The short future of Abenomics

Japan's maverick PM might not have his heart in the game.

Shinzo Abe's remarkable attempt to rip up the monetary policy textbook has been paying dividends. Abe got his pick of governor; The strong yen, which was blamed for stifling Japan's exports, has been sliding against the dollar (up is weaker):

 

And the Nikkei 225, Japan's leading stock index, is on trend to hit 13,000 before 31 March—meaning that Japan's economic minister's attempt to goose the stock market has been successful.

But economist Norm Smith throws cold water on the popularity of Abenomics, reminding us that Shinzo Abe does have other policies as well.

We've always known that Abe is, in the words of Paul Krugman, "a pretty bad guy". But the hope of economists was that he was stumbling into a string of monetary successes; that by doing the exact opposite of the conventional wisdom for no other reason than being a crotchety old anti-intellectual, he could prove that conventional wisdom was wrong.

For those purposes, it didn't really matter that Abe is " a nationalist, a denier of World War II atrocities, a man with little obvious interest in economic policy". We would get our experiment either way.

But Smith now picks apart the likely plan of action for Abe, and it doesn't include seeing the experiment through to success:

Abe is generating a brief fillip of optimism and a sense of economic movement in order to secure an LDP majority in the all-important upcoming upper house election. Securing that majority would allow him to get on with his true all-consuming priority - revising Japan's constitution. After that, his conservative instincts, and the conservative instincts of the Finance Ministry (which is arguably a lot more powerful than the Prime Minister), will take over, as will the worries of the LDP's elderly voters that inflation would destroy their hard-earned life's savings. At that point, talk of radical monetary reform will evaporate, and the recent movements in the yen and the Japanese stock market will begin to slowly unwind.

What cynical actions of right-wing nationalists give, cynical actions of right-wing nationalists take. If Smith is right, Abenomics isn't long for this world.

Shinzo Abe. 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.