Nonstarters: this week's worst kickstarter video

The Ostrich Pillow.

This week’s Nonstarter betrays the name of the column: it’s a clever idea executed well, and has already smashed its funding target like Geoff Capes bursting through a fake brick wall. It is, however, a damning indictment of the world that made it necessary.

And I say necessary because people have grasped for it with desperate, shaking hands - this is not a flourish of technological frippery like the Notice, but the promise of refuge from the information hurricane of modern work.

The Ostrich Pillow is a soft bag you pull over your head and jam your hands into when things get weird and you need a hole to cry in. You slip it on during brief moments of workplace respite and lie face-down, looking like some sort of crap alien that is eating its own hands.

Yet despite how defeated and weird you look from the seat next to you, you drift off to sleep with a happy smile on your face and a fading image of a rotating cake demonstrating how your power nap will make you 34 per cent more productive.* 

At least, according to the adorably soporific pitch video. The reality is more likely to involve 10 minutes of anxiety with your lower face pressed against breath-moistened desktop, breathing your own stale coffee reek and enduring sleepless visions of spreadsheets like a depressive’s reworking of Tron.

Then there is a tap on your shoulder. You flop up helplessly with your hands pressed to your bulbous grey head like Munch’s Scream, flailing to pull the damn thing off as your MD asks you when you’ll be able to send feedback on his last email. 

With this product, it matters little whether the end result actually gives people their promised shelter. More impressive is the fact the makers have, quite literally, sold a dream.

* since I am not Ben Goldacre, I will simply leave this without comment and turn to the reader with raised eyebrows and mouth set in a cynical line.

Fred Crawley is group editor for asset finance & accounting at VRL Financial News.

Some sort of crap alien that is eating its own hands. Photograph: youtube.com

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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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.