The boss got everyone to reveal their salaries – and the company might never get over it
There are some programmes that make you bless the internet – sometimes because you are viewing online at a time of your choosing, sometimes because of the oceans of information available to you at the click of a mouse to further and deepen an interest suddenly stimulated. But last night I exalted it for its simple gift to the world of the abbreviation “WTF?”: I estimate that this saved me at least 17 minutes of note-taking time during Show Me Your Money (Channel 4).
This was the tale of Pimlico Plumbers, founded, owned and run by Charlie Mullins, a man with a sparrow strut and disturbing hair atop an even more fearsome head for business. His company has no formal pay structure (“It’s always been – ‘You look like you’re working hard, have a few more quid. You look like a lazy bastard … ‘”) so Charlie invites his employees to disclose their salaries to each other so that he can even out discrepancies by asking those who earn more to take a pay cut to finance raises for their colleagues.
WTF? say my notes. WTF?
The newest recruit (the only man on the switchboard, it seems, though this isn’t mentioned on screen) to the plumbers’ call centreis found to be on £21,000, £3,000 more than the five female employees who were there before him. They must therefore ask/beg the plumbers – who earn up to £150,000 a year each – to make up the £15,000 shortfall. Mechanic Mark discovers he earns £31,000 to his friend John’s £40,000, despite doing virtually the same job. And then there’s canteen worker Tina, whose salary leaves her a disposable income of around £5 a week. It is deemed – possibly by Charlie, more likely by the programme makers who can sense a telegenic conflict a mile off – that Karl (a manager on £56,000 who has applied for a £19,000 rise) should give up £1,000 a year to help her.
It raises and ignores so many questions about the value of skilled and unskilled labour and of transparency, the necessity of minimum wage and other equality legislation, the invulnerability of bosses (and their sons – Scott Mullins, heir apparent, is on £120,000 for his management job. “Dad’s company – get off my case” is his only comment) compared to those low down the totem pole, and the failures and successes of free market capitalism, – here writ small in a single company but none the less potent for that – that all you could do in the end was throw your hands up in the air and cry: “WTF?” to the heedless skies. And that’s before you delved into the ethics of setting colleague against colleague and creating the kind of poisonous atmosphere it was hard to imagine would ever fully disperse, even after the redistribution of everyone’s – except Charlie’s – wealth. The boss did in the end agree to match whatever the employees gave (though he didn’t seem to count the £31,000 of business savings the mechanics came up with as an alternative to sacrificing their salaries). But nobody pointed out that in percentage terms this would be a nugatory amount of his £1m annual income, if indeed it came from his income at all.
The thinking – if there was any – behind the experiment was never properly explained. Did somebody, somewhere, have a theory about humanity’s instinct for cooperation, and towards egalitarianism giving rise to the best of all possible pay grades? Was it a look at how money or financial inequality affects human relations? Was it a new twist on the reality show bearbaiting formula, or just a brilliant opportunity for some free publicity for Pimlico Plumbers? Answers on a postcard of Karl Marx to the usual address, please.
The Town That Never Retired (BBC1), the latest programme in the BBC’s season of programmes examining old age, was almost as woolly in its thinking and execution as Show Me Your Money, but less profoundly annoying. Presented by The Apprentice’s Nick Hewer (68) and his former sidekick Margaret Mountford (60), it aimed to investigate the potential problems involved in asking people to work into their late 60s and beyond by sending 15 people back to work after 10 or more years of retirement.
This, of course, is very different from continuing to work into your old age, but nobody mentioned that. Sheila, a nurse, naturally struggled – with the computers, and with the 10 years of updated medical guidelines she was missing; others didn’t like being busted down to new boy (which, again, presumably wouldn’t happen if they had been in continuous employ) and for every non-blinding insight (grandparents often provide care for children without which working-age parents couldn’t enter the marketplace, for example) there were a thousand unanswered questions and unacknowledged holes beneath the waterline. If this had been submitted as one of an Apprentice team’s tasks, Margaret would have given it one of her Looks and rightly so.