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The simmer dim

The importance of light to the residents of Fair Isle

Midsummer in Shetland is a time of light. Although the Arctic Circle, at 66° north, marks the southernmost reaches of 24 hour sunshine, here at 60° we can still enjoy light throughout the day.

At the moment the sun sets around 10.30 in the evening, and rises again about 3.30am. The five hours in between are a time of prolonged dusk, known in Shetland as the simmer dim. If the sky is clear then it remains light enough to read outside for the entire night.

For those not used to this lingering twilight, it can be a little disconcerting. Waking patterns are affected by changes in the length of the day, and some people find it difficult to sleep without the comfort of darkness.

Traditionally, the summer solstice has always been a time of celebration. For the Norse pagans it marked the height of the sun’s power, and was associated with Baldur, the God of light. In more recent times, large bonfires would be lit on hills around Orkney and Shetland to mark the event. For people living in these northern islands, where winter is dominated by darkness, the power of light is of crucial importance.

The period around midsummer has been significant for other reasons, too. Traditionally 24 June, known as Johnsmas, marked the beginning of the herring fishing season. From the mid-15th century, Dutch fishing vessels began to travel north to Shetland to catch herring. Legally they could not begin fishing until the 24th, and so they waited, making use of the shelter available in the bay between the island of Bressay and the mainland. During the 17th century, trading between Shetlanders and the gathered Dutch boats increased and became more formalised. A temporary settlement around the bay gradually became a permanent one, and eventually it grew to become a town: Lerwick, now Shetland’s capital. The fishing industry remained, until the arrival of oil, the heart of Shetland’s economy.

It is said that the relationship between the Shetlanders and the Dutch amounted to far more than simply trading goods. For the young town, the influx of fishermen would no doubt have meant quite considerable festivities in the days leading up to the 24th: drinking, dancing and general debauchery would have been the order of the day.

A few years back, it was decided to revive the custom of a midsummer party in Lerwick. The Johnsmas Foy, based around the town’s Victoria Pier, is a three-day event, with music, food and cultural activities, as well as exhibitions celebrating the islands’ fishing heritage (not to mention drinking, dancing and debauchery). In other parts of Shetland there are similar events, and the tradition of celebrating the middle of summer seems once again to be becoming important.

Here in Fair Isle we had our midsummer party on Saturday night. A barbeque at the North Haven beach, with islanders and visitors, was mercifully uninterrupted by rain or wind. Although music was provided only by a small stereo attached to a very long lead, the large bonfire of driftwood on the beach was a more traditional touch. There was also, at one point, a mammoth tug-of-war between virtually everyone in attendance. It began as a battle of the sexes – men against women – though some shuffling was done to try to even out the teams. It must have been a pretty fair contest in the end, as the rope we were using snapped before either side managed to gain a decisive victory. So both teams finished up on their backsides in the sand.

We returned home after midnight – the sky above us still paled with light.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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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.