Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, an allegorical precursor to the Jobbridge years

 This year 2014, sees 75 years pass since The Grapes of Wrath was published. It is both striking and alarming at how viscerally this great novel still chimes with what is currently going on in the world of work. Not much has radically changed within the underlying tenets of capitalist society. In fact, the UK and Ireland seem to move closer to a 1930’s or even 2010’s America style of economic and social welfare policy as the days go by. I first read The Grapes of Wrath in 2011, amidst the backdrop of trying to complete writing my doctoral thesis, while concurrently making my first tentative steps towards looking for postdoctoral employment. Earlier that year, the Irish government announced the inception of a National Internship Scheme to be called Jobbridge. Jobbridge was contrived as an employment stimulus scheme which aimed to create, in the words of the Minister for Social Protection, “a real chance to many people to get six or nine months of critical work experience – a foot on the ladder after training, apprenticeship or graduation”. The premise of Jobbridge was further elucidated as a scheme “open to jobseekers that are unable to get a job without experience, either as new entrants to the labour market after training or education or as unemployed workers seeking to learn new skills.”

While reading The Grapes of Wrath, I was also preparing to re-enter the job hunt and was (still am) greatly incensed by the developments in so called job creation and unemployment payment conditions. Regarding Jobbridge, it quickly became apparent that businesses and employers were creating positions that did not otherwise exist, in order to avail of having essentially free labour. Another knock on effect, felt almost instantaneously, was the recasting of low paid and entry-level positions into Jobbridge “internships”. Thus negating the possibility of those entering the workforce to gain the age-old foot in the door into the world of work. As Jobbridge has developed since, higher-level graduate positions such as teacher, solicitor, librarian, and scientist have been surreptitiously added to the roster. This essentially decimates real opportunities for a large cohort of jobseekers and graduates. Particular job areas, such as my own fields of expertise: policy, research, information and library work, have begun to suffer disproportionately, new positions are overwhelmingly created as Jobbridge “internships”. As such, within such sectors there is a distinct dearth of real paid jobs being created hence an intense overload of applications for any paid positions that do turn up. A dissenting view of Jobbridge would be that it is a scheme orchestrated to encourage people to work for their welfare payments, albeit with the carrot of an extra €50 per week on top of any existing jobseekers payments. In fact recent developments point to this being the case with the introduction of penalties of removal of unemployment payments to under-25s who do not take up Jobbridge positions or do not adhere to other prescribed job seeking criteria. The Pathways to Work scheme, which jobseekers must sign up to in order to secure payments, appears to follow a model whereby jobseekers are bound by a contract to agree to certain job seeking criteria. This may well result in being instructed to take up placements in Jobbridge positions or fear payment related sanctions.

Reading the Grapes of Wrath, concurrently as the project that decimates our previous understanding of “work” went full steam ahead; I read it more and more as an allegory for the savage flaws of capitalism and work. It is the 1930s, deep into America’s depression, the Joad family have been driven from their home, livelihood and former means of production by the virtual corporatisation and subsequent industrialisation of farming. Left with no choice but to move to where there may be work, they have received a flyer or “han’bill” as they call it, advertising a plethora of positions available for fruit pickers in California. Where seemingly, as of yet, industrialisation has not managed to replace humans when it comes to harvesting the produce of corporatized farming. Nevertheless, the reality they face as they travel along Route 66 to get to California is that the han’bills have been widely distributed, meaning more workers have emerged than there are jobs. Landowners deal with this by employing as many workers as they can and lowering wages accordingly on a daily, often hourly basis, as new wide eyed and hungry workers turn up at their gates. In many ways, this chimes with the Jobbridge scenario while also being distinctly reminiscent of the “boom years”.

During the property bubble fuelled “boom years”, han’bills in both tangible and metaphorical forms were sent further afield to Eastern Europe and elsewhere alerting prospective workers to urgent labour force needs in our more prosperous lands. Han’bills, like government rhetoric concerning job creation, and an abundance of media, portray a strong impression that there is plenty of work available and more coming. However as is increasingly exposed, this is often not the case. In many instances of “jobs” being advertised, online for example, a click on the job description indicates that it is not a paid position after all but a Jobbridge “internship”. This is reminiscent of the han’bill set up in the book. The advertisements drag the Joads across to California for work, yet the abundance of work is revealed as a myth when they finally get there. A more critical viewpoint of the boom years might suggest that foreign labour was a preferred option, as just like the “Okies” in Grapes of Wrath they would be more likely to work for whatever was on offer. The preference for foreign labour has viewed them as more likely to work hard and fast with minimal complaints, and an unlikeness nay unwillingness to become organised/radicalised/unionised in a rights protection context. The Jobbridge situation is somewhat different while also the same. It is decimating the understanding of the word “work”, making it acceptable to work for a minimum, and unacceptable to resist such exploitation. Meanwhile, it also exists to contribute to statistics, which tell us that there are jobs being created, less people on the live register, and that this is feeding in to a positive economic prospect. Recovery is nigh!! In the Joads case, they have an unblinking faith in the system that alerts the people to job vacancies, just like the majority of the population in this economy do too. They wouldn’t advertise jobs/hand out han’bills if there wasn’t any work. Why would they go to such effort to produce notices of available work if there wasn’t any available?

Consequently the conservative leaning view in society, worryingly held by an increasing majority, becomes satisfied that there are plenty of jobs available, be they Jobbridge, Work Placement Programmes (WPP) et al or appropriately salaried. The conservative view believes that it is just feckless benefits scroungers who refuse to take jobs from the vast availability, and prefer to complain than work. The voice of the establishment legitimates the positioning of people as scroungers and layabouts; unrealistic with an overinflated sense of entitlement, when unwilling to take up such so-called “jobs” as those on Jobbridge or WPP. This further intensifies the us versus them ideology. For many living amidst such an ideology, they feel shame, desperation and exhaustion being unemployed and trying to look for appropriate work. Therefore, when it becomes apparent that the only way to get certain types of work is to sign up to unfair schemes such as Jobbridge they do so, despite there being absolutely no assurance of a job at the end of the “internship” period.

Thus, widely advertising the availability of a job, particularly now via the internet serves a similar purpose to the han’bills in the Grapes of Wrath. Employers are now well aware as to how in demand any advertised job will be, and even more so in specific industries. Hence, they can widely advertise a “job” that on closer inspection turns out to be a Jobbridge and still expect a wide demand for information on it and no doubt a good deal of applicants. This subterfuge is wholly legitimated by the authorities too. Similarly in Grapes of Wrath, the employers are permitted to legitimately undercut the workers against each other when so many of them turn up to do a job. Thus, the Jobbridging of society has emerged. For example, at least one company has emerged for whom a principle objective is to assist other companies in creating Jobbridge vacancies so that the companies could benefit from the scheme. To linguistically legitimate their actions they use language such as employment support, labour activation facilitators and employment facilitators to describe their business. Within a bigger picture of the creation of jobs and Jobbridge positions, it is reasonable to assume that three possible scenarios are operating:

  1. A company has a viable job vacancy, advertises, interviews, and then hires a proper salaried member of staff as per more traditional employment methods.
  2. A company has a viable job vacancy available with which they could avail of the Jobbridge scheme as a money saving exercise while training their new employee. So they set up the role as a Jobbridge, train the employee accordingly, and if everyone is mutually happy with the arrangement, they employ them permanently after the initial “internship” period expires.
  3. A company has no job vacancy, but is quite attracted to the potential of free labour to undertake various bits and bobs that may come up. Therefore, they create a Jobbridge position with no intention of ever having a real paid position available, and without any legal or moral onus on them to do so or to create one at the end of the internship period either.

A cursory, or even a more considered, glance at the Jobbridge adverts, or better still on the state Jobs Board, on any given day reveal that 3) seems to be the favoured option across the board. Thus, all talk about job creation is a misnomer, as a 6-18 month stint of free labour should not be termed a job. The majority of Jobbridge positions do not advertise the potential for further employment, instead adverts just state what skills the “intern” will purportedly acquire by the time the internship period expires. Government rhetoric has bolstered the legitimisation of undercutting paid work, via low unsustainable wages (for the employee) and the creation of Jobbridge positions. Again, this is chimes with some of the Joads experiences in the book. When the Joads reach California and are staying in one of the makeshift Hooverville camps they begin to become educated by others camping there in the realities of the “work” that is available. The situation is explicitly elucidated to them by a man named Floyd who makes a speech denouncing the blatant undercutting of jobs, which pitch each man and woman against the other, all because the employer feels legitimated to do so when he sees the huge demand for the work he is offering. Floyd suggests that a man who comes to a camp to hire should wrote out the terms and conditions of the employment he is offering and produce a licence that permits him to contract out work in the first place. Rather than be listened to by those with the power in this situation, Floyd is marked out as a “red” and an agitator and an attempt is made to arrest and forcefully restrain and subdue him.

The current situation similarly returns us to a scenario where those desperate to earn will take whatever is going, even if it further contributes to the diminishing of work rights, wage security and the increased creation of slave/free labour. This type of occurrence is repeatedly referenced in the novel. In one acutely distressing scene a man talks to Pa Joad and explains the cycle of misery that they are in regarding pay for their labour. He highlights how if Pa Joad were to take up a job paying 20 cents then that undercuts the rate the man currently works at, thus he will be forced to take the job back for 15 cents. Therefore destroying any possibility of anyone being remunerated adequately for the work, regardless of how gruelling that work is. Nevertheless, in this situation the people feel compelled to take shoddily paid exploitative jobs regardless of what they know otherwise, as they need to eat. You can see the exact same thing happening currently in so called civil modern society with the likes of zero hour contracts, how Amazon treat and pay their warehouse workers, the prevalence of Jobbridge positions and so on.

The existence of a scheme such as Jobbridge further fuels intense competition for any real paid employment. This allows for a situation where companies and organisations are often free to treat prospective employees with a callous disregard. It also narrows the field, from an intellectual and skills perspective, exacerbating the increasing aesthetic and ideological homogenisation of society. Ultimately less positive oriented risk taking is engaged in. People are less likely to be hired for a spark of creativity or originality in their approaches, but rather for a long exhaustive list of the correct experience that ticks prescribed boxes within narrow criteria. There is inertia from employers themselves towards fostering development in people, thus employers expect to hire people with skills already intact rather than train people up on the job. There is no time for such trivialities anymore!! This constricted view of potential, limits the opportunities for development on a wider scale. Consequently, leaving a large percentage of the population to devastatingly scrabble about for bits and pieces of unsuitable work, just to get by just like the Joads. As a result, government announcements of increased employment, and employment development forecasts, are exposed as disingenuous political posturing. This is alongside a complete reinterpretation of what the word “job” means, which has crept into public discourse without any evident discussion or worse still a lack of horror/alarm!

Nonetheless, the individualised yet homogenised working population lap up these statistics as unquestioningly as the Joad family upped sticks and travelled across America following a notice on a piece of paper. What of the general response to this? Well, a great deal of people are firmly happy to believe that opportunities do exist, just that those not working are not looking hard enough. There is limited understanding of the effects of looking for this proverbial needle in the haystack. Steinbeck creates a strong evocation of how it feels when Pa and Tom Joad describe the weight that looking for something you are never going to find puts on you. Nevertheless, while sympathetic, Ma Joad who desperately tries to keep her family aloft highlights how the children look ill and hungry. Thus she refutes the right of the men to be disheartened in their quest for work. This is a reality for many in the current climate, fighting the futility to try to support yourself and your family is a difficult quest, both mentally and physically draining with no prize necessarily in sight. For those having great difficulty in finding work, when small amounts of work do come in, having money becomes such a rare occasion that there is a tendency toward frivolity rather than future planning. It is exemplified by Steinbeck when the Joads get some money from a short-term sustained bout of cotton picking. Uncle John starts to speak of how he has been eyeing up things to buy regardless of whether he needs them or not. While he knows he does not need material things the consequence of having money to spare makes him feel like he should buy consumer goods to make him happy or to fill the emotional void he has. Marx and others referred to this phenomenon as commodity fetishism, a key characteristic of a capitalist society. Capitalism recasts social relations as market relations; competition and class then also come into play. People are judged by their place in the market force, by their purchasing power not their ‘human qualities’. People categorise each other within this socioeconomic class structure and hierarchy leading to further fragmentation and individualisation of society. Commodity fetishism exists as individuals putting a higher weight on material possessions, holidays, and other acquisitions be they animate or inanimate objects, or even other people. Consequently, the individual ends up with no time, no ability, to recognise the inequalities of their alienated work (or non-work) life, thus not challenging it. Suddenly acquiring a state of the art plasma flat screen 3D TV is of more importance than challenging an unfair pay cut or being caught up in a social welfare poverty trap. This ultimately leads to complacency and lack of desire to revolt! Just like the grim existence the Joads experienced eventually wore them down, there were sparks of commodity fetishism when money was about but once the struggle returned, life finally ground them down. Mere survival, eating, breathing, became the aim of their meagre existence.

How do those in charge propose that an economy is successfully recovered or in recovery if all their steps toward progress amount to rhetorical hoodwinking statements that are meaningless in reality? Some of the jobs creation steps taken such as the introduction of Jobbridge and the ongoing project of dismantling the welfare state suggest that increasing inequality is a goal of those in power. A distinctly right leaning ideology is driving policy and progress one that perhaps believes that to try tackle inequality is futile. Steinbeck highlights the dramatic consequences of a lack of work, forced labour and stringent conditions on welfare relief for the poor and workless; it results in mental and physical suffering, which quickly leads to illness, the outlook is grim!