12:53, December 11 213 0 theguardian.com

2018-12-11 12:53:07
In Britain, the hi-vis bib has become a badge of shame

I don’t know the significance of the gilet jaune (yellow vest) in the French riots, and, if I did, it would no longer be relevant: once you start setting fire to stuff, meaning moves on.

But it’s hard to imagine a hi-vis movement in the UK: the defining feature of people in fluorescent jackets is that they look busy. It has always been the workwear of the ignored. It’s a plot device in a heist caper: you can walk anywhere in hi-vis and nobody will ask you what your business is because everyone assumes you must have one. I’m probably misremembering the olden days, but I’m sure that once this was just because you were assumed to be fixing something. The uniform may have been pared-down, unadorned, but it was quite high-status: nobody would ever let you loose on some traffic lights or a pipe unless you knew how to mend them. It was like a cape of authority.

I had never given a lot of thought to the invisibility – whether to read it as respect or just rudeness – until two years ago, when I got a dog with a hi-vis fetish. I had pelted, screaming, into several building sites to remove the dog from inside someone’s trousers before I realised that was what set him off. I looked like a cougar who had trained her dog to become this hairy wrecking ball, perhaps as a conversation opener. Some people don’t mind; others do. But everyone is incredibly surprised. Maybe because all camouflage is alienation, or maybe being chased by anything is inherently surprising.

But it woke me up to the social gradations of the neon bib. A decade ago, when community service turned into community payback (a piece of asinine New Labour policymaking linked to a belief there was no social problem that couldn’t be solved by identifying some bad people and making sure everyone knew they were there), the hi-vis bib as badge of shame was born.

The penance – clearing up leaves and condoms in a park – wasn’t quite enough. You had to wear a bright vest saying “community payback” so that passersby could … what? Give you the hard stare? Tut? There are community payback squads out every day. Nobody ever tuts or glares for the simple reason that no decent person ever would. Instead, everyone averts their eyes, embarrassed at the medievalism of the punishment, and the people paying back avert theirs, too, embarrassed at the embarrassment. And so a shame that properly belongs to whatever sick mind dreamed up the vests in the first place instead washes over everyone in the park. Everyone except my dog, who thinks all his Christmases have come at once.

Some time after 2008 – I can’t date it, I only noticed it since the dog – the private sector picked it up. In fancier parks, you see nursery workers padding through dressed in exactly the same hi-vis jackets as the toddlers, except theirs are inscribed: “How’s my caring? Call 0800 something-or-other.” The idea is for passersby to grass them up if they see anything untoward. It’s not the high-trust environment you would want from a nursery – most parents fondly imagine that the staff can already be relied upon, without the threat that the world is their policeman – but it makes a grim kind of sense in the modern work environment, that mix of hypersurveillance and infantilisation.

So, maybe the hi-vis jacket could become a political muster point this side of the Channel. As slogans go, “Don’t write stuff on me; nope, not even your company logo; and while we’re here, I don’t like nylon – it makes my hair go funny,” may lack the solemnity of the earliest phrases of unionisation. But it says something universal about dignity at work.