"Gay Girl in Damascus" at it again?

Tom MacMaster, author of the fictional blog A Gay Girl in Damascus, has been accused of posting comm

It seems Tom MacMaster, the US graduate student behind the lesbian blogger hoax, has never heard the phrase "once bitten, twice shy".

He was subject to international criticism after he was unmasked as the true identity behind the Syrian blogger Amina Arraf. Posing as a lesbian activist, MacMaster's writings drew a wide following around the world, and highlighted humanitarian and political issues in the Middle East. But he was "outed" (if you'll excuse the pun) when he claimed "Amina" had been abducted by Syrian security services -- sparking a man-hunt which ended with MacMaster himself.

Now the beleaguered blogger has been accused of a similar trick, after he admitted that a comment defending his actions on the liberal Jewish news website Mondoweiss was written under a false name.

"Miriam Umm Ibni" wrote a supportive message about MacMaster, saying that although "he misguidedly placed himself in the guise of an Arab woman...he did so from real compassion... He is an individual with no budget, trying to bring attention to issues through writing."

But the post was found to originate from the same IP address used by the American blogger, raising allegations that he was again assuming the identity of an Arab woman to make a point. In an email later posted by the editors of Mondoweiss, MacMaster admitted Miriam Umm Ibni was an assumed identity, but claimed he was not behind the comments.

"A friend of mine who would really like to remain nameless recently posted a comment defending me on your site. She used a pseudonym as she is a committed activist on the Palestine cause as well as a fellow international student here at the University of Edinburgh. To post it, she used the same wireless connection I use. She was, after all, visiting my wife and I at the time."

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a freelance journalist currently living and working in London. She has written for the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist online.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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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.