The BBC's Super-Rich and Us. Photo: BBC/Fresh One Productions
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Our masochistic fascination with the super-rich must end now

The vast majority of us spend our lives worrying about money. If you don't, shut up.

For a couple of years, I worked the odd shift on a luxury magazine. It was (and still is) the Argos catalogue of the One Per Cent, with features on yachting in the turquoisest parts of the Caribbean, wine tasting in the Frenchest parts of France and watches with price tags that would make a Russian oligarch choke on his breakfast caviar. And I was its occasional stand-in fact checker. For the most part, this meant looking at prices of things. Expensive things.

I remember phoning the press office for a posh jeweller to check that a particular diamond necklace was indeed £350,000. There’s something so embarrassing about discussing that sort of figure over the phone. Both me and the affable PR girl – Imogen, or Francesca, or Verity – clearly knew it was stupid. I wanted to say something. I wanted to say, “So, we have the necklace down as three hundred and fifty fucking thousand pounds. Is that the correct monumentally insane price?

I didn’t though, because Imogen/Francesca/Verity was nice. So I just sat, stewing in adolescently communist thoughts.

“Whoever buys this necklace,” I thought, “fuck you and your things”.

And things, it seems, have never been so poignant. TV screens are plastered with Bentleys and jizzing bottles of Dom Perignon, following the trend for documentaries and reality shows about the super-rich. We can’t get enough of these people. The BBC’s Posh People: Inside Tatler gave us a porny peep at old money, while more recent two-part documentary The Super-Rich and Us focuses more on the newer sort. Both kinds suck in their own ways. And in a world where the 85 richest people are as wealthy as the poorest three billion, a £350,000 necklace is a sign of things gone arse up and tits backwards. It’s trite, I know. But sometimes trite things need to be repeated again and again and again, until the right people start listening.

It’s about time we truly made pariahs out of billionaires. At least to the point at which we scrub them the hell off our TV screens. Fair enough, The Super-Rich and Us, the first episode of which aired last week, is actually a look into how the recession has widened the gap between rich and poor. It’s not meant to be aspirational, but it might as well be. It features interviews with billionaires doing some pretty billionaire-ish stuff. No one wants to see that. Frankly, I’d rather look at a haemorrhoid, or Nigel Farage, or even Nigel Farage’s haemorrhoid, than another Chelsea bastard shoving his utterly carefree lifestyle down the population’s collective cake hole. Visibly rich people on our screens are just the fattest dumplings in a stew of televisual depressingness. “Everything you love to eat is killing you. No, really and truly killing the fuck out of you,” says TV, “and if carbs don’t kill you, terrorists will. And if they don’t, we’re more than due a colossal natural disaster. And, by the way, here’s diarrhoea in a sharp suit driving its Lamborghini to the nearest diamond shop.”

This constant showcasing of freakish wealth almost wouldn’t be so offensive if it weren’t happening alongside programmes like last year’s Benefits Street. While making monsters of the working class, we’re, OK, not so much lauding the super-rich, but giving them enough exposure to show off their things until they run out of things to show us. Flashiness used to be a matter of bad taste and nothing else. Now though, it’s about so much more than aesthetics. When society has never been less equal, flaunting what you have (no matter how ugly and useless it seems to the rest of the world) is, above all, profoundly insensitive.

We’ve had our fun judging the super-rich for their jewel-encrusted bidets, but it’s about time, now, we stop giving them a platform. Effectively, they’re only making us more miserable. Just look at the Rich Kids of Instagram Tumblr. Boy, do we love to hate these insecure teenagers who post pictures of themselves pouring champagne over cornflakes, amongst other costly capers. They say we’re just jealous, and we are. Not of their god-awful things, but of their luck.  It’s one thing to have earned (ethically or not) enough money to swim in, it’s quite another just to happen to be the offspring of someone who did. The vast majority of us spend a decent chunk of our lives worrying about money. If you’re not one of us, kindly shut up about it.

Our masochistic fascination with the super-rich needs to end right now. While we’re waiting for that to happen, if you’re lucky enough to be flying somewhere, just make sure you fart when you’re walking through business class. For humanity’s sake.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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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.