Has the pound turned the corner against the Euro?

As the Italian <em>tuttishambles</em> starts to bite, the currency wars get interesting.

Yesterday saw morning saw a mild spike in the EUR/GBP exchange rate, peaking at £0.8807 to the euro before the results of the Italian election started to become clear and the Euro collapsed:

 

The spike was widely attributed to the Moody's downgrade, and, insofar as any single cause can be found, it probably was. But it was reported very differently depending on how important the downgrade was felt to be. For instance, whereas I wrote that the pound was "only slightly down against the Euro", others framed the same information as "a new 52-week low".

Both are, of course, true. The pound hit its peak against the Euro last July and has been steadily declining ever since:

 

Even after improving against the Euro on the back of the news from Italy, you would still have to go back over a year to find the last time before 2013 when the EUR/GBP was so high:

So when we say "the pound hit a 52 week low" after the Moody's downgrade, it's technically correct, but only gets the truth across if you bear in mind that the pound also hit a 52 week low before the Moody's downgrade.

In part, that continued collapse is to do with matters beyond the control of British policy. Until recently, the currency was a safe haven, isolated from the contusions of the eurozone and the US fiscal cliff. That boosted it higher than its resting level, and as the fiscal cliff was sorted and the dust cleared revealing a eurozone still standing.

But it's also an artefact of the growing evidence that the Bank of England is prepared to put up with significantly higher inflation than normal, as well as the perennial driver of all Britain's economic fortunes, our anaemic growth.

In a way, despite the focus on Japan's increasingly aggressive attempts to drive down the yen, it's us who are actually winning the currency wars. The problem is that we aren't getting a huge amount for our victory. Despite what theory says ought to happen, Britain's exports remain flat, and our homegrown industry isn't seeing any benefit either. Meanwhile, the cost of living for Brits soars correspondingly.

It you're looking for the upside of the Italian tuttishambles, then, it's that: your imported truffles and holidays to the French Riviera will finally start to come back down in price.

What do you mean you don't import truffles?

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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.