What I learned in my chugging days

The public disapproves of charity bosses earning high salaries, because the market value of labour has become completely detached from its social value


When it comes to justifying your earnings, I suspect the charity sector – currently under fire for paying executive salaries exceeding £100,000 a year – has more experience than most. Back in my chugging days (aka "charity mugging", aka "street fundraising"), there was a section of the training specifically devoted to developing clever comebacks for one particularly deadly question: "Are you getting paid to do this?"

Indeed, we were. About £9 an hour, or £17,500 a year. Clearly this isn't enough to get the chief exec of the British Red Cross out of bed in the morning (he's reportedly on £184,000), but in 2004 it was still considered inappropriately generous by some. It was also nearly twice what I'd previously made waitressing. I soon worked out why.

They weren't paying me for my altruistic spirit, or my deep understanding of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa (I had neither). They weren't even paying me to stand in the rain for hours trying to get the attention of hostile shoppers. You earn your chugging wage by overcoming a cultural aversion to asking strangers for money, cheerfully absorbing industrial quantities of disdain and then coming back for more. It worked out at roughly £4.32 per "fuck off".

Why do some kinds of labour earn a higher salary than others? Charity executives defended their pay packets last week with an appeal to the economics of supply and demand. There aren't many with the requisite experience, skills and motivation to successfully manage a global organisation the size of Oxfam or Save the Children, so those that can, command a higher wage. Yet, as the Charity Commission has pointed out, despite comparable levels of responsibility to their private sector equivalents, in deference to the public mood, their salaries are still much lower. Clearly, the mystery of fair remuneration isn't resolved by simple economics.

Should you be paid according to how hard you work? How boring your job is? The risks to your personal safety involved? And how far do salaries depend on gender? Or whether we graduated from a university in Mumbai or a former poly in Manchester? Should the ultimate deciding factor always be how much wealth we generate, regardless of where that wealth ends up?

If the public disapproves of charity bosses earning high salaries and chuggers earning anything at all, it's not only because we worry donations to starving children are instead funding someone else's kitchen extension. It's also because the market value of labour is completely detached from its social value. Where there is a connection, it's usually an inverse one. A good deed is only a good deed if it is done without hope of financial reward. The illogical extension of this is an expectation that work like caring for the old and sick, educating children and tackling the consequences of poverty be done for comparatively low pay or no pay at all.

In my fair-pay utopia there would be pension packages for service industry professionals that take into account muscle strain from years of fake smiling. There would also be a David Brent Weighting to incentivise workers who have to put up with a particularly loathsome manager. One like Terry Dunn, who signed off an email about staff redundancies at Wigan council with an account of his upcoming holiday.

However, in lieu of a master formula that encompasses all such variables across all industries, we could settle instead for transparency on pay ratios. Monitoring the difference between the lowest paid and the highest paid in any organisation is a much more meaningful way to root out unfair pay practices than publicising salary figures without context.

According to the High Pay Centre, in the decade since I hung up my chugging tabard for good, the pay of a chief executive in a UK FTSE 100 company has risen from about 40 times the average worker salary to 185 times. How could the labour of any individual, however competent, be 185 times more valuable than the labour of another?

Presumably there is an answer to that question, it's just that it's a bit above my pay grade.

Daft move, punks

In the arse-licky world of celebrity booking, it's not the done thing to call artists out on their bad manners. You just leave the rider at dressing room door and mumble something obsequious as you back away. So when the French synthpop duo Daft Punk ditched an appearance on The Colbert Report at the last minute, to hang out with their fancy friends at the MTV Video Music Awards, they may reasonably have expected to be protected by this code of silence. What they didn't count on was a snubbed host with a secret weapon.

Liberated by his fuddy-duddy conservative persona, Stephen Colbert is under no obligation to suck up to the cool kids. In place of Daft Punk's performance, he issued the band, MTV and their shared parent company Viacom with a very public dressing down, before embarking on what's best described as a dad-dance odyssey to Daft Punk's hit "Get Lucky".

Remember kids, all the number one records, supermodel girlfriends and Gallic sang-froid in the world count for nothing if you forget the true essence of cutting edge cool: always turn up for your appointments on time.

How to win post-racial friends

Some of my very dearest friends are revolting racist bigots, so you can be assured I speak without prejudice when I say that boasting of a relationship with an ethnic minority doesn't automatically render you incapable of racism. Last week, the Ukip MEP Godfrey "Bongo Bongo Land" Bloom gave us an exquisitely obtuse spin on this nonsense defence when he presented his two Kashmiri staff as conclusive evidence that he couldn't possibly be racist.

Well that's all right for Godfrey, then. But what of those nine out of 10 Britons who, as revealed by a survey this week, don't have a best friend from a different ethnic background? If this is you, don't panic. For a start, a doubling in the number of mixed race people suggests that integration is happening, even if it isn't apparent according to this narrow measurement. You could also always try not dismissing entire continents of people with a lazy colonial stereotype. This is not the ultimate post-racial panacea, but it is a step in the right direction.

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