Travelling hopefully… PS

Do not – repeat: do not – challenge the gods of fate, Calvin…

On my trip to London referred to in my post below, my Caledonian Sleeper – already detoured around the Fife coast route which meant that it was stopped in Perth station for a good additional half an hour (although, paradoxically, this was actually to allow the timetable to catch up) – was then held in Oxenholme for some considerable time (I was, mostly, asleep but it was for a couple of hours). Flooding had apparently got into some boxes of electronics and this prevented the signals from functioning. Sleeper staff eventually appeared to advise us that we were running considerably late and that we could be in London quicker by changing at Preston and then Crewe (a usual stop on the Sleeper but no longer intended for this one) as its late-running nature meant that it had been diverted on to the slow track and was therefore liable not to be in London til nearer 11 o’clock – arriving thus some three hours late.

I did as advised (I wasn’t in a rush, but slow-running trains, in my experience, only run slower): but, dear reader, passengers on late-running Caledonian Sleeper trains are entitled to a refund (of 100% of my ticket price), as we were informed by helpful staff, when journeys are disrupted (including as a result of weather events). (The link is heavily promoted on the front page of the website, something which I have always found rather odd.) Given my thoughts in my earlier post about refunds on public transport journeys: what to do now? Essential fact disclosure: Caledonian Sleeper has, since 2015, been run under a separate contract by controversial public services international conglomerate, Serco. Research shows Serco’s industrial relations – including on the Sleeper itself – to be poor; and its activities in running asylum centres have also put it under the spotlight. This might indeed, and in spite of my earlier thoughts, be the time for a little financial correction, intended as a reminder to Serco that it needs to sharpen up its act.

Furthermore… the things you hear on trains (no. 46 in an occasional series): the Virgin train I caught at Preston was unable to serve hot drinks from the onboard shop ‘as a result of the volume of passengers’. Including a 20 or so minute wait on a northern rail station before 7.30 AM it had, I thought, up to that point, been a hot cup of coffee sort of morning. Clearly Richard Branson needs to invest in a bigger kettle, or otherwise stump up the money for another 50p for the leccy meter. The jolly Scouse guard on the (Virgin) train I then caught at Crewe apologised, on arriving into London a few minutes late, stating that the train had had to pick up extra passengers. I think they meant me. Thanks for that.

Return journey fine, though 🙂

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“I’m sorry Bill; I’m afraid we can’t do that”*

Crossing my Twitter feed quite a lot in the last few days has been snippets of information contemplating the future of work in the context of the growth of applications of artificial intelligence. Frequently, the recent debate uses the somewhat ancient terminology of robots, but the focus of the analysis is mostly the same: robots have already stolen the futures of much of the now left-behind working class; and are now coming again to steal the futures of much of the middle class, leaving behind in employment only artists, carers and supervisors. (And, probably, (Polish) plumbers.) The result of that is, of course, sheer panic among the chattering classes much of whom were either fairly silent first time round or otherwise insistent that people had simply to adapt to market forces and get on with it.

The spark for these thoughts here in this post was firstly a brief report of UNI Global Union’s contribution to the Trade Union Advisory Committee of the OECD (hat-tip: Denise McGuire), which was recently considering the issue under the somewhat more sophisticated title of ‘digitalisation and the future of work’; together with a thoughtful post on ToUChstone from the TUC’s own Tim Page (hat-tip: Sue Ferns) (and building on top of Helen Nadin’s earlier series of posts).

The threat posed to employment by new technology is of course a very real one – even if it is not one that is particularly new. Trade unions have been grappling with issues of applications in the workplace of new, computer-aided technology, initially in manufacturing industry, since at least the 1960s. The issue of ensuring how a just transition can take place is not only a reasonable, entirely rational call, as Page argues, but is also likely to continue to dominate the approach typically adopted by trade union negotiators faced with local arguments for change.

Whether the threats now being posed by AI do represent a quantitatively-different series of scythes through our employment base and structure than what we have seen before of course remains to be seen. I’m a little sceptical: capitalism is, by force of necessity, endlessly creative at establishing new forms of work (and, indeed, so are workers) and has been since the days of the Luddites and Captain Swing; the list of jobs unheard of ten years ago is fairly legendary (in the World Economic Forum’s list or that of many others) and, of course, all these robots will need servicing and maintaining not least to prevent them from going wrong. And software can, as we all know, be notoriously buggy. Some future jobs will be very well-paid, others less so – pretty much as now – but I tend to share less the fairly apocalyptic vision that this level of disruption will lead to mass unemployment and bankrupt states.

Enter Bill Gates, with his ‘robot tax’. To be fair, though, it’s not just Bill, as Market Watch‘s excoriating and mostly on-the-button review illustrates. Gates’s concern is really two-fold: to slow down the process of automation; and to prevent the process of automation becoming discredited. The obvious news on the first is that ‘well, you can’t’, although I am with him a bit more on the second. But a robot tax is not the right solution. That it’s so against the zeitgeist in the UK and in the US, among others, is neither here nor there in terms of its value as a policy prescription, although this does reduce its likely potential for adoption; the key here is actually in persuading the likes of Google and Amazon to pay their fair share of the current tax take rather than be endlessly creative around the tax laws, as well as in persuading right-wing governments not to engage in tax competition policies. (If only there was an international bloc to which we could belong that made tackling both of these a little easier: you know, like a Union of Europe, or something.) Secondly, automation should lead to improved productivity, and the UK needs a lot more of that, so anything that has the potential to inhibit investment has to be rejected; here, the major policy issue lies in narrowing the growing gap between wages and productivity and in addressing the share of national income taken by wages. In short, ending inequality. And thirdly, taxing a robot for taking someone’s job – and precisely how difficult would that be in the detail? – tends to lead to workers affected allocating the blame for that job loss on the robot rather than on the manager who has actually taken the decision to automate it.

Applications of new technology in the UK have, as they were supposed to, led to a continuing reduction in working time – at least, at the average level. What has happened is that this reduction has led to increasingly precarious forms of work being introduced for some workers (involuntary part-time working; bogus ‘freelance’ employment or self-employment); while others, in the ‘core’, tend to be working even harder, and longer. The rewards of lower working time have not only been unfairly distributed; but management has found a way to make that reduction actually seem like a penalty; and on both those who have too little work as well as on those who have enough of it. There is a debate to be had on the introduction of a basic income such that the rewards that automation has brought are better distributed (and, indeed, valued). And, of course, workers in precarious forms of employment need to be better protected – which includes treating those who are clearly workers as such.

The question nevertheless remains of how to ensure a just transition.

Firstly, and remembering that people in cities in northern England feel that they have been ‘left behind’ substantially because there was no serious, concerted attempt to deal with the impact of manufacturing job loss in the 1980s, we need to have a proper national industrial strategy which approaches digitalisation recognising the benefits of automatisation but which also systematically attempts to deal with the impact. The lesson we should be learning about areas like Stoke and Copeland is that it is the market solutions that we tried in the 1980s and 1990s that do not work. It is precisely the market, not politicians, that has left people behind (and if people need any arguments about the disconnect between people and the policy process, just look at the turnout in Stoke – just 36.7%). Reinvesting in areas of decline will take money, and substantial amounts of it – of course, one of the arguments behind the uses to which a ‘robot tax’ could be dedicated although the drawbacks sketched above still lead me away from it.

Secondly, the collective, societal issues sparked by automatisation require collective solutions. Individual responses often lead to the expressions of political frustration that we are seeing because individual voices appear incoherent. Consequently, we need to find ways of re-collectivising our society around establishing a meaningful and coherent social dialogue around the variety of issues raised by digitalisation. At company level, this means a re-focus on establishing proper collective bargaining in the interests of a fairer workplace; and it probably means worker directors, and in the form perfectly encapsulated in the fifth paragraph of Janet Williamson’s piece for ToUChstone (and nothing other than this). At national level, establishing collective social dialogue in the interests of a fairer society means changing the language around trade unions, such that effective industrial action is not immediately demonised by the government either in parliament or in terms of reaching for the statute book; and it means inviting trade union leaders into specific dialogue, and with a view not just to listening but to reaching agreement. Brexit, and the plethora of issues that will be raised once the process of withdrawal has been triggered, represents an important test of the realism of the government’s intentions n this respect.

Giving effective voice to people demands that we listen, however uncomfortable that might be and however inconvenienced we might be by it. The alternative – around automatisation as well as any other aspect of the national dialogue that we might consider – is that we create (or that we entrench) pathways for nationalism and for extremism.

 

* Of course, an adapted quote from HAL9000, the computer whose sentience continues to influence our thoughts and fears about the dangers of AI.

Workers’ rights under the Tories: the slow reveal

This week has seen the publication of the Brexit White Paper, one day after the vote in the Commons on the Second Reading of the EU withdrawal Bill. As is clear from these pages, I’m resolutely opposed to withdrawal from the EU, but – in this immediate context – I do worry about the ability of the Commons to stand up for itself to the vocal, and evidently in charge, little Englanders when it allows itself to be abused in this way.

Anyway, my more immediate concern here is the issue of workers’ rights, which the government has trumpeted in its 12-point plan. I blogged about the dangers in reference to May’s Lancaster House speech just below, but I’m returning quickly to the issue here because – as we all suspected – things are turning out to be not quite as they seem.

I’m not referring here to the infamous (and now corrected) chart 7.1 which, originally, suffered from an incorrect labelling of the axes and which, as a (surely coincidental) result, made the position look much better than it actually is. Nor am I referring to the contents of workers’ rights themselves – though I do note, firstly, that holiday entitlement, paid maternity leave and parental leave, as the major issues being featured in the White Paper, have come in under recent Labour governments (annual leave, in 1998; extension of paid maternity maternity leave to 39 weeks in 2007; and parental leave (i.e. the extension of the right to fathers) in 2003); and, secondly, that Tory governments, where they have focused on workers’ rights at all, have usually had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the well (and, largely, as a result of developments in the EU) on the grounds that such rights were a ‘burden on business’.

Now, I’m firmly of the view that leopards are not capable of changing their spots. To illustrate what I mean, the relevant section of May’s Lancaster House speech is worth quoting in full:

‘And a fairer Britain is a country that protects and enhances the rights people have at work.That is why, as we translate the body of European law into our domestic regulations, we will ensure that workers rights are fully protected and maintained.

Indeed, under my leadership, not only will the government protect the rights of workers set out in European legislation, we will build on them. Because under this government, we will make sure legal protection for workers keeps pace with the changing labour market – and that the voices of workers are heard by the boards of publicly-listed companies for the first time.’

We would be making a bad mistake were we to see the White Paper as the Lancaster House speech writ large. In the interim weeks, this commitment has been – already – watered down to the point that the White Paper, away from the headlines and in the detail of section 7.3, now commits itself to strengthening rights only ‘when it is the right choice for UK workers’.

This watering down has been pointed out elsewhere – for example by Professor Steve Peers in a particularly good analysis (in spite of the picture credit!) – although he generously attributes this observation to unnamed ‘others’. But it is worthwhile emphasising. A government under intense economic and political pressure, and desperate for a trade deal with a Trump-led US, is, on top of Liam Fox’s deregulatory-inspired views on the issue of workers’ rights (as Peers points out), unlikely to see this as a particularly propitious time in which to be strengthening workers’ rights. I wonder also as regards the precise source of this watering down – i.e. the identity of the minister (Fox, as Business Secretary? or was it May herself?) who was responsible. Most importantly, however, it has given itself a clear reason not to abide by the commitments it appears, on the surface, to be espousing. Weasel words for a weasel government.

Much will depend on how far the withdrawal Bill is amended next week in Committee. It is to be hoped that the Bill will reflect as much of the concerns over workers’ rights of UK trade unions – in my view quite evidently the best judge of what is the right choice for UK workers – as possible. Some sign that the government will actively and meaningfully liaise (and not just consult) with the TUC on this as this ridiculous, undesirable process moves forward would indeed be a good test of the seriousness of its intentions in this regard. But I’m not exactly going to be holding my breath.

Workers’ rights after Brexit

Following Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech to ambassadors earlier today, the text of the speech has been released (official gov.uk version; alternatively from EurActive.com, including some commentary and reaction).

Part of the text included a section on workers’ rights – indeed, the protection of workers’ rights is principle no. 7 of the government’s 12-point plan in defining the ‘global’ role of a post-Brexit UK; one of the issues which will define the ‘new, positive and constructive partnership between Britain and the European Union’ which our negotiators are tasked with delivering. (Whether, of course, that sort of partnership can be had by making very specific threats about the tax position of what will happen if we don’t get what we define as a good deal is an open question.)

On the face of it, a commitment to protecting workers’ rights is very welcome, and no doubt former colleagues in the trade union movement in the UK will have taken careful note of the text as a means by which to hold Theresa May to account in the future. Here, I have noted the hostage to fortune of the commitment not just to the ‘full protection’ of those rights but also to their maintenance. Whether such a commitment is actually delivered in practice – in addition to the legal aspects of workers being cut-off from the judgments of the European Court of Justice – is a different point and, I suspect, none of us are likely to be taken in by it for very long. Certainly, the STUC has been sceptical; as indeed has the TUC. It is, at least, a desire to keep workers on board with this process as it gets underway; whether it amounts to any more than that is another thing entirely.

Firstly, whatever the esoterics of belonging, or not belonging, to the Single Market; or being a member, or not being a member, of a customs union – any situation in which the terms of trade for goods and services can be accessed more easily or more quickly from other suppliers elsewhere (and that is the point of the Single Market) is likely to lead to workers paying the price in terms of jobs. That may be transitional, or it may be long-term; but the real price being paid by men and women in the UK is likely to be severe. And any loss of jobs is likely to have knock-on effects on others as that spending is removed from the economy. Make no mistake, there will be a cost to GDP of our exit from these things.

Secondly, a rejection of free movement represents a backwards step for the personal and professional development of people everywhere across Europe; as well as a rejection of the economic benefits which freedom of movement has brought to this country (remembering not least that our labour market has managed to absorb the impact of free movement quite easily). There is, perhaps, a debate to be had around the extent to which the UK is a low-wage, low-productivity country because of migration – that creating low skill jobs is an easy way to absorb labour when inwards migration is high – but that (a) represents a number of ‘fallacies’ which I won’t go into here; and (b) free movement and the absorption of refugees doesn’t seem to have affected Germany’s position as a high-wage, high-productivity country.

Thirdly, people with memories of the 80s and 90s will remember that advances in social rights under Conservative governments came only as a result of the EU being willing to stretch its own rules. Such memories die hard, and this is the primary reason for casting doubt on May’s (perhaps sincere) words today. Tory governments which were, in many respects, less hard-right than this one rejected workers’ rights during those periods and, looking at the records of this lot (here, in terms of workers’ rights; here in terms of the NHS), you wouldn’t trust them with the keys to the chicken coop, let alone with workers’ rights. And remember that the promise to have workers on the board, which May featured in campaign interviews, has now been dropped in favour of a right for workers to be heard by the board. Codetermination for workers it ain’t.

Some might argue that the global institutions are waking up to the need for workers to have a pay rise, for example, and that workers’ rights might thus be on a more solid footing than under Conservative Government hitherto; I’ll believe that when I see it and, as long as I see Conservative politicians attacking trade unions – the organisations fighting for a better deal for working people – I don’t see that.

Fourthly, and slightly in extension of my third point, I’m amazed at the tortous process that May must have gone through in order to be able to argue that the defence of workers’ rights should be one of the defining principles in establishing that new partnership with the EU. Protecting workers’ rights can be done really rather easily by staying in the EU – for all the reasons expressed above – but also because social democracy and social consensus lays very much behind the ethos of (other*) European states. The language of workers’ rights comes much more easily to continental Europeans, even to centre-right parties, than it does to a party rooted in adversarialism and zero sum philosophies. You might recall that Cameron took his MEPs away from the centre-right European People’s Party in 2009 (‘happy neighbours’ – hmm: how did that go again?). If we wanted to protect workers’ rights, we have no need to leave the EU and its inclusion in May’s speech today, when workers’ rights are jeopardised by the simple fact of seeking to withdraw from the EU, thus sits very, very oddly.

Fifthly, I was against withdrawal from the EU from the perspective of workers’ rights for pretty much the same reasons that I am against Scottish independence – I’m yet to be convinced that a retreat into isolationism caused by nations defining themselves more narrowly makes any sense in a globalising world when it is nations coming together that will provide the tools to tackle the multi-nationals. A ‘global Britain’ is a ridculous notion should its desire to isolate from its neighbours allows it to be picked off easily either because it is desperate for trade, or investment or because multinationals choose to play nations off against each other. That’s as true now of dealing with the tax affairs of Amazon, Apple and Google (for example), and other increasingly large ‘platforms’ of ‘self-employed’ workers in the gig economy as it ever was in more simpler times: all of whom must be rubbing their hands with glee at the threats that May has made today.

Tackling those problems is key to workers’ rights in the next decade. Not only do we not achieve that that by a desire to ‘go it alone’, but our unwillingness to recognise the implications for workers’ rights of our threats if we don’t get what we want is symptomatic that workers’ rights were actually, and despite today’s profession of them, never particularly important to May’s strategy in the first place.

* Fog in the Channel, Continent isolated (again)