One Direction vs a FTSE 100 company - which is more "grossly immoral"?

Surely Vince Cable wouldn't take a swipe at a fellow tousle-haired scamp like Harry Styles.

Vince Cable’s swift denial of claims that he attacked the pay of One Direction in a debate yesterday was a great bit of crisis aversion. After various commentators claimed that he’d responded to a question about the boyband’s alleged £5m per member pay packet with an attack on their "grossly immoral" earnings, aides were quick to clarify that he’d misheard the question. He was talking about the issue of executive pay.

The jury’s out on whether he actually knew what he was saying or not, but it’s easy to get confused between the band and a FTSE 100 company. Both One Direction and WPP, for example, were created by a sinister orange puppet master for the purpose of world domination. For my part, I think it unlikely Vince would want to take a swipe at a fellow outspoken, tousle-haired scamp like Harry Styles.

The point is it doesn’t matter. Whether the line was a smokescreen or a clarification, it was the right choice, and that is infuriating. The British public (or at least that rabid segment of it represented on Twitter) seemed satisfied with Cable’s explanation. Attacks from directioners are disappointingly few. So why are we happy to indiscriminately lash out at the inflated pay packets of the suits while letting the quiffs keep their cocaine summer houses and personal fleets of ice cream trucks?

It’s true that executive pay is an important issue. According to the FT, the median pay of a FTSE 100 chief exec has risen 266 per cent since 2000, while that of the average worker has risen a mere 40 per cent. Perhaps this direct and rather alarming comparison between the pay of CEOs and those of us at the bottom makes anger easier to come by.

While last year’s "shareholder spring" was a step in the right direction - a third of FTSE 100 CEOs who have disclosed their salary for 2013 have frozen their pay -  this year may be quieter. Despite outspoken opposition from Standard Life’s Guy Jubb, BP’s remuneration report passed last week with 93 per cent of shareholders in favour. 

However, there is a qualitative difference between the pay of a pop star and the pay of many executives. One Direction’s pay is, more or less, reflective of how much money they bring in for their label and management. Doubtless, they do this well, and they deserve to see much of that money. However, a Chief Executive generally has additional considerations knocking around his or her less photogenic head. As Jonathan Guthrie pointed out last week, BP’s Bob Dudley has to meet objectives in thirteen categories to get his bonus. One of them is "upstream major project delivery". Surely the man deserves a few thou for even knowing what that means.

The concern is that CEOs are being dragged into bash a banker hoo ha hour - post-crisis Britain’s favourite entertainment show. If the main swell of the pay debate ceases to be conducted along reasonable lines, CEOs won’t listen even to reasonable objections. Many of them earn too much, and few if any of them have the bewitching charm of Zayn Malik, but we should acknowledge that CEOs do a complicated job, and remuneration needs to account for that in a manner which is satisfactory for both sides.

Photograph: Getty Images

Josh Lowe is a freelance journalist and communications consultant. Follow him on Twitter @jeyylowe.

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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.