'Unruly Slavic eyebrows'

Mocha chocca libraries

Many were terrified by the picture of new "21st century libraries" painted by the Secretary of State for Culture, Andy Burnham, this week: libraries modelled on Waterstones and Virgin Megastores, filled with mobile-phone-talkers, McDonalds-eaters, Wii-players and Youtube-watchers, with books featuring low down on the list of priorities.

More terrifying still, however, is the fact that this sort of thing seems to work: in Hillingdon, West London, book borrowing increased by 32 per cent when a Starbucks was built in one of the libraries, and there is now a formidable seventeen more Starbucks on the way to the seventeen other libraries in the area.

Burnham’s announcement that libraries should "offer an antidote to the isolation of someone playing on the internet at home" and be places "for families and joy and chatter" has been met less than joyfully. Tim Coates, ex-Managing Director of Waterstones and now a libraries campaigner, argues: "This ought to be about getting more books, particularly for children, not turning libraries into fish and chip shops."

In Camden, the ban on mobile phones and food in libraries will be lifted this month. There has already been a stream of complaints from residents: "I only foresee bedlam," one darkly proclaimed.

Unruly Slavic eyebrows

Poets are not usually inspired by both experimental dance music and Elizabethan verse, but this year’s winner of the Forward Prize for the Best Single Poem suggests that perhaps more should be. Scottish artist and musician Don Paterson’s tremendous "Love Poem for Natalie 'Tusja’ Beridze" is an address to an obscure Georgian electronica artist with ‘unruly Slavic eyebrows’, spoken by an obsessive, love-struck Googler who promises that he is "not like those other IDM [Intelligent Dance Music] enthusiasts in early middle age". In Paterson’s poem, the traditional turret window of courtly lovers becomes the stage at the Manöver Elektronische Festival in Wien, and it is not his mistress’s body that is uncorrupted, but the music software on her laptop – "which makes me love you all the more, demonstrating as it does an / excess of virtue given your country’s well-known talent for / software piracy." And who said romance was dead?

Free musicals for bankers

If you’re freshly plunged into financial chaos and busy reassessing everything you thought you could rely on, being confronted with an all-singing all-dancing reality TV star in a colourful coat may not be quite what you want. Andrew Lloyd Webber disagrees, however, and is attempting to cheer up newly unemployed bankers with free tickets to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. The composer said he hoped his "feel-good shows" would cheer up those affected by the credit crunch, "albeit for a couple of hours".

Dog chews and sinister pensioners

Fake excrement, European monuments made from dog chews and pensioners eerily circling in wheelchairs await visitors to the Saatchi Gallery, which has reopened in a new Chelsea location with an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art. Meanwhile, in a one-metre-square space in the window of a Baker Street [bathroom shop], an Argentinian dancer will be [performing a ten-minute tango] four times a day.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.