented people into that circumstance in the first place?
The world is changing faster than I can draw breath these days, but I know this to be true:
I would rather build a life every day with those with the drive to cross continents, those with the commitment to serve again and again, those with creativity that pours out of them endlessly, and those with the passion to tell the untold stories of our marginalised and everyday lives.