The Culture Secretary is wrong to knock ethnic minorities

Jeremy Hunt's comments show he does not understand the reality of art in modern Britain.

"Public money will no longer be given to arts organisations simply because they hire a high proportion of women or ethnic minorities, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has warned," reports the Daily Mail.

And here were we at the Asian theatre company Tamasha, labouring under the misapprehension for these last 21 years that the Arts Council fund us because we stage plays the British public want to see! The implication in the minister's speech that artists such as ourselves only receive money because of our gender and race is cynical in the extreme.

The claim of a "box-ticking" approach to funding artists from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds promotes the notion that artists from minority groups are nothing but jumped-up quota-fillers. We would expect it from the Mail but when we start hearing it from the Culture secretary, it's alarming.

Hunt told the delegates at the Media Arts Festival that, "The days of securing taxpayer funds purely by box ticking - getting cash simply because a diversity target has been hit - are now over."

Under Labour, the arts were charged with challenging social exclusion, celebrating diversity and reasserting Britishness. At Tamasha, we've encountered our fair share of box-ticking theatres, wanting to collaborate with us purely to get Asian bums on their seats, but it comes with the territory. We're wise to it and don't collaborate with those theatres.

Yet the suggestion that artists of colour have been enjoying an Arts Council-funded joy ride demeans us and shows how little Hunt understands the reality on the ground.

Now that the critical pendulum is swinging away from the Arts for social ends back to the "purer" criteria of intrinsic artistic excellence, we are seeing a retrogressive new conservatism at work. After all, who decides the criteria for judging artistic excellence?

Cultural diversity is not important in and of itself, but because it allows us to contrast different values and beliefs and take positions on them. The arts offer a special forum in which to engage in political dialogue and debate that can help create a collective language of citizenship. We see that most clearly in our work in schools.

Ironically, in the very same speech Hunt urged arts organisations not to dump education outreach when the cuts come in. His headline-grabbing comments about funding women and minorities shows a lack of political and artistic vision. The box ticking was never of our choosing and nor was the labelling. Ministers come and go but we will continue to make plays with or without their interference.

Kristine Landon-Smith is co-director with Sudha Bhuchar of Tamasha Theatre Company

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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.