The successes so far and the progress to be made on paying London workers a living wage:
By Liam Finn
A friend of mine is working on a construction site in Malaysia.
He’s on a year abroad from his civil engineering degree, a course he loathes. His stated aim was “to live one or two rungs above the poverty line”.
That changed last week. In his words, he had his “life put into perspective”. Andrew – not his real name – is happy for this story to be published.
I was taking the second of two alternating 12-hour shifts. The work involved sitting under ninety tonnes of concrete blocks and checking dials once an hour for 48 hours. It is dull.
The shift started at 5 am. My alarm was set for 3:30. I had a difficult cycle to work in the dark.
I was feeling sorry for myself.
Abdul, my colleague, had already worked for over twelve hours, setting up the equipment. He would be completing the remainder of the test, and so be working for around fifty hours in total. He was tired but still gave me a warm welcome.
Abdul started chatting.
He told me about his family back in Pakistan. He came to Malaysia to work because he was able to earn more money. This struck me because the pay is so poor here compared to that expected in the UK.
Abdul had to leave his young family in Pakistan. He has three boys aged ten, five, and two. He told me how he works hard here to provide an education and “bright future” for his children. He had considered trying to bring his family to Malaysia but that that would mean them learning and studying in a different language. He feels that it is more important to learn in their first language.
I was inspired by Abdul’s attitude. I told him that the education he is providing for his children and the careers they will obtain will bring will keep him looked after in his old age. He was visibly brimming with pride at the thought.
I asked Abdul how often he goes back to Pakistan. He simply replied “twice”. I assumed that he meant “twice a year” but was embarrassed when he told me he had returned only twice during his five-year stay in Malaysia. This means that he has been absent for almost the entirety of his middle child’s life and his youngest must have been conceived during one of his visits back to Pakistan.
The relative insignificance of my earlier complaints was now striking.
Abdul had unwittingly put into perspective how much I was missing my family after two months and how much I was looking forward to going home for Christmas after just six months. A whole year would be too long.
Abdul made me realise how fortunate I was to be able to afford to go home. I wondered what things he could have bought with the money it would cost for my own flight.
He had made me appreciate that I had received a good standard of education – free of charge. Coincidentally, I received my student loan instalment later that day: a lump sum of money that most people my age in the UK would spend on clothes, a new phone or booking a summer holiday.
Abdul’s story had made me realise how worthless these things actually are.
The unfairness of multinational companies’ tax avoidance and suggestions for the way forward:
Liam’s investigation into the technology and innovation promises made by the Tories and Lib Dems, including green tech:
“Cable announces plans to boost fairness for workers” declared the Government press release this week. It announces Vince’s latest Sweetex to disguise the sour taste of Tory government: a consultation process over zero-hours contracts (ZHCs) and a tasking of the Low Pay Commission to review the National Minimum Wage (NMW).
Widespread support exists for action on both zero-hours contracts and the minimum wage. Whatever benefits ZHCs offer in “flexibility” for small businesses and students can be preserved without multi-national corporations leaving breadwinners wondering whether they can feed their families. Whatever arguments are made of businesses going bust from having to pay workers an extra £1.26 per hour are the same rebutted claims aired against the introduction of NMW in 1998.
Yet potential successes will be insufficient when stacked against the unfairness created for workers by this Government and its predecessors.
First on the list for the Coalition was what should be one of the most basic rights – not to be unfairly dismissed. Last year, it raised the generally-required period of employment from one to two years before employees obtain protection from being unfairly sacked. This returned us to the 1990s, when the European Court of Justice held that the two-year period discriminated against women, being less likely than men to continue in the same employment for such time. The real question is why the fairness of a dismissal depends upon it occurring 729 or 730 days after starting the job.
Not content with that reduction of rights, Cable’s colleagues battled the House of Lords to allow employees to flog their right not to be unfairly dismissed. Employees can now trade their protection for shares in the company for which they work, but only up to a maximum of £50,000 and following a deliberately difficult safeguarding procedure demanded by the Lords. For the vast majority of employees who won’t convert their rights into shares, considerable fees to seek justice in employment tribunals await.
At the end of September, the Government’s latest assault on workers’ rights takes effect, when legislation laying down basic wage and working conditions requirements for agricultural workers ends. The Agricultural Wages Board – the sole survivor of its type – escaped previous Tory designs for its demise. Now farmers can sack and re-hire those workers whose contractual pay was set under the old regime. The Government itself estimates that the Board’s abolition will save £0.8m in administration costs over a decade, compared to the £259m of lost wages it will cause for some of the poorest workers in society.
These measures come on top of an already-weak system of protection for the British labour force.
Our law draws a distinction between “employees” and “workers” – so muddled and inconsistent that there is no agreed definition for what constitutes an “employee” and thus who is entitled to rights ranging from unfair dismissal protection, to continued employment after company takeovers, to payment for redundancy or paternal leave. Our protection for agency workers – who exist in larger numbers in the UK than anywhere in Europe – is restricted to those working for at least three months, and so excludes between one-third to one-half of those who need it. Our notoriously-hostile trade union legislation is designed to make going on strike a minefield of hurdles and pitfalls.
If Vince Cable is truly committed to “measures to inject more fairness into the workforce”, action on zero-hours contracts and the minimum wage is nothing more than the start. A raising of the minimum wage to a living wage would allow employers to enjoy the bureaucracy-free post-Agricultural Wages Board world whilst preventing an increase in poverty. A qualifying period of six months for unfair dismissal protection would meet the fetish for flexibility whilst safeguarding employees. A rebuttable presumption of employee status for a range of workers from cleaners to construction workers would increase certainty and reduce employers’ scope for creating sham arrangements.
Only then can Cable claim the pursuit of fairness for workers.
By Liam Finn
The Government is preparing to launch an attack against Syria – exactly ten years after the UK invited the country to shop for arms in London.
The invitation for Syria to attend the 2003 Defence & Security Equipment International exhibition (DSEi) – an arms fair held every two years at ExCeL in London Docklands – was rejected. Invitees to DSEi 2013 will not be announced until 10 September, the day the fair begins.
DSEi is the world’s largest arms fair, with 1,400 exhibitors from 50 countries. Describing itself as “the must-attend event of 2013”, it hosts sales pitches for military equipment, including tanks, planes, and warships. Countries regularly invited include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt.
The DSEi invitation appears to be just one of a series of potentially reckless acts taken in relation to Syria and arms trading.
Preparations for a military response to last week’s alleged chemical murder of civilians by the Syrian regime come a year after the UK withdrew licences to supply chemicals to Syria. The licences were granted as recently as January 2012, even though the civil war had begun the previous year. Despite arguing that the specific chemicals had “legitimate commercial uses”, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, acknowledged that “they could also be used as precursor chemicals in the manufacture of chemical weapons” instead of their intended use for making aluminium showers and windows.
Parliamentary reports have revealed other exports to Syria authorised by the Government. A licence to export “sporting gun ammunition” was withdrawn having been originally granted despite “pre-existing concerns” about the country. One report details a further seven licences for exports of equipment, including bullet-proof vehicles. The Government insists these are for a UK company, commercial use, or the protection of foreigners and civilians.
Military action against Syria will be the latest in a series of attacks by the UK against a State to which it has previously encouraged or authorised arms exports. Colonel Gaddafi’s regime was encouraged to buy British equipment and invited to attend DSEi before a no-fly zone was implemented above Libya in 2011. The sale of arms to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before the first Gulf War resulted in a huge scandal in the 1990s. British-made ships and helicopters were used by Argentina in the Falklands War.
By Liam Finn
Revelations published this weekend mean it’s time to allow Charles Windsor to stand for Parliament – for the good of the country, the monarchy, and himself.
The Sunday Times has revealed that Mr Windsor has been planting moles in government departments. The newspaper reports that his office was “reluctant to disclose details” of why his employees had been working at the Cabinet Office and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) without ministers’ knowledge.
The news is just the latest example of Charles’ political meddling.
Since the 2010 election, Mr Windsor has held 53 meetings with ministers behind closed doors. An eight-year legal battle has been fought to force release of his letters to government members. A proposed development at Chelsea Barracks was stopped in 2009 after Charles wrote in private to the ruler of Qatar (whose company was in charge of the project) – anyone else would have had to object using the democratic planning system.
Charles is by no means the only member of his family to be politically-active. His brother, Andrew, has also been accused of lobbying, having been forced to step down from his trade ambassador role in 2011. His mother’s opposition to Scottish independence is well-known. The BBC apologised last autumn for having revealed Elizabeth’s involvement in the Abu Hamza row.
As things stand, the only way of avoiding a constitutional crisis is for Charles to stand for election as an MP.
One reason for its “popularity” is the myth that the Windsors are above politics, that they are not politicians. But the more revelations are published about Charles’ interference, the more that people will see that he is a politician – a career lobbyist exercising real power. In theory, we can get rid of ordinary politicians; with Charles, we have no such “privilege”.
Another reason for the monarchy’s survival is the belief that the Windsors have no power. Charles has been asked for permission over some laws. The biggest threat will come when Charles becomes King and inherits the monarch’s power to veto laws passed by Parliament. Although convention dictates that the monarch’s powers to dissolve Parliament, appoint ministers, and wage war are exercised only on “the advice” of (her) government, there is no legal obstacle to Charles acting alone. These problems wouldn’t exist if he were elected.
It would also benefit the country for Charles to stand for election.
We could choose to support his crusade against modern architecture, or his defence of alternative medicine. We could benefit from what his private office calls his “unique perspective”, superior to that of any other parliamentary candidate not born of the Windsor womb. We could see him outwit expert opponents in debates and committees with his “important insights, perspectives and knowledge built over 40 years of experience”.
Above all, Charles himself would benefit from seeking a parliamentary seat.
He would be able to speak out on any issue he wished, instead of having his “head shot off all the time” by those who object to him meddling behind the scenes. And why shouldn’t he be able to campaign on issues he cares about? Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. To deprive him of such a right is cruel. What he should be deprived of is the opportunity to interfere with governmental decisions in a way to which those who do not share Windsor DNA cannot.
So there it is. It’s in everyone’s interests for Charles Windsor to seek election to Parliament. If he’s as popular and intelligent as he’s made out to be, he’ll walk it.