Thursday, 30 October 2014

Shouldn't the Church launch a Blueprint initiative for exploited workers?

When Cardinal Vincent Nichols gathers with business leaders for the third Blueprint for Better Business conference tomorrow, the words of Pope Francis this week on the workplace situation should be ringing in their ears. He called for human dignity to be at the centre of society, and with it, solidarity, which he said means to think and act in terms of the community and to fight against the structural causes of poverty, inequality, unemployment, and loss of land, housing, and social and labour rights. “It is to confront the destructive effects of the ‘Empire of Money’." In Britain there is unprecedented insecurity in the workplace, so although the economy is finally on the up again after the recession, the mass of workers earn less in real terms than they did five years ago. A recent report published by Income Data Services found that the pay of the directors of the FTSE 100 had increased by 21 per cent in the last year, while average pay increases averaged only 2 per cent. The much-lauded economic recovery and fall in unemployment has in the main been predicated on forcing more people into low-paid, insecure work. There are now 1.4 million people on “zero-hours” contracts, where the employer isn’t obliged to require a certain number of hours’ work each week, and two in every five of the new jobs created in recent years have been devised as self-employed roles, ie not obliging an employer to pay tax or national insurance or offer sick leave or annual leave. Then there has been the rise in the number of part-time workers, who now account for 8 million out of the 30 million workforce – half of the jobs created between 2010 and 2012. “In-work poverty” has also been on the increase – over half of those defined as being in poverty come from working families. Yet the cardinal is spending the day talking to business leaders. Among them are Sir Mike Rake, the President of the CBI, and various investment managers pondering the purpose of business. Cardinal Nichols did recently refer to “working conditions existing today, in this city, which are not far from effective slavery, as well as the presence of extensive de facto slavery too.” But he hasn’t mentioned this issue at the previous two Blueprint conferences. Globally, many of the Church’s membership are caught up in this unjust distribution of wages and the common good is not being served by the present inequality. The Church in the UK has supported the concept of a living wage – a wage that will keep people above the poverty line. But much more is needed. Some church recognition and support for trade unions, which have traditionally helped ensure a more equal distribution of wealth, would be welcome. As Pope Francis says, more needs to be done to connect what is going on in the economy with the dignity of the human person. Simply talking to the side that had a disproportionate role in creating the unjust situation in the first place just won’t do. * published Tablet 29/10/2014

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Tory take on immigration is crazy

The incoherence of the Tories on immigration is truly breath taking - if they withdraw the UK from the European Union and the free movement of labour stipulations, the two million plus who have come, worked and contributed here will be forced to go home, The two million plus who have gone from here to work in countries like Spain and Germany will be forced to come home. The net result four million discontented people in countries where they don't want to be, without work. Surprising that we don't hear more from the business community about the ludicrousness of what the Tories/UKIP are proposing, as it will also mean huge losses for them?

Friday, 17 October 2014

Dignity or slavery-does work still work for the common good

The film, Two days, One night, starring Marion Cotillard as Belgium factory worker Sandra will have struck a chord with many workers today.

Sandra is told she will be made redundant unless she can persuade her fellow workers to give up their bonuses. She goes one to one seeking to persuade the different individuals of her cause. In the end she succeeds in converting half the workforce to her cause. This is not enough but the boss is impressed at her fortitude and says she can have a job when one of the other workers is released. She refuses, knowing that it will be one of those who voted to support her who will be let go.

The lesson of the film being the need to show solidarity, organise collectively and work for the common good.

The film is so timely at a moment of unprecedented insecurity in the workplace. The present much lauded economic recovery has in the main been prefaced on forcing more people into low paid insecure work. This is most clearly evidenced with the movement of more than one million workers, since 2010, from the more secure better paid employment of the public sector to the lower paid insecure work of the private sector.

There are now 1.4 million people on zero hour contracts, with two in every five of the new jobs created over recent years being self employed.

Some 4.5 million are classified as self employed. The  official figures published by Parliament found that the average annual income from self-employment is less than £10,000 for women - in case anyone should think that self employment is the exclusive status of aspiring entrepreneurs, the number of whom have incidentally declined by 52,000 over the four year period (2010 to 2014).  

Then there has been the growth in part time workers, who now account for 8 million out of the 30 million workforce. They account for half of the jobs created between 2010 and 2012. And it is not a life style choice or a matter of work life balance, most of those on part time jobs wanted full time employment but they had to take what was on offer.

At the same time real weekly wages overall have fallen by 8% since 2008, equivalent to a fall in annual earnings of about £2,000 for a typical worker in Britain.

In work poverty has also been on the increase with a growing amount of the benefits budget going to those in rather than out of work. An example is housing benefit, which has gone up by 59% since 2010.

The number of housing benefit claimants in work rose from 650,561 in May 2010 to 1.03 million by the end of last year.

The House of Commons Library calculated the amount spent on in-work housing benefit will rise from £3.4 billion in the 2010-11 financial year to £5.1 billion in 2014-15, making a total of £21.9 billion over the five-year parliament ending at next year’s election

The increase has been due to rents going up whilst wages have fallen or remained static. This situation is a good example of welfare for the rich, with landlords profiting out of the benefits budget whilst the poor struggle, less able to pay, but still getting the blame for their own poverty.

Just over half of the 13 million people in poverty - surviving on less than 60% of the national median (middle) income - were from working families.

This whole situation is very difficult to understand, set as it has been against a background of increasing wealth, evidenced by the presence of more than 100 billionaires (up by 12 over the past year). The wealth created though seems to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

What has been surprising amid this worsening situation for life in the workplace has been the lack of any significant comment from Church leaders in the UK. The Catholic Church hierarchy in particular seem totally wedded to business.  

Cardinal Vincent Nichols contributed recently to the CBI’s “great business debate” quoting his “blueprint for business” initiative that has called together business leaders for a number of conferences to discuss ethics.

The opposition to trade unions and organised labour amongst the hierarchy is palpable. It was notable that even in delivering his homily for the recent 125th celebration of the Great Dock Strike Cardinal Nichols managed to avoid mentioning trade unions in a contemporary context at all.

So the Cardinal could declare: “We know that working conditions exist today, in this city, which are not far from effective slavery, as well as the presence of extensive de facto slavery too. “

His answer though seems to be to lecture business about ethics seemingly in the belief that one day this will result in business leaders deciding it’s time to be nice to the workers – something not born out by history.

Yet the teachings of the Church are very clear on the world of work. 'If the hours of labour resulting from the unregulated sale of a man's strength and skill shall lead to the destruction of domestic life, to the neglect of children, to turning wives and mothers into living machines, and of fathers and husbands into - what shall I say, creatures of burden? - I will not use any other word - who rise before the sun and come back when it is set, seared and able only to take food and to lie down to rest; the domestic life of man exists no longer, and we dare not go on in this path,' said Cardinal Henry Manning  in 1874.

Then came the famous encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) indicating that the Church  recognised the inequality of the lone worker with just his or her labour to sell versus the overwhelming power of the employer or owner of the means of production. In order to even out this inequality the existence of trade unions was vindicated.

More recently Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Laborem Excercens – “On Human Work” (1981), asserted that the interests of labour must always take precedent over those of capital.

The Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church states that unions are “a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensable element of social life.”

Indeed, Pope John Paul II seemed to suggest the scope and role of unions’ activity needed to expand to meet the demands of the new globalised workplace. “Today unions are called to act in new ways, widening the scope of their activity of solidarity so that protection is afforded not only to the traditional categories of workers, but also to workers with non-standard or limited-time contracts, employees whose jobs are threatened by business mergers that occur with ever increasing frequency, even at international level: to those who do not have a job, to immigrants, seasonal workers and those who, because they have not had professional updating, have been dismissed from the labour market and cannot be readmitted without proper training.” Clearly, a Pope ahead of his time.

It is a great irony that so many of the country’s trade unions are led by individuals who received their early social justice formation in the Catholic Church. General Secretary (GS) of the TUC Frances O’Grady, GS of the Communication Workers Union Billy Hayes and GS of PCS Mark Serwotka are just three of those brought up as Catholics. Yet how much has the Church done to engage with unions and those who represent working people? It seems far too busy engaging with those who strut around the board rooms

The main effort of the Church in the UK regarding the workplace, aside of working with the likes of the CBI, has been to support the concept of a living wage. The idea of a minimum wage that will keep people above the poverty line, this has been set at £8.80 in London and £7.65 in the rest of the country. The Church has supported this idea that was first put forward by community organising groups like London Citizens and the trade unions. But much more is needed from the Church.

It is high time that the Church in this country recognised that the mass of its membership are caught up in this unjust and unequal distribution of wages. A cursory examination of the concept of the common good should result in some reflection on the present situation whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There needs to be radical change in order that wealth is redistributed on a more just and equitable basis. Trade unions have traditionally been an institution in society that helps ensure a more equal distribution of wealth. So some Church support (recognition) of their role would be welcome. More though needs to be done to connect what is going on in the economy today with the social teachings of the Church and the dignity of the human person, simply talking to the rich and powerful really won’t do.
* Based on a talk to be given at the Salford Justice and Peace Assembly on 18/10/2014
published Independent Catholic News

Britons need more than a pay rise

The film, Two days, One night, starring Marion Cotillard as Belgium factory worker Sandra will have struck a chord with many workers today.

Sandra is told she will be made redundant unless she can persuade her fellow workers to give up their bonuses. She goes one to one seeking to persuade the different individuals of her cause. In the end she succeeds in converting half the workforce to her cause. This is not enough but the boss is impressed at her fortitude and says she can have a job when one of the other workers is released. She refuses, knowing that it will be one of those who voted to support her who will be let go.

The lesson of the film being the need to show solidarity, organise collectively and work for the common good.

The film is so timely at a moment of unprecedented insecurity in the workplace. The present much lauded economic recovery has in the main been prefaced on forcing more people into low paid insecure work. This is most clearly evidenced with the movement of more than one million workers, since 2010, from the more secure better paid employment of the public sector to the lower paid insecure work of the private sector.

There are now 1.4 million people on zero hour contracts, with two in every five of the new jobs created over recent years being self employed.

Some 4.5 million are classified as self employed. The  official figures published by Parliament found that the average annual income from self-employment is less than £10,000 for women - in case anyone should think that self employment is the exclusive status of aspiring entrepreneurs, the number of whom have incidentally declined by 52,000 over the four year period (2010 to 2014).  

Then there has been the growth in part time workers, who now account for 8 million out of the 30 million workforce. They account for half of the jobs created between 2010 and 2012. And it is not a life style choice or a matter of work life balance, most of those on part time jobs wanted full time employment but they had to take what was on offer.

At the same time real weekly wages overall have fallen by 8% since 2008, equivalent to a fall in annual earnings of about £2,000 for a typical worker in Britain.

In work poverty has also been on the increase with a growing amount of the benefits budget going to those in rather than out of work. An example is housing benefit, which has gone up by 59% since 2010.

The number of housing benefit claimants in work rose from 650,561 in May 2010 to 1.03 million by the end of last year.

The House of Commons Library calculated the amount spent on in-work housing benefit will rise from £3.4 billion in the 2010-11 financial year to £5.1 billion in 2014-15, making a total of £21.9 billion over the five-year parliament ending at next year’s election

The increase has been due to rents going up whilst wages have fallen or remained static. This situation is a good example of welfare for the rich, with landlords profiting out of the benefits budget whilst the poor struggle, less able to pay, but still getting the blame for their own poverty.

Just over half of the 13 million people in poverty - surviving on less than 60% of the national median (middle) income - were from working families.

This whole situation is very difficult to understand, set as it has been against a background of increasing wealth, evidenced by the presence of more than 100 billionaires (up by 12 over the past year). The wealth created though seems to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

It has been against this background that the political parties have been laying out their stalls ahead of the general election next May. There seems some consensus on the need to raise the minimum wage, this no doubt born out of the fact that capitalism itself needs people to have the money to spend on goods. The present situation is dysfunctional even in capitalist terms with the few who are getting richer, putting their money – often offshore-  so that tax can be avoided. More money is needed in the economy.

The Labour Party’s commitment to raise the minimum wage to £8 was welcome, until it became clear that this was to be over five years. The rise needs to be implemented far quicker.  What is really needed is a commitment to a living wage.

Labour has also made noises about zero hours contracts but putting the boss of Morrisons in charge of its review of this type of work has not filled anyone with much hope.  The strings that seem likely to be attached to any reform (such as working a year to gain employment rights) thus far planned seem unlikely to make much difference at all to the zero hours culture that pervades increasing numbers of work places.

Ed Balls talk of cutting child benefits and more austerity is not exactly the language to stir supporters onto the streets to campaign for a new Labour government.

There needs to be some proper regulation of work, not simply cutting back all of the time. As the TUC march and rally on 18 October declares Britain needs a pay rise. The economy is on the upturn people are told but it appears to be the bosses trousering all the profits. There needs to be a redistribution of wealth to those who actually do the work.
 
There also needs to be a change of ethos away from insecure low paid work of the zero hours culture toward the more secure, better paid work that has in the past typified public sector work. The whole things needs urgently rebalancing. The TUC event is a start but the Labour Party has got to pick up the baton and put policies into practice that work for the mass of people and the common good of all. This does not mean toadying up to business and promising to be meaner and more in favour of the rich and powerful than the Tories.

* The common good of all must be met - Morning Star - 17/10/2014
* Austerity days and nights- Britons need more than a pay rise - 17/10/2014

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Church going nowhere until it tackles discrimination against women

Interview featured in the National Justice and Peace Network Newsletter -


What are your hopes for the Church
If the Church is to prosper in the future then it has to get to grips with the male hegemony. It is a disgrace that the Catholic church can claim to value life yet treat women like second class citizens. To say the church needs to equalitise is an under statement. At present it remains an institution centuries out of date,  operating on a male dominated mantra. The present arrangements have no basis in Christ’s teachings. The laity need to seize the levers of power, the clergy are supposed to be our servants not our masters. Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air. He has begun a process of change, bringing the Church back to its roots as a church of the poor. The Pope has pointed the way speaking out on matters across the social justice spectrum, from war and peace, dignity at work and migration  to environmental degradation. He has shown the way to many of his more conservative bishops, particularly in this country. There is though still a long way to go, with many burdens to be overcome.  Structural change will be vital as will a proper acknowledgement of the appalling sin of  child abuse. An apology to the laity as well as the victims is long overdue from the clergy.
I hope also that the Church can reassess its teaching on the environment, accepting that human kind is but one part of God’s creation that must live in harmony with all others, not as a dominating force destroying everything that gets in the way.

Where does your commitment to justice and peace come from?
It comes to a large extent from a formation in the Church. I left Kent university with a degree in law and industrial relations, going on to work in a bank for a number of years. I then became involved in a justice and peace centred group in the local parish, raising funds and awareness relating to poverty, particularly in the global south. I visited one of the projects being supported in Peru. As a result of these experiences I decided I wanted to get out of banking to work full time on social justice issues. I did a journalism course, then worked on Cambodia (visiting that country) and the landmines issue. The journalism then took me to a variety of places; from covering miscarriages of justice to the campaign for a living wage and detention without trial in the UK today.  During this period I also worked for a couple of years for the Morning Star newspaper and had columns on that paper, the Irish Post and Universe. A number of individuals have helped along the way to develop that justice and peace commitment, with the late Kathy Piper and journalist John Pilger playing particularly important roles.
 


What are the most important areas of concern today?
The most important issues today revolve around an unjust capitalist world economic system that sees so many living on very little whilst a small number enjoy an obscene amount of wealth. It is this unjust system of development that spawns so many other problems like poverty, war and environmental degradation. What we need is a more just system that puts concern for the well being of our fellow human beings first. More people need to realise that it does not have to be this way. A few people do not need to corner all the world’s resources, there is more than enough to go round if some of the basic gospel values are adopted.  The rapacious attitude of human beings to the planet they inhabit will in the end destroy it, unless a more gospel based approach is adopted. We need to live more simply and tread more lightly on the earth – this is self evident and unless people begin to adopt such an approach life is going to get worse on our depleting planet.


What sustains you in your commitment?
People sustain me in my commitment to a more just world. There are people all over the world struggling for a better world. People doing simple acts of kindness to others, whilst others are out campaigning, on marches and challenging the powerful. The will of people to make the world a better place is something to marvel at and continue the struggle for a better world. Any opponent can be overcome, given the will.  Internationally known people who have inspired me include Tony Benn, Nelson Mandela, Sylvia Pankhurst, Gareth Peirce and Clement Attlee.


 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Have broadcast media not done enough to promote UKIP without giving its leader a priveliged position in the televised leaders debate at the general election


Have the broadcast media not done enough already to bring UKIP to prominence. Surely the privileged treatment has to end at some time - like by not giving them a seat at the table in the general election debate involving the leaders of the main parties - what about the Greens, Scottish Nationalists and Plwyd Cymru - who have had seats in Parliament for some time and have some policies.
UKIP have three main policies, leaving Europe, opposing immigration and opposing wind turbines. The whole thing is like some appalling parody that just runs and runs.
The anti-the political establishment line that UKIP role out is also a laugh - they are led by an ex-banker, made up of the dregs from other political parties - particularly the Tories and they hoover up the expenses in the European Parliament. Anyone who has observed UKIP's behaviour in the European Parliament will see what they are like once they have power - is that really the answer to the political vacuum in Britain?

Monday, 6 October 2014

Alan Johnson – Please, Mister Postman – excellent book, that leaves the reader once again waiting in eager anticipation for the next volume of memoirs

This latest volume of memoirs from Alan Johnson continues in the highly readable style of  “This Boy.”

Readers who were awaiting with anticipation this second volume - covering from 1968 to 1987 – will not be disappointed.

Johnson retains his light, highly entertaining writing style, that keeps the reader captivated from beginning to end.

The book begins as Johnson and his family move from West London to a council house in Slough. Johnson enjoys the life as a postman and with his growing family in the new community at Britwell Estate.

He reiterates his main interests in life as being reading, music and football So there are the regular updates about things like the 1975/6 season when his beloved QPR miss out on the First Division title by a point to Liverpool. He recalls the three days when Rangers were top of the table prior to Liverpool’s final game against Wolves which they needed to win to take the title.

But tragedy always seems to be lurking in the background. So, while life seems settled, there then comes the bombshell of his brother in law Mike Whitaker, being revealed as an alcoholic who eventually takes his own life. Johnson tells the story with great warmth and sensitivity, conveying the hurt of the time which has clearly remained with him.

The catalogue of events over the years also gives some indication as to how Johnson manages to rise in the trade union movement. Initially, he just seems to go along with things at the branch. He is active in terms of supporting the union over things like the seven week strike in 1971, going to the regular rallies in Hyde Park.

In one notable observation he declares how the middle class students who attended talked posh but dressed scruffy, while the working class posties dressed posh but talked scruffy.

Johnson’s interest grows in the union, which sees him become branch chair. He attends conference and seems initially struck by the theatre of it all. He is though marked out early by Tom Jackson, then general secretary of the Union of Communication Workers, as a potential future leader of the union. Jackson gives Johnson some good advice as to how to make his way in the union.

The role of Johnson as a good fixer and negotiator comes through as the book progresses. He gets the job of effectively selling a new working arrangement agreed between the Post Office and the union. It benefits the workers but there are suspicions. Johnson goes around the country selling the process, making friends amongst the union and management.

There is a nice balance throughout the book between Johnson’s work and personal life, with the tragedies providing a helping of pathos.

The reader can detect just how the Alan Johnson of the mid to late 1980s became the can do man that first Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown promoted to the highest of ministerial offices.

Testimony to just what a good read this book provides is that - as with This Boy – it leaves the reader once again eagerly anticipating the next one.

*Published by Transworldbooks Price £16.99