That employer charter…

Been a little busy recently; hence the lack of posts for a while…

One thing I have been catching upon, however, is BIS’s publication last week of its draft employer charter. I had spotted the headline issue at the time – the withdrawal of the right to claim unfair dismissal (other than in discrimination cases) unless you have been employed for two years* – but the charter was new to me until today.

Apart from its abuse of the English language (continuing the ConDem tradition in this respect) – charters, historically, represent social progress rather than a menu of what you can do in the workplace to undermine it – I love the charter.

I think trade unions should embrace this – not so much to lambast it, although that is certainly one option – but as an extremely effective recruiting sergeant. Handing the charter out to non-members with a simple message to say:

Look at what employers can already to you – and that’s before the ConDems start attacking your rights at work. Join the union and make sure you’re protected

seems a very powerful message about the importance of joining the union. If I wasn’t already a committed and engaged member, I’d certainly be asking where I should sign.

* Attacking workers rights in a recession is a typically Tory agenda approach to life (which the LibDems appear to share). Yet, there is no evidence that it will actually increase employment and it is likely that, regardless of the promise, vulnerable workers will be most harshly affected. And the notion that you can’t be unfairly dismissed unless you can fulfil a two-year service criterion is, quite simply, bizarre. It will remove essential employment rights from 12% of employees at a stroke, and providing encouragement to poor employers will do nothing for jobs.

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Viva comradeship

Here’s to ‘Los 33’ on their safe evacuation from the mine, and to all the hands, engineers, scientists, paramedics and officials involved in accomplishing the rescue so smoothly and with such excellent organisation.

The scenes over the last 24 hours at the mine have been intensely emotional and euphoric, and sharing in that joy has been a global experience – one of the wonders of the internet is its ability to bring everyone closer together and that has clearly been a major aspect to these amazing events. Congratulations to the BBC too, whose live reporting on the BBC website has been sensitively and engagingly handled (even if the demands of 24-hour live TV commentary have presented their own, er, challenges. Less is definitely more when it comes to commentators’ and interviewers’ verbose, repetitious and occasionally mystifying, western-oriented, inanities and concerns.)

And now, with everyone out, it’s time to look at the lessons. A number stand out:

– the miners have survived so long (including 17 days at the start when no-one knew if they were alive or not), and have emerged from the mine with such strength and assurance, and good health, because they have stood together. The BBC website carried the story of a journalist who has been working with miners and who had advised them to pick one word around which to make a speech. The word they chose: ‘comradeship‘ (linked to Google’s cached version as the BBC has overwritten updated the page). They have formed a society underground; under the command of the extraordinary figure of the shift foreman Luis Urzua, they have been disciplined and resourceful; they have been organised; they have shown an incredible amount of solidarity. They’ve had Elvis singalongs and religious services to strengthen morale; and secured water and delivered food and medical services to each other. They have had a daily routine of eight hours for work; eight hours for rest; and eight hours for their own instruction. All this has made them resilient enough to survive the ordeal. Mining is that sort of occupation: your own survival underground depends on those you work with and miners therefore tend naturally to recognise the values of solidarity better than others (though not all of ‘los 33’ are indeed actually miners). They don’t need to learn the lesson that people really are stronger together: but people in increasingly self-regarding, individualistic societies do need to learn (or re-learn) it.

– mining really does ‘have to modernise’ (in the words of Mario Gomes, the eldest of the rescued miners). Stories abound of the desperation of the miners at that mine, willing to accept a higher wage premium to compensate for its poor safety record so as to improve prospects for their families (including Franklin Lobos) or else, in the case of Victor Zamora and Raul Bustos, to start again following the Chilean earthquake earlier this year. And it does indeed make no sense that the safety record of Chilean mines fluctuates inversely to the price of copper: it gets better when the price falls, since only the large, more or less multinationals are left in the marketplace. (That’s not intended to be an argument that working conditions are good in multinationals, or that the Chilean mining industry now needs to be handed over to the multinationals, though I fear that some softening up in this direction is already happening).

Firstly, this is a case for better regulation – a case which Chile’s mining minister and President both appeared to accept yesterday – but it’s remarkable that we appear to need this sort of event to remind us of the value of regulation. It’s also a case that we need to place better value on the minerals that people risk their lives to mine. Human life is cheap: and it’s cheapened still further by an economic approach whose only interest is driving prices downwards in the search for greater profits. As consumers, we have an immense role to play in acquainting ourselves better with the components of the things we buy, and the human cost that goes with our desire to buy them ever more cheaply. And a responsibility to do so, too, which we need to remember once the media circus has all packed up and gone home from Campo Esperanza.

¡Chi-chi-chi-le-le-le, los mineros de Chile! ¡Viva los mineros!

For decent work, stand up…

Today is the International Trade Union Confederation’s World Day for Decent Work 2010; while tonight sees Shappi Khorsandi join Philosophy Football for the TUC’s Stand up for Decent Work event. I’ve joined with a bunch of other bloggers over at Bloggers Unite to celebrate it.

What’s interesting about the Day is that it’s not about standing up for labour rights on behalf of someone else, in some other country – important though that is, too. It is, on the other hand, about standing up for your own rights, right here, in your own country. However, you want to define ‘decent work’, it doesn’t matter – what counts is that you do something to recognise the need to strive for it. And that, at the same time, you call to mind that, all over the globe, other trade unionists are doing the same to move the principle of ‘decent work’ forwards as well.

As trade unionists, we know that no social advance ever falls into your lap – whether it be (more) equal pay, union recognition or decent wages. What we do sometimes forget, however, is that, unless we continue to keep pushing forwards, not only do we not make further gains, we’re also likely to lose the progress that we’ve already made.

As the ConDems make the final preparations for their Spending Review, which will see departmental budgets cut by 25-40%; as call-me-Dave starts to repeat the ‘there is no alternative’ mantra of his Tory predecessor as Prime Minister but one, while his Foreign Secretary starts to retreat into a Little Englander mentality; and as paying for the costs of the crisis is lumped not on those that caused it but on the shoulders of ordinary working people, we need to remember that an alternative worth achieving is one that has to be fought for.

Stand up.

Public investment in fibre – a lesson for the UK government

BT has announced plans for a fibre project ‘to tranform the Cornish economy‘ under which next generation fibre-based network infrastructure will be rolled out to up to 90% of local businesses and homes in Cornwall (and including the Scilly Isles).

The investment is on top of BT’s existing £2.5bn national fibre investment programme and BT believes (although without citing evidence other than the sorts of new services that fibre investment will help deliver) that it will create up to 4,000 jobs and protect a further 2,000 in a largely rural economy which does not otherwise have a great deal else for local people once all the tourists have gone home.

Particularly interesting is that 50% of homes and businesses are expected to be hooked up to fibre to the premises solutions, delivering faster speeds and delivering some future proofing of the investment – nationwide (or, perhaps, outside the Cornish nation), the investment in fibre is expected to be much less, BT having estimated that one in four homes and businesses within its investment programme would have fibre to the premises (i.e. about 17% of the country).

Excitingly, the £132m investment programme (final costs dependent on demand) is split approximately 60:40 on a private-public basis, with BT being partnered not by UK public sources of finance but by the European Regional Development Fund, which is contributing £58.5m of the finance. This is the largest investment in England backed by EU regional funds, which the ERDF clearly sees predominantly in terms of its role in encouraging a lower carbon economy (according to Johannes Hahn, European Commissioner for Regional Policy). With the population of Cornwall being just over half a million people, the scope of the public investment is about £100 per head.

This looks a good deal to me – providing fibre to a large region on this cost basis illustrates what can be done when the public sector gets involved: a lesson for the ConDems that fibre needs more than just warm words and crossed fingers. The trouble is that only Wales otherwise has the requisite development status [possible paywall] triggering the ERDF investment: so the wider applicability of this particular project is scant (while the few areas of the UK that thus qualify on this basis is disappointingly small).

So, it seems we may reasonably expect a similar investment for Wales reasonably soon but, otherwise, a gap which will continue to remain outside the two-thirds which will receive fibre investment on a competitive basis while the ConDems – well, while they wait to see what happens. Actually, after they have finished their programme of public spending cuts, in the process winding up the regional development agencies which facilitate this sort of deal, there may not many public institutions left to broker such deals in the future. Shame.

Government IT efficiencies

Yesterday’s cuts announcement by Chancellor George Osborne referred to efficiency savings in government IT costs of just £95m (as some commentators have noted, this is less than 10% and as little as 5% of the figure suggested earlier by Peter Gershon – though, of course, more savings may yet be found and some of the surplus may be accounted for by delayed, stopped or re-negotiated contracts). Nevertheless, Osborne is reported to have said that the cuts were ‘based on’ Gershon’s work.

BT is a major government IT contractor, so some of the cuts here are likely to find their way through to BT’s bottom line via (eventual) contract re-negotiations (mind you, and depending how hard ball the contractual parties play – and that’s likely to be considerably hard – the expenditure of civil service time in negotiations to achieve this £95m figure is also likely to eat considerably into it). This is, of course, likely to have an impact on jobs in BT, although the overall effects are likely to be subsumed within BT’s own continuing programme of job cuts via efficiency savings (BT has removed 20,000 jobs over the last year, many of them agency workers and contractors but also including a large number of permanent staff), rather than being separately declared.

A smaller cut than expected is welcome – but still likely to represent bad news for workers in the IT and communications sector, and more pressure on trade union negotiators in the industry.