Morning call: pick of the comment

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's newspapers

1. This is no smoking gun, nor Iranian bomb (Guardian)

Nothing in the published "intelligence documents" shows that Iran is close to having nuclear weapons, says Norman Dombey.

2. After dealing with US health care, no wonder Barack Obama needs a doctor (Daily Telegraph)

The gruelling, eight-month health-care debate typified how lopsided and minority-dominated the US Senate has become. Alex Spillius outlines its problems of representation and filibustering.

3. Why market sentiment has no credibility (Financial Times)

Robert Skidelsky says that governments must call the bankers' bluff. The same markets that made the taxpayers' bank bailouts necessary are now demanding fiscal consolidation in return for their continued support for governments.

4. From "Yes, we can" to "No, we can't" (Independent)

Adrian Hamilton reflects on Obama's first year in power -- a year that opened with unbridled enthusiasm and hope -- and says that the US president has been constrained by the recession and by domestic considerations.

5. Bank charges criminalise us for being human (Times)

It's not fair to be penalised for going slightly over your overdraft limit, says Melanie Reid. The system is built to catch us out and the fines are disproportionately large.

6. The perfect gift? How about an end to loneliness -- and not just at Christmas (Guardian)

Jonathan Freedland on loneliness, a social enterprise for lifting people out of it and the challenging lessons public services could learn from it.

7. The many are being sacrificed for the few (Independent)

Les Ebdon offers an initial reaction to the news of Lord Mandelson's planned cuts of £130m from university funding in 2010-2011, and says that they were avoidable.

8. Balkan odyssey (Times)

Serbia's application to join the EU offers hope of overcoming a dark recent history, says the Times leading article.

9. Who will be next year's most hated? (Daily Telegraph)

Bankers and politicians have made a start, but there's plenty of loathing left, says Tracy Corrigan. Who's next in line -- lawyers? Accountants?

10. To keep on the move, we'll have to spend more (Times)

How do other countries cope with two foot of snow when two inches brings us to a halt, asks Stephen Joseph? They invest in concrete and steel. Here, rising demand is met with spending cuts.

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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.