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Sandwich, Inc.

The noble British sandwich, the snack of earls, the midday dinner of office workers, the after-school treat of hungry munchkins creeping home from their classes, was the subject of furor in Northamptonshire, England the other week. The outcry wasn’t over the sandwiches themselves, nor was it about the joy of eating them, but about who’s making them—and for how much, under what conditions—in the post-crash world of low-wage labor.

The sandwich is absolutely ubiquitous in Britain. I am not talking about hamburgers, po’boys, hoagies, Croques Monsieur or other such greasy and guilty delights. I am talking about what has become the most popular version in the UK, what the trade refers to as “sand-wedges”: seemly squares of soft-crusted bread filled with a protein like chicken or tuna, big wet smears of mayonnaise, and maybe a garnish of lettuce or watercress leaves. The sandwiches are sliced diagonally, packed in cellophane, one wedge atop the other, their insides displayed as if a form of heraldry (colors are very important), and then put on sale in the cooler of a grocery store, café, or kiosk. These noble commodities are what Brits predominantly eat for lunch and midday snacks—over a billion of them are consumed each year.

Of course, the British claim to have invented the sandwich: it was an Earl wot did it. But the sand-wedge, as it appears in its current form, only dates back to 1979, having been invented by accident by the major retailer and food purveyor Marks & Spencer. Sandwiches until then were made fresh, at home or in a food shop, just like in the U.S. Now they would be pre-made, pre-packaged, and lined up on shelves, ready to be snatched up with a soft drink and a packet of crisps, paid for, and, often within a few minutes, out on the sidewalk, consumed.

The growth of the sand-wedge business in Britain, which outlets like the shrewdly named chain Pret a Manger have more recently been bringing to the U.S., correlates with the growth of the fast food business generally—in Britain, and just about everywhere else—since the 1960s. Fast food means many things to many people, but in its most profitable and widespread form, it represents the worldwide industrialization of the meal—both in the way it is made and in the way it is eaten. George Ritzer famously called the new meal a species of McDonaldization: the meal produced and consumed on a world-wide scale to suit the economically objective demands of efficiency, calculability, predictability and bureaucratic control (rather than such non-economic and subjective demands as taste, conviviality, repose and tradition).

There is irony in this: in the West, the meal was industrialized just as most advanced economies were undergoing de-industrialization. And in the sand-wedge and similar items, whatever one might think of the food itself, the process reaches Taylorist perfection. In a McDonald’s there are cooks and servers, face to face with customers. In a Subway there is actually a sandwich-maker cum-host. There is room for error, social interaction, and time inefficiency. In a pre-packaged sand-wedge operation, however, the sandwich comes already made, sealed, and stamped with a date and a price. (Pret a Manger boasts that their sandwiches are made on site, though out of sight; at a British retailer like Marks & Spencer, they have more likely traveled from a factory many miles away.) One has no more connection with the person who made one’s sandwich than one has with the robot who assembled one’s flat-screen TV.

In fact, like other fast food operations, the sand-wedge business has played a significant role in the re-proletarianization of the British workforce. The sand-wedge must be cheap. Savings must be made at the expense of the workforce. There will never be millionaire burger-flippers. And sand-wedge workers are frequently at the very bottom.

The recent outcry in Northamptonshire came when it was discovered that one of the mightiest sandwich makers of them all, the shrewdly named Greencore Group, was recruiting workers from Hungary to work in one of its local facilities. The Hungarians would receive the British minimum wage of £6.50 an hour (about $10), and eventually some bonus money for working in the chilly conditions of what is in effect a giant refrigerator outfitted with sandwich-making assembly lines.

The press highlighted three of the main problems with this scenario. The first was that sandwich-making in a factory is terrible work, with long hours, poor (cold) conditions, and low pay. The second was that there were some 8,000 local jobless British workers in the area. So why hire Hungarians? But an even greater problem was maybe the fact that Greencore was using British job-creation subsidies to hire those Hungarian workers.

With this third problem, we arrive at the curious intersection between neoliberal economics, wage stagnation, and anti-immigration sentiment in Europe. The industrialization of the modern diet, which brings what appears to be widespread social benefits in the form of cheap calories, creates a proletarianized workforce, many of whom themselves will be consumers of cheap industrialized food. But a proletarianized workforce is also vulnerable to pressures from workers in poorer countries who are already even more proletarianized, and hence more eager to work for low wages in poor conditions.

One thing more: because the Hungarians arriving in the UK will not be earning enough to actually live on, and are European Union citizens, they will be eligible for a variety of government benefits, including subsidies for housing. In other words, even when the workers are imported from abroad, the British government will subsidize multi-national corporations—first by granting job creation tax relief and second by providing economic assistance to their hapless low-wage workers.

The vicious cycle begins with good intentions: the welfare state intervenes to create jobs and subsidize workers. But those good intentions intersect with corporate greed (Greencore took in $2 billion last year), the industrialization of everyday life, the proletarianization of the global workforce, and Europe’s relatively open borders. The borders are open for many reasons, most of which are admirable; but one of them is the EU’s ruling neoliberal economic doctrine, which openly requires a “flexible” workforce–that is, one composed of proletarians who are willing to leave their families and friends, cross the border, and labor in a refrigerator, if that’s where the money is.

The fallout from the degradation of both wages and work in Europe is, in some circles, increased anti-capitalist sentiment. But even more on the rise, unfortunately, is anti-immigration sentiment—as if it were the immigrants and not the sandwiches to blame.