Nonstarters: The Notice

If you notice this Notice, you’ll notice this Notice is not worth noticing.

Many Kickstarter failures blunder into the gutter on the back of inept pitches and underwhelming products. This one, however, featured a fairly slick video for a good-looking object that seemed to do its job very well.

That job, however, is not one that most people in a reasonable emotional state could want done.

The “Notice” faithfully transmits the silhouette-envelope-globe notification panel from Facebook onto a Zuckerberg-blue plastic box in front of your monitor, keeping you aware of pending messages, events and friend requests via red LED numbers and noises.

Are we really so damaged as a culture that we need to be reassured that something is happening on Facebook even in the furtive moments when we have other sites up on our screens?

Facebook already feels like an ogre with a rope, constantly yanking me in to look at its holiday photos. Why would I want to invite that ogre through the screen and into the physical world?

Life could only become more tense with this thing staring me in the face, huffing tinnily and quacking numbers in red light to remind me I should be online.

Yes, you can set a threshold below which it won’t bother you, but it will still be there: the ogre’s rope, looped around your attention span and ready to be tugged.

And the reward for funding? Your name moulded into the casing of every unit made. I’d rather have my name inscribed on Geneva-banned cluster munitions.

Luckily, the Notice only achieved $4,169 of its steep $20k goal, but that’s $4,169 too much for my confidence in consumer sanity. What’s next, an implant that clamps to the base of your skull and shunts Twitter directly into your visual cortex?

Probably.

The Notice. Photograph: Kickstarter

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.