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Consumerism creates a new slave class

21 August 2020

The lockdown gave workers a taste of shared free time. Now it looks as if it could be snatched away, Angela Robinson warns

CLEVER advertising, well-funded PR, and a biased media mean that the public now seems to be able to hold together two contradictory principles. Most now share the abhorrence of the slave trade of the past. The same people, though, seem blind to something similar in the present day: the loss of employees’ rights and, in particular, their loss of the right to shared free time.

The parallels are clear. Both involve the denial that workers can have the right to anything else in their life except toil for their owner or employer, who has absolute rights over their working hours, and can change them at little notice.

As with slavery in the past, more than just the slave-owners are implicated in the exploitation. Is it not an echo of the old slavery to talk of the consumers’ “right” to open-all-hours services: something that supersedes the right of workers to enjoy the hobbies, interests, and family life that shared free time makes possible?

Many of the demands of modern consumerism require the existence of an underclass: people who are denied their own rights in order to serve those who dominate them. The pattern is as old as history, and surely has to be resisted today, as it has in generations past.


THE strange disciplines of living with Covid-19 have reawakened the UK to the joys of shared free time. The lockdown enabled people to nourish their family relationships and pursue hobbies and interests that brought joy and fulfilment. As the lockdown eased, however, the Government suggested that shops should be able to open for even more of the few hours outside normal trading. Thankfully, protests have so far dissuaded it from changing the law.

As people compare the “old normal” with a “new normal”, many look back to an earlier normal: memories of half-day closing, Sunday closing (except for a few essentials), and family life that could be celebrated at such times. For example, before the Sunday Trading Act was passed, in 1994, 84 per cent of the population described Sunday lunch as the most important meal of the week.

Some could remember the pleasures of something called “the evening”. This was made possible because jobs finished early, so that, by 7.30 p.m., having had supper, people were free to join a choir, an amateur theatre company, or a sports activity, attend a council meeting, join an evening class, or take part in hobbies and interests. Children could join uniformed organisations, led by people who did not have to work late.

I await a book that celebrates the part that free Sundays played in the development of the UK through the centuries, when Sundays off were compulsory, and — thanks, in the 20th century, to short pub opening hours — the time was richly used, not only to teach children in Sunday schools, but for adult self-improvement through engagement with church, political parties, and unions — all of which built the character, skills, and other resources necessary for a nation to develop.


NOWADAYS, any employee who attempts to respect any obligation other than work risks being passed over for promotion, demoted, or even sacked. Contracts of employment treat Sunday working as standard.

Of course, some people have to work on Sundays. This is accepted in the REST principle: R for recreation, E for emergencies, S for social gatherings, and T for the travelling public.

But nothing here suggests the packing and delivery of online goods which could happen on the other six days of the week; or entertaining people who treat shopping as a leisure activity; or fulfilling all the other services that could easily be contained in the working week.

There is now another element. It looks as though, certainly in the immediate future, more people will be forced to accept any employment that they can find, regardless of whether it uses their gifts and skills and brings fulfilment or enjoyment. Shared free time will thus become even more important for people’s well-being.

During the lockdown, research showed that it was the smaller shops, whose profitability is imperfectly protected by the Sunday Trading Act, who stepped up to help disadvantaged consumers. It was remarkable that these still existed. In the years after the Act was passed, 11,000 small shops closed.

The applause for the NHS workers during the lockdown was extended to include these essential workers, who voluntarily worked all hours to ensure that no one went without necessary supplies. Is their reward to be a compulsion to work these same hours without respite — and not for necessities, but to protect market share?

Let us renew the respect in our culture for the human right to shared free time, not only for a privileged elite and the retired, but for all.


The Revd Angela Robinson is a retired teacher and Congregational minister.

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