Think North

Austerity, women & health inequalities

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Sports Direct is sneaking into Ireland: this is bad for us all

Cycling down Talbot Street a couple of weeks ago I saw something that all but made my heart stop: the banners, the scaffolding, the insidious signs of something very bad, very quietly creeping into a place it does not belong in. Like a thief in the night, Sports Direct is coming to town. And the prospect is dire.


A few facts about Sports Direct:

  • Sports Direct and Mike Ashley have been subject to a Parliamentary Enquiry. The findings, which you can read here, were condemnatory to say the least.
  • Sport’s Direct’s warehouse in Shirebrook has been likened to a ‘Victorian warehouse’ where some staff are effectively paid less than minimum wage.
  • Staff at the warehouse who took maternity leave were put onto zero hours contracts after returning (source).
  • 90% of Sports Direct’s staff in the UK are on part-time zero hours contracts (source).
  • Direct quote from Parliamentary Enquiry:

    Workers at Sports Direct were not being paid the national minimum wage, and were being penalised for matters such as taking a short break to drink water and for taking time off work when ill. Some say they were promised permanent contracts in exchange for sexual favours. Serious health and safety breaches also seem to have occurred. For this to occur in the UK in 2016 is a serious indictment of the management at Sports Direct.

What Sports Direct is doing in the UK (owing to the liberalisation of the labour market):

In the town that I am doing my PhD research in, Stockon-on-Tees, Sports Direct is nestled above the Debenhams department store in the town centre. There, you can get cut-price Slazenger, Dunlop, Lonsdale and Karrimor goods. But don’t be fooled, you’re not getting as good as deal as you would like to think; Mike Ashley’s company bought these brands long ago, they have long since been destined for the bargain bin of retail history. Stockton has a high enough rate of unemployment-7.1%, compared to 7.5% for the rest of the North East, quite a contrast to Great Britain’s average of 5.1% (Stats from Nomis). Sports Direct, like other retail and hospitality businesses (think Weatherspoons, Iceland, Topshop or WHSmith) in high streets like Stockton, represent one of a shrinking number of employment prospects for workers.

This unemployment figure is a bit deceptive, though. Post-recession, the seeming fall in unemployment  rates has been due to a huge rise in the numbers of those in self employment, those ‘underemployed’, on zero hour contracts, casual contracts and temporary employment. The gendered dynamics of this are endemic, women are the disproportionate bearers of these types of work, but that’s for another day. Low pay is an obvious consequence of this insecure work (stats and graphs from TUC blog).

Something toxic is taking place in the UK labour market (as well as in the welfare state, with austerity’s kiss of death welfare reforms). Outside the City of London’s financial services hub and other large cities, low-paid work, insecure self employment and casual contracts represent some of the only solutions for growing numbers of people-4.5 workers, and their families, in England and Wales (source).

This is a direct and deliberate consequence of thirty years of neoliberal policy-making. It isn’t accidental, it isn’t a natural consequence of an efficient ‘free market’, or progress; it’s politicians serving the interests of their rich mates, and large multi-nationals and billionaire CEOs lining their pockets, at the expense of ordinary workers, those who actually comprise that abstract thing we call ‘the labour market’, men and women who still have to feed their families, heat their houses and buy school uniforms.

But we’re in Ireland, so who cares?

I care, and you should care too.

Companies like Sports Direct are the epitome of bad employment practices. While it’s easy enough to point at your teenage son’s zero hour summer job or a mum with kids at school’s part-time work and say ‘look at them, they’re doing great’, the reality is more complex. Casual labour, with it low-pay, insecurity and a lack of additional entitlements such as pension and holiday and sick pay, is on the rise in Ireland, as this report from TASC demonstrates. It lowers the bar for all of us, lowers the standards of what we expect as normal, denigrates the value of decent pay and good working conditions.

The often rolled out example, of very young workers and some mothers, who only seek and are available for very part-time work, is only a small proportion of those who are underemployed and in low-paid, insecure work. The progress we saw during the last century, the rise in living standards and gain in years of healthy life, were no accident. They were a consequence of things like the welfare state, the introduction of universal healthcare (the NHS is something we should look to as inspiration in Ireland, with our two-tier dysfunctional healthcare model) and, of huge significance, the battles fought by Unions, by workers themselves, to guarantee minimum wages, decent working conditions, and unemployment insurance. I’m not being idealistic here, these used to be obvious, common-sense things.

We seem to have forgotten how important those things were, and what work was like before we had them to take for granted. Sports Direct opening in Ireland is a really unfortunate and sad thing. It represents a threat to workers’ rights and the value we place on quality employment that affords a decent wage.

So, I suppose the question is: what do we do about it?





Austerity & Welfare Reform in UK Reading List

This is a reading list for those interested in welfare reform and austerity in the UK. If you would like to add something to the list, or want advice on how to access something, drop me a line (

My PhD is part of the project Local Health Inequalities in an Age of Austerity: The Stockton-on-Tees study (

Here is a list of publications from the study thus far:

Women and austerity/welfare reform:

From Women’s Budget Group (

From Scottish Women’s Budget Group:

Geographies of recession and austerity

Welfare sanctions and welfare conditionality

Child poverty

Lived experience of welfare reform

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‘Truth about aggressive city centre begging revealed’: an open letter to Newcastle council with Stephen Crossley

We were interested to read your recent Cabinet update story ‘revealing’ the ‘truth about aggressive city centre begging’ (Cabinet update November 2015). The story included quotes that suggested begging on the streets or being homeless was a potentially lucrative ‘lifestyle choice’ that people had rationally and deliberately chosen. For example, Cllr. Nick Kemp stated that:

‘We don’t have a homelessness problem in Newcastle. The council and voluntary sector have hundreds of beds which means there’s really no need to be on the street’.

Superintendent Bruce Storey went on to say:

People assume that the person who is begging is using the money for hot food, a drink and a roof over their heads – this just isn’t the case. People who we’ve identified as problem beggars in the city, and it tends to be the same few, have home addresses and are coming into the city to make easy cash. Those that genuinely do need help and support are being given it by the city council and other agencies and we want those people to know that there is no need to beg and that the help is there for them

We would like to take this opportunity to share a story which will hopefully counteract this perspective, and help to illuminate the wider context.

Amy had an encounter with a pregnant woman sitting on Northumberland Street a few weeks ago. Her name is Sarah, and, at 24 weeks pregnant we are sure that sitting on a cold street in winter isn’t a choice she is willingly making. But the paths our lives take us on are often difficult, we don’t always do things that are in our best interests, and it’s sometimes hard to justify the choices we make.

Sarah told Amy that the only housing option the council could provide her with was temporary hostel accommodation, which was, in her words, full of drug users. There could be any number of reasons why she doesn’t want to stay in that environment, and we doubt those on the council would choose that living arrangement either, we know we wouldn’t. We could choose to believe she is lying of course, but that isn’t helpful or practical.

Unfortunately, there was no room for nuance or perspective in your story, or the coverage it received on the front pages of the Evening Chronicle ( The stigmatising depiction of vulnerable and disadvantaged people as being criminal, manipulative and deviant is extremely disappointing.

Newcastle City Council has been very quick to highlight the detrimental impact of government cuts on the services it provides. It is unfortunate that the same council does not recognise that austerity measures can affect individuals, many of whom will rely on those services that have been cut. It is one thing to see Conservative politicians portraying poor people as ‘scroungers’ and ‘fraudsters’ to justify cuts and ‘reforms’ to the welfare state. It is quite another thing to hear Labour politicians echoing and even extending this rhetoric to an even more marginalised group.

The argument that beds are readily available and support available for those that need it belies the difficult reality of accessing appropriate services. A single conversation with a young pregnant mother showed a very different perspective, from someone who wanted to access services, but couldn’t. Or perhaps her story, and indeed her ‘pregnancy’ were just part of an elaborate organised crime scam?

If the city council really wanted to ‘inform’ residents ‘about what is really going on’, as Cllr. Kemp suggested, they could instead have highlighted the complex and often difficult choices people must make, often against their own better judgement. In our own experiences, we have never been led to believe that people we see begging, living rough or in temporary accommodation were there as a result of their ‘lifestyle choices’.

We believe that individual lives and choices are embedded within a broader cultural and structural framework. The council would be better served to highlight the impact of austerity cuts on individuals as well as on local council budgets, social housing, disability and job seeker payments, and community support services, than emphasise ‘individualised’ lifestyle ‘choices’ which only further stigmatise people living in difficult circumstances. We believe your ‘No Need to Beg’ campaign is misguided, misinformed, and a huge shame.

***The above is an open letter to Newcastle City Council from myself and a colleague, Stephen Crossley. We were both surprised by the stance adopted by the city council in a recent update to residents. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be a localised response  as other councils are also adopting similar approaches, with Leeds proposing a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ campaign, Manchester having banned homeless people from using the toilets in their library and Newport proposing banning rough sleepers altogether.***

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It’s important to share

I’ve realised something lately. People are essentially good, and people essentially want to help. I sent out a simple email requesting santitary items for women without, and received enough to fill two car boots. People are really very, very kind, if you just give us a chance.

During the course of my fieldwork in Stockton-on-Tees, I became aware of a need within the community through one of the organisations providing crucial support in Stockton:

‘Catalyst, SSNP and SRCGA accepting donations for Asylum Seekers in Stockton. This morning we had a meeting in which we discovered that Asylum Seekers in Stockton and Middlesbrough are in desperate need of sanitary products. Toothpaste, toothbrushes, toilet paper, nappies and, perhaps most disturbing of all, women are using newspaper for sanitary towels as they cannot afford to buy them on their own.

In light of this, we are seeking donations to better the lives of Asylum Seekers and their families over the coming winter months.’

Not wanting to be simply a ‘detached researcher’, I sent out an email to the postgraduate mailing list of the geography department at Durham. Within the hour I started receiving emails with promises of goods, and before long my desk and the space around my desk was covered with bags. The messages were circulated to other departments, staff and students, and I was beyond impressed with the sheer quantity of female hygiene products, baby products and cosmetics that were donated.

Myself and Kate (also working on the Health Inequalities project) drove out to Stockton last week to drop off the donation along with some gratefully received cash donations. Already, I have several more promises of donations, as well as the area around my desk filled up with bags. The generosity of so many people has really impressed upon me the desire people have to help, and the importance of creating opportunities like this.


Just look at all these bags, carefully purchased and given by so many caring people!

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‘There’s no such thing as class in Ireland’

The author of this article doesn’t do much in the way of condemning the rape of a then-15 year old by five young men. Instead, she describes the court setting; the young men were well dressed, they were certainly not from bad homes. Will the young men be tried in the District or Circuit Court? Whichever will provide the shortest sentence, probably. Either way, they will be remanded on bail until next year. The fifth accused was excused from yesterday’s hearing. So far, so descriptive. We’ve seen it all before.

The main problem isn’t the troublingly descriptive nature with which the serial rape of an under-age woman is drawn into the piece. Although this is, of course, a problem. The real issue is the judgemental and classist tone when describing the ‘kinds of people’ who usually frequent courts. In Ireland, we have this hypocritical attitude to so many things. When it comes to class, we are utterly exceptionalist. We act as if class doesn’t exist, because we don’t have the same overt class gradient as exists in other countries, we are a more homogeneous population generally, and in many ways our identities are drawn along different boundaries than ‘class’. But that doesn’t mean class doesn’t exist, and ignoring it does us all a disservice.

Why does this journalist dedicate so much space to juxtaposing the crimes of 5 men from an ‘upmarket South Dublin suburb’, to the type of young people that we are supposed to be believe belong within the criminal justice system? Why the need to mention the tracksuits, the absent parents, time spent in care? If this were an article about the UK there would be any number of tropes with which to depict these young men, chavs being the most prominent. But we lack the vocabulary with which to critically engage with what class means in Irish society.

To cite another example, I read an article a few months ago that made me feel uncomfortable on many levels []. It justified piss-taking as our ‘national pass time’, failing to acknowledge that the piss-taking in this example is at the expense of some Dublin women’s working class culture. The project the article is based on is defensible, apparently, because the illustrator in question comes originally from Coolock.

In Ireland, in academia, the media, in political and social life, we claim that class doesn’t exist. We’re all equal. Ireland, Land of the Flat Hierarchy. Where the Taoiseach went to your old school and you vote for your neighbour in the elections because he’s gas craic. We’re only taking the piss, and nothing you say when you’re taking the piss is meant literally. As a nation, we would prefer to put our fingers in our ears and go ‘na na na, doesn’t count’. But I’m sorry, it does count, and it’s making hypocrites of us all.

*Do you have any thoughts on the above? Please post a comment or Tweet @amygmurphy!*

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Reality Bites

Earlier on I chatted to a young woman sat outside Pret in Newcastle. 24 weeks pregnant, the only housing the council can provide is temporary hostel accommodation which she said is full of drug users. I don’t know where we went wrong in the calculation of what constitutes being a wealthy nation but I don’t think leaving vulnerable women homeless is a part of this. We should have a long hard look at ourselves and who our states really benefit. It makes me beyond sad and angry.

 I posted the above on Facebook earlier. Here name is Sarah, and I bought her a sandwich, a coffee and a chocolate bar and then talked to hear with tears in my eyes. I felt like a total phoney. What right did I have,  with my stupid smartphone resting casually in my hand and all the great things in my life, to ask her how she was feeling?

How could I even look her in the eye, tell her how sorry I was, that I’m so sorry it worked out this way and that I hope things end up ok for her and that her baby is ok? What kind of a place do we live in where Sarah has to sit on the cold concrete in one of the wealthiest countries in the world when all around her people talk on their iPhones, commit tax evasion, drink £5 coffees and say that poverty doesn’t really exist here, not in the same way that it does in…somewhere else.

On my way home I went into Waitrose, as I like to do with I am in Newcastle. I browsed for a long time looking for deals and I purchased some white vinegar to clean the plug, a bag of coffee and some hypoallergenic non-scented laundry detergent. Why do I get to make these choices?

What could I say to a woman who is in so many ways similar to me, but has none of the really astounding opportunities that I do, at least not right now when it matters, for her and her baby?  I didn’t know what to say, so I asked her about herself, we talked some shit about the police, and then I said goodbye. There is nothing I could say to her, because we live in a society that doesn’t care about her, will maybe take her child into care, and convince her that she’s a bad mother for smoking because it’s harmful for the baby’s health.

There was nothing I could say. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be really angry about it.

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NE Consultation on Right to Food: 17th November 2015 Durham.

Myself and some of the women from an organisation in Stockton I do fieldwork with attended an event on the right to food on Tuesday 17th November.

This event was held as part of 4 events around UK, working towards building a ‘food justice’ movement.

Inspired by the UN convention on social, economic and cultural rights which says that the government has a legal obligation to provide food. UK government signed up to this agreement.

There are 2 million malnourished people in the UK, further 3 million at risk.

Does increase in use of Trussell Trust food banks this year indicate impacts of welfare reform increasing need for food bank use? As the ‘crisis period’ lasts even longer, a 3 day food parcel is no longer enough.

‘Household food poverty’ is an important definition used in the Fabian report on food poverty, as it is more than simply filling your belly today, but hints at long-term insecurities and uncertainties, a risk which doesn’t quite go away.

Fabian Commission on food and poverty:

Open access resource to transforming food networks:

Beyond the foodbank, report on London boroughs:…/london_food_poverty_profile_20…/

Where does the ‘right to food’ and ‘right to income’ overlap in terms of austerity and welfare reform?

Thoughts from the day will go towards compiling a campaign around a food justice network in the UK.