This is what "savage austerity" looks like

Let's avoid the euphemisms

Today and yesterday, Alphaville put up a pair of posts detailing the terrifying lengths that the Greek state has been forced to go to in order to meet their austerity targets:

The country’s pharmacies are owed €500m by the state-backed healthcare insurer, according to reports. From next week patients will have to stump up the cash for their medicines upfront, and then claim a reimbursement from the National Organization for Healthcare Provision (EOPYY).

Greece: when the drugs run out

The desperate cunning scheme to get Greeks to pay property taxes by bundling them with electricity bills didn’t last long. You guessed it, people stopped paying their electricity bills and now it looks like the power company – which had to be bailed out last month – has stopped even trying to collect the levy.

Greece: when the lights go out

If the state healthcare company can't pay the pharmacies, it seems somewhat unlikely that it will be able to reimburse patients either. Meanwhile, the nationalised power company looks like it will run out of money again towards the end of June, unless customers start paying their bills again.

All of which goes some way to explaining the curious result that is seen time and time again in Greek opinion polls: contrary to what their actions – and their votes – suggest, the Greek people are actually overwhelmingly in favour of staying in the euro. They know how much membership of the single currency has benefited their country, and they don't want to lose it.

But they also know that the path they are on now – which, if it only involved Russian-style shock doctrine privatisation, would be getting off lightly – is unsustainable. They are losing healthcare, power, they have been paid negative salaries, and the word coming from Germany is that this will get worse, not better. Well, they're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore.

That said, the latest news out of Greece indicates that preferences may be swinging back to the devil they know. Joe Weisenthal reports a Nomura briefing which says:

Opinion polls are looking more constructive from a market perspective.

Which is a very euphemistic way of saying the pro-austerity New Democracy party may win the election.

Lighting over Athens, but the power's out. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.