Prepay meter scandal reveals workers being slowly crushed by energy debt

Workers who can’t afford crippling energy prices are being forced to pay even higher rates by the vulture providers.

Proletarian writers

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The systematic tax on poverty that has always been a feature of the capitalist system is becoming more glaring and obscene as rising numbers of workers who cannot afford to heat or power their homes find themselves being charged premium rates for the privilege of accessing what little energy they can.

Proletarian writers

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Soaring energy costs, rapidly escalating food prices, the doubling of fuel prices at the pumps since 2006 and more are all steadily eroding the purchasing power of Britain’s stagnant wage packets and further immiserating the workers, with many now facing impossible choices between feeding themselves and their families, turning the heating on to hold back the cold and damp, and powering their homes.

With many workers choosing food, rent and transport to work as the most pressing needs to be met, an increasing number of households are falling into debt with their energy providers. When this happens, the standard practice of these profiteers is to force workers to switch from monthly or quarterly bills to ‘pas as you go’ meters.

They try to hide this vicious practice behind patronisingly ‘altruistic’ phrases about ‘helping their customers (read poor workers) to manage their finances’ – the unanswerable logic being that if you have to pay in advance, you will never accidentally use what you can’t afford.

Of course, this is fooling no one. But it is hardly surprising that, within a system where profit is the sole motivator for all economic activity, an energy business should put its profit margins ahead of the people’s need for heating and power.

Clearly, with prices continuing to rise and wages continuing to stagnate, the energy monopolies know well that the best way to insulate themselves from inevitable defaults is to make sure that the problem is passed to the worker at the first sign of difficulty.

Even better (for the companies concerned): in homes where customers have already been persuaded to instal ‘smart meters’, their energy provider can arbitrarily and instantaneously switch them from monthly bills to prepay mode without notice, justification or appeal, saving the expense and embarrassment of having to employ bailiffs to instal such meters by force. A perfect example of business efficiency!

Profiting from our misery

But, heartless as capital is in making these decisions and turning its back on the sufferings of those from whom it profits, the story doesn’t stop there.

Because those who use a prepay meter pay significantly more per unit of energy. According to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, paying via a meter could lead to an average increase of £258 a year as compared with paying by direct debit – another tax on the poorest in our society, and a guarantee that they will get even less of the energy they need.

With another 450,000 households expected to be switched to prepay over the coming months, bringing the total to four million, this amounts to extra payments of £4bn – a huge increase in income for the monopolies once again being sucked out of the poorest strata of workers.

Since workers can’t afford energy, they can’t feed the meter, and their energy is subsequently cut off. The energy industry has coined a marvellously arms-length term for this barbaric occurrence: ‘self-disconnection’ – thus neatly hiding the violent reality that families are being forcibly denied a basic necessity. According to the Citizens Advice Bureau, more than two million people are being disconnected at least once a month.

Once again, we see how monopoly corporations, whose wealth and power is built on the social productive activity of workers, force those same workers to pay the price of capitalism’s failures.

The real costs

The prepay data paint a stark image of worsening conditions for Britain’s workers, but figures aren’t people, and it’s easy to underestimate or gloss over the real-life consequences.

Losing heating isn’t as simple as just ‘putting on a jumper’, there are manifold problems that come with lowering the temperature of your home. At a temperature of 18C or lower, the blood thickens – and this thickening increases as the temperature drops, leading to increased risk of pulmonary and cardiac issues.

In fact, there are a whole host of negative effects on the body as a person’s environment cools, so just why are workers in a highly-developed country like Britain having to concentrate on wild and wonderful ways to stay warm, cutting more and more into our diminishing ‘free’ time in the process?

All this takes a particularly high toll on workers who aren’t well to begin with. Symptoms associated with chronic issues such as rheumatoid arthritis, MS and ME, to name just three, all increase in prevalence and severity with prolonged exposure to cold. Gemma Carter, who suffers from arthritis, spondylosis and sciatica, told the Metro that when she’s cold “it feels like your bones are being crushed from the inside”.

People die when it is cold. The excess winter mortality index (EWMI) for the 2020/1 period showed that over 30 percent more deaths occurred in the winter months in England and Wales compared with the non-winter months. That was a period when heating and eating was more affordable than it is now. Many more people will die this winter.

Calls for change

These are just some of the immediate, terrifying and deadly outcomes of a system that only produces goods and services for sale rather than to ensure the wellbeing of the people. Workers must push back against them these depredations here and now; without a serious movement of resistance, death and destitution will be the result of the capitalist crisis for many thousands of workers.

Movements like Enough is Enough and Don’t Pay UK have gained some support across Britain, and their demands including pay rises, cutting energy bills, ending food poverty, decent homes and increasing taxes on the incomes and wealth of the rich. If achieved, these measures would make a short-term concrete improvement in workers’ living standards.

Such demands, while moving us a step in the right direction, concentrate purely on increasing the proportion of the wealth created by our collective labour with which workers are compensated (as opposed to the proportion that goes in profits to the capitalists).

Exploitation itself remains. And, of course, even if granted, such concessions can also be removed in the future when our rulers feel the balance of forces to be more favourable to their interests – either openly or in countless gradual and more or less hidden ways.

Thus this is a quantitative change only, one that leaves the current relations between the workers and the owners of production intact – and allows for the same problems to recur again in the future.

The Don’t Pay UK campaign goes further, demanding that the energy companies, among others, should be brought into public ownership: “The solution cannot be found in more corporate monitoring, control and profiteering, but instead the answer is to take back control of our resources from the private corporations, invest in them properly, and run these public resources for the common good.”

This implies a qualitative change, since the ownership of the means of production in one sector would shift from control by a few individual capitalists to control by the British state.

But this too falls short of what is really needed. The British state is a capitalist one, it is the organisation of the dictatorship of the capitalist class. Public ownership under such a system, run through with a thousand threads of capitalist control, can never truly serve the workers’ long-term interests, and often only lasts for a short while – most usually until the public has paid to rescue service from indebtedness and to invest in infrastructure that the profiteers are reluctant to pay for.

Meanwhile, our own experience of nationalised services in the postwar era was that they tended to be perpetually underfunded, as British Rail and Royal Mail both notoriously were, for instance. In part, this was owing to our rulers’ aversity to putting too much public money into activities that yielded no profit, and in part it was owing to their need to create a bad reputation for these essential services, manufacturing ‘crises’ that were claimed to be the result of state ownership (rather than of underfunding) and which could allegedly only be ‘solved’ by reprivatisation (‘market efficiencies’).

True change

The way to get out of the endless cycles of crisis and the forcing down of workers’ living standards is for all production (including energy) to be owned not by a capitalist state, but by a workers’ state, a proletarian state that is run, maintained, planned and expanded by the working class in accordance with plans they themselves draw up for the benefit of the mass of the people.

Without the parasitic drain of profits being constantly extracted, which increases costs and takes away surplus that could be used to raise the pay and conditions of the workforce and invest in improving and developing these industries, we could guarantee access to life’s necessities through a truly qualitative change – a change from capitalist ownership and production to a planned socialist economy; from capitalist inhumanity to socialist sanity.