Deborah Orr: This drama at Heathrow illustrates so much that is wrong with our world

The dispute is about free food we pick at on our cheap flight until a servant throws it away for us
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The Independent Online

On the surface, of course, the dispute was involved with air travel, which by coincidence happens to be the single most significant way in which individual behaviour damages the planet as it hurtles towards catastrophe. On this occasion, like pretty much all the others that flit across the headlines, those regarding the grounding of airlines as a good and desirable thing were considered to be cranks, curmudgeons, killjoys and nimbys.

We know air travel has to be curbed or rationed, and that users must start paying for the despoliation they cause. But even environmentalists often carry on regardless, vouchsafing that individual responsibility cannot change things and that instead the Government (or nanny state) must take responsibility for our actions because we, for some reason, cannot.

Yet the dispute wasn't even about such weighty matters - not directly anyway. The dispute was about the free food we want to eat on our cheap flight, or rather, to pick at listlessly, complaining about how awful it is, until eventually a servant comes to throw it away for us. In other words, it was about how spoilt we are, and how keen we are to have our whims serviced.

Then there are the economics. We know in our hearts that our flights and our mile-high food are luxuries. But we all want luxuries nowadays that we can afford. Air travel is tremendously cheap now, as the man who is chairman of Ryanair can tell you. He is also a founder of the American private equity group that owns Gate Gourmet, the company that precipitated the crisis by treating its workers appallingly.

So in case you're worried that poor old Gate is being asked to perform miracles, bear in mind that the people involved in providing the low-cost food to British Airways are also involved in creating the demand by ratcheting down the costs at their own cut-price travel companies. The chap in question, David Bonderman, by the way, has a personal fortune estimated at £6bn.

Not that this is the only conflict of interest in the Gate Gourmet "family". Eric Born, who runs the British operation, also owns Versa Logistics, the employment agency he set up especially to recruit and train the 130 staff who were brought into Gate Gourmet without warning on Wednesday, thus provoking the "unofficial action" for which more than 600 employees were sacked.

Why, you ask, would Gate Gourmet do such a wicked and cynical thing as to sack of 630 workers? One reason may be that cheap as this labour was - mainly middle-aged Sikh women living in nearby Southall - a new labour force has come on stream that is even more willing to accept low wages than these immigrant workers. According to their leaked blueprint, Gate Gourmet's former management so wanted to replace the Asian ladies with people from eastern Europe that it was even willing to provide accommodation (God knows of what standard) to tempt them here. With the fortune they'd be saving in redundancy pay, they'd be laughing.

So why did it all go wrong? The Gate Gourmet people didn't imagine for a second that people employed directly by British Airways would take illegal secondary action, and come out in sympathy for the Gate Gourmet workers. If they hadn't done that, we'd be none the wiser about any of this. That's usually the great advantage (to employers) of outsourcing. The workers are divided, because those essential workers on a staff doing the most unpleasant and menial jobs are pretty much always outsourced now, a hidden army of people with whom the front-of-house staff has no contact at all.

Interestingly, that's what's different at Heathrow. A 24-hour culture, serving planes that are self-sufficient mini-worlds, it doesn't have the night-day, them-us, never-the-twain culture that has developed in so many large companies. Heathrow workers are low-paid but highly unionised. If this seems like a contradiction, the fact is that unions have given up promising their members that they can secure higher wages for them. It is all about conditions now, and especially about job security.

The low-pay culture in Britain - and we boast the longest, lowest-paid hours in Europe - is so entrenched now that no organisation can do anything about it. Even the Government has forgotten about the low-pay unit, and instead its supposedly socialist Chancellor simply tinkers around with tax credits, subsidising the low pay offered by private, foreign billionaires with tax-payers' money.

There's a lot more to say on the economics. Bringing in more and more migrants on lower and lower wages keeps inflation down and keeps the economy booming. It also keeps pressure on the housing market so that inflation in that sector is rampant, so those of us with property keep getting richer and richer even when our wages are not going up (wages inflation being held down by low pay as well).

But it's the human cost that is most distressing. The nation was horrified when 23 Chinese cockle pickers were killed in Morecambe Bay last February, and were revealed to have been earning pennies, employed by gangmasters of cruel inhumanity undreamt of by Dickens. But actually, the new laws that were rushed in after the tragedy have failed to stop the abuses. The lack of social cohesion that such disparity of wealth causes, both in Britain and around the world, is as catastrophic as global warming. Yet this savage disparity is the runaway motor that drives so ruthlessly the neo-liberal economic miracle.

And it doesn't stop there. Somehow, liberals have to start biting on the idea that their contemptuous dismissals of groups like Migration Watch which lobby for Britain to close its borders are not enough. The liberal argument in favour of economic migration (and our Government's) is that it is good for the economy. And it is, for all of the ugly reasons cited above. Liberals must accept too that many of the individuals whose right to be here we defend, are being miserably exploited.

Is it too apocalyptic to mention that the "clean skins" who shocked Britain by turning suicide bomber came from a community that a couple of generations ago were brought here as "economic migrants", then left high and dry when the cotton mills closed?

I don't think so. I don't want to live in a gated community, or in a gated country. But until we realise that a decent world can't be built on a hierarchy of neo-liberal exploitation, and that we can't have everything unless someone else has nothing, we'll be heading in that direction until the end of the human's days on this earth.