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Tag Archives: workers

Unlevelled Fields: Brexit, Workers’ Rights and the Environment

The smorgasbord of Brexit terms has been further plated up with the latest acronym: the WAB or Withdrawal Agreement Bill. It comes in at 115 pages, with an added bonus of 126 pages of explanatory notes. For something seemingly so significant, not much time was on offer for those in the Commons to peruse, let alone digest it. Rushed before the members last Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was hoping that the most significant constitutional change to Britain in decades would be a push over.

The WAB is intended to give the agreement between the UK and the European Union legal substance. But Halloween looms. The stress from Prime Minister Boris Johnson is on speed. What characterises the WAB from previous incarnations under the May government are various hooks to catch members of parliament who might otherwise dismiss it. A significant concern among Labour party members, for instance, is the issue of workers’ rights. By all means, initiate Brexit, but what of those protections incorporated under European law? Are they to go by the wayside in an ugly act of pro-corporation fancy?

The political declaration underpinning the Brexit transition deal for trade talks between the UK and Brussels makes it clear that “the future relationship must ensure open and fair competition, encompassing robust commitments to ensure a level playing field.” Workers’ rights drawn from EU law will continue in a Brexited Britain, with some unclear commitment to ensure “non-regression” in subsequent laws (that is, any subsequent laws after the transition period not abridge those rights).

The problem with this should have been evident to anyone noting the absence of the level playing field concept in the deal, which is instead found in the words of the non-binding political declaration. What the WAB does is actually make Northern Ireland the subject of level-playing field logic, permitting the rest of the UK to dabble in threatening alternatives.

On Saturday, the sweeteners on bringing in rebel Labour MPs into the fold seemed to sour. Documents obtained by the Financial Times suggested that commitments on workers’ rights and the environment had left considerable “room for interpretation”. The Brexit deal might well be, not just a matter of flexible interpretation but a boon for corporate vengeance.

It gave Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, erratic of late, a platform to suspect the motivations of the government. Labour shadow Brexit minister Jenny Chapman found the revelations unsettling. “These documents confirm our worst fears. Boris Johnson’s Brexit is a blueprint for a regulated economy, which will see vital rights and protections torn up.”

This might well be true, but the EU can hardly claim a sense of purity in the guardianship of workers’ rights. A certain strain of EU jurisprudence suggests hostility to workers in employment law, while providing certain dispensations to corporations. Decisions by such bodies as the European Court of Justice have demonstrated that the right to strike is secondary to the freedom of employers to relocate their concern, a feature found in Article 43 of the EC Treaty which strikes at any fetters of “freedom of establishment”. In 2007, the ECJ notably found in the Viking Line case that a trade union’s threat to strike in an effort to force an employer to conclude a collective agreement constituted a restriction on the freedom of establishment.

The Laval case furnished another example of pro-company logic over union action. In that instance, the point of issue was how industrial action might square with freedom of movement under Article 49 of the EC Treaty. The Swedish building workers’ union had attempted to force Laval’s Swedish subsidiary to accept a collective agreement covering 35 Latvian workers sent to Sweden to refurbish a school. Negotiations failed; the company was picketed and eventually went bankrupt. In hearing the case against the union for compensation, the ECJ held that the Posted Workers Directive guaranteeing equal protections for posted workers and those in the host country, was inapplicable. It was too onerous to expect service provides to take part in peculiar collective bargaining practices. Economic uncertainty was the enemy.

In a sense, both EU diplomats and their Brexit ministry counterparts have kept up appearances, talking about level playing fields when knowing full well that the corporate sector will be well catered for, Brexit or otherwise. Tory government ministers, caught unawares, rallied against the leaks discussed by the FT. The Brexit department decided to ignore the document altogether, a habit that seems to be catching in Whitehall. The government, according to a spokesperson, “has no intention of lowering the standards of workers’ rights or environmental protection after we leave the EU”.

Junior business minister Kwasi Kwarteng dismissed it as “completely mad, actually.” It would make little sense “at all to dilute workers’ rights” given that some nineteen Labour MPs had actually voted for a second reading of the Brexit bill. Business minister Andrea Leadsom was also quick to deny the veracity of the reports. “The story is not correct. UK will maintain (the) highest standards of workers’ rights and environmental standards when we leave the EU.”

The feathers of environmental advocates have also been ruffled. Affirmations and promises made have been unconvincing. Benjamin Halfpenny, representing a coalition of environmental groups including Friends of the Earth and the National Trust, insists on additions to the Environmental Bill that will shore up broader European protections. “The government has had plenty of opportunities to put a commitment to existing standards into law, but has thus far not done so.”

In the tug-of-war between Brussels and the UK, it is clear that Britain, in angling for future free trade deals, will be tempted by the genie of deregulation and the self-imposed reduction of standards for the sake of a competitive advantage. It might well be that EU and UK diplomats are being rather sly about this: the EU is facing its own internal challenges and wishes an exit to take place within orderly reason. It cannot afford a messy divorce, a point that will looked upon by dissenting groups within the bloc. But should Johnson’s deal become a reality, fans of working welfare and environmental standards will be left disappointed.

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Rebranding Wage Slavery: An Intentional Imbalance

The title of the article, belonging to the Herald Sun, is “Time to Embrace Life’s Imbalance”.

It sits squirrelled away in the bottom corner of page 26 of today’s business section, a measly couple of hundred words. Easy to overlook.

In it, we are compelled by “business consultant” Judy Reynolds to forfeit a good work-life balance and instead adopt an attitude of “intentional imbalance”.

There’s two words we don’t often hear thrown together. I wonder where else we’d like to implement an “intentional imbalance” in our lives?

The article mentions a study by the Australia Institute, which found that the balance between work and life had worsened for nearly five million workers in the past five years. Five million, in five years. That’s nearly the entire population of Victoria. Imagine, as you’re walking around today, that every person you encounter is part of that group, and then marvel at the size of even the small percentage of that five million you’ve witnessed in a single day. In human terms, we’re not talking about a minority.

Although the piece has been penned in the language of choice, there is nonetheless the sneaking recognition that for those five million people whose work-life balance has worsened, the likely scenario was not one of a comfortable selection between option A or option B, with pros and cons to consider on each side, but rather grim acceptance or financial ruin.

Does the author of the article believe that people will voluntarily choose to increase their own suffering and enjoy it simply by changing the way they talk about it? Who among us stands to benefit from longer work hours and increased job insecurity. the two phenomena listed as “main culprits” for the causation of poor work-life balance?

It seems that the blurring of the lines between our work life and our private existence is a source of some discomfort to many employees. Many companies and workplaces now encourage some form of technological linkage with their hierarchy, whether it’s by smartphone, email or through an intranet/employee website. While many upwardly mobile workers use technology after hours to further their careers, this use of communications technologies after hours has also been correlated with an increased reporting of work-life conflict, and it’s really any wonder. Leaving behind the stresses of the workplace when the clock ticks over to finishing hour is I’m sure a feature of the terrain in the vast majority of employee’s minds.

We like to have clear cut boundaries between when we must be “on” in terms of our responsibilities, persona and outward behaviour, and when we can simply relax and be ourselves. The encroachment of business into our private lives in this way seems likely to cause more than a little existential discomfort in a situation that should ideally be free from unwanted external observation or interaction.

In fact, several studies conducted into the effects of work-life balance on the psychological and physical wellbeing of employees point fairly strongly towards a good work-life balance being a stepping stone to enjoying better health.

A study published in the Journal of Social Service Research indicates that “results show that employees who viewed their work schedules as flexible reported higher levels of work-life balance, which in turn were associated with positive paths to well-being.”

Investigations carried out by the Government of South Australia point to the same conclusion. “Work life balance initiatives increase loyalty and dedication, and decrease employee absenteeism, improving client service and enhancing business reputation overall.”

This 2002 study even suggests a benefit for employers:

“Many employees reported clearly benefiting from the flexible policies/practices offered by their organization. HR managers also generally believed that such policies/practices yielded tangible business benefits, including improved employee morale, greater employee commitment and performance, and reduced casual absence and turnover.”

In real economic terms then, supporting employees in their movements towards more balanced schedules gives us happy, committed and productive workers. This seems like a sound investment, a win-win situation that extends beyond the employer/employee dyad and out to the clients and families of the two.

So the question floating to the surface of this muddied pond seems to be, “who stands to benefit from the adoption of an ‘intentional imbalance’ in our work-life arrangements?”, and we don’t have to look far to answer that.

It seems Judy Reynolds is more than comfortable employing doublespeak to gussy up worker suffering.

Rather than addressing the problem itself, namely that five million workers (and more) are dissatisfied with the security of their jobs and the amount of time worked, Reynolds simply entices us to call our suffering by any other name.

The phrase “intentional imbalance” is a re-branding of wage slavery. What it means in real terms, stripped of the doublespeak, is that we are being beckoned by the business community to smilingly accept infringements on our rights at work. We are being told that things are not going to get better, and that rather than calling a turd a turd, we should simply spice it and serve it as gourmet.

Adam Smith’s condemnation of the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind” is as cogent now as it was when it was written. We cannot acquiesce to those who would run the world along the lines of “all for ourselves, and nothing for anyone else”, and this undermining of workers serves to perform exactly that function.

Who benefits from job insecurity? Business, of course, who can simply replace unruly workers with cheap overseas labour should they have the cheek to stand up and exercise their legal rights. They need not even follow through, as the threat of replacement is often more than enough to quash any organised resistance to damaging workplace policies. It may be too obvious to warrant mention, but longer work hours means exhausted workers, and the likelihood of a tired man causing a fuss is significantly lower than that from a well rested individual.

The observant reader will have noticed by now that these negative effects on the lives of workers are anything but good for the economy, so in practice, those businesses without access to government subsidies or the ability to whipsaw labour forces over international boundaries will likely suffer as much as their workers from this justification of abuse.

Ms Reynolds concludes her stunning insights into the topic with the suggestion that we “work out a plan that includes [our] goals for work, family, friends, health and recreation.”

I say we add to that list the direct and active opposition of Ms Reynolds’ absurd attack on the backbone of this country, and that we work to “intentionally imbalance” any attempts to implement it in our own lives and the lives of our friends, family and co-workers.


This article was originally published on the author’s blog, which you can find here.

Offshoring Our Future: Sinking Australian Jobs and the Great Barrier Reef

In spite of government lamentations about rising rates of unemployment, the NSW government is considering a plan to outsource around 240 human resources, IT, finances and payroll jobs to India.

A typical Indian call centre.

A typical Indian call centre.

The positions likely to be sent offshore belong to ServiceFirst, a company providing the above services to several government departments including the Office of Finance and the Treasury.

The irony of the situation is palpable. To the public, the government is styling itself as a stalwart defender of the livelihoods of its people, fighting to keep jobs in the hands of needy Australians, and curbing immigration because, as South Park so succinctly put it, “they took er jerbs!!!”

In reality, the government is seeking to cheapen its expenditure by moving those jobs to poor second and third world economies. This is not only reprehensible in a patriotic sense, leaving hardworking Australians to fend for themselves, but also in an ethical sense. The pay rates and working conditions of workers in India are some of the worst in the world, with nationals in the country working on average 8.1 hours a day as of 2011, with 191 minutes of that spent on unpaid work.

Call centre workers make on average 15,000 rupees, or 300 USD per month, which is about thrice that of employees in other sectors.

Over 94% of India’s workforce in considered unorganised, meaning unlicensed, self-employed, or unregistered economic activity such as rural traders and hand loom workers. This sector offers low productivity and lower wages. Even though it accounted for ninety four percent of workers, the unorganised sector created only 57% of India’s national domestic product in 2006, or around nine times less per worker than the organised sector.

There are reprehensible ethical issues in this sector, including debt bondage, where labour is forced from outstanding debt (otherwise known as slavery), and child labour to the tune of nearly five million children according to a 2009-10 nationwide survey.

For a government that counts human rights among it’s strongest priorities, this behaviour is woefully hypocritical.

The Public Service Association of NSW general secretary Anne Gardiner, in statements published in the Sydney Morning Herald, said that up to 30,000 of the state’s 400,000 public servants perform similar corporate service work to that targeted for outsourcing, leaving the future employment of many Australians hanging precariously in the balance.

Unemployment in the region is at a six year high, and this proposal seems to show that the government has no solid plans to turn those figures around, despite their blustering to the contrary.


Gladstone Harbour

Gladstone Harbour

In a continuance of this fine form, the Australian government has invited journalists worldwide to participate in an all expenses paid trip to the Great Barrier Reef (or should we say, areas of it that haven’t been utterly destroyed by corporate greed) in an obvious attempt to bribe the media to keep the Reef off the Unesco world heritage committee’s “in-danger” list.

 

It seems our government is prepared to sit on its laurels with regard to doing anything about the Great Barrier Reef other than allowing it to earn the coveted title of “understated problem of the century”, for which literally no expense is being spared.

An article by Guardian Australia reports that journalists from Germany, France, the Phillipines, Japan, India and Portugal are being flown in for a week long stay, where they’ll get to see the reef and meet “officials” who will “explain” Australia’s conservation efforts. How it’ll take a week to explain a literal absence of those efforts is beyond me.

The trip is being organised by the “Great Barrier Reef Task Force”, an organisation established not to actually prevent damage to the reef, but to prevent damage to those damaging the reef by keeping it off the Unesco “in danger” list. The government argues that it’s efforts on this front are necessary to counter “misinformation” about the state of the reef, a phrase which seems to mean any actual video footage, photography and scientific data that might jeopardise the business partnerships of government officials.

Let’s put this into perspective. One of the world’s most lucrative sources of tourism based income, a natural phenomenon that can be seen from space and that has taken at the least 10,000 years to form, is being reduced to a cloud of silt to line the pockets of men who will probably die of their cholesterol before 2030.


This article was originally posted on the author’s blog, which you can find here.

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