iPads in, colour film out: the 2012 inflation basket

And the lowly pineapple finally makes it into basket of goods used to calculate inflation.

The Office of National Statistics has released its annual review of the inflation calculation, showing what has been added and removed to the basket of goods used to calculate inflation. This year, out goes the cost of developing and printing colour film, as digital cameras steadily erode that business, and in comes Apple iPads (or rather, "tablet computers"), to reflect the growing size and importance of the market -- tablet computers are predicted to outsell PCs by 2013.

The changes reflect a number of priorities. As well as those related to the death of old technologies and the birth of new ones, others are designed to make the job of actually collating the information easier. So "branded chocolate sweets" replace "candy coated chocolate" due to difficulty of collection, while "outdoor adventure boot" is swapped out for "walking/hiking boot".

Some of the changes reflect different ways of buying the same things. We no longer purchase "cable TV subscriptions" in enough numbers, apparently, instead opting for "bundled communication services"; and "annual leisure centre membership" is taken out. since it is already reflected in, for example, "leisure centre exercise classes".

There is a tough line to walk with some introductions. Adding technology early is always important, since the fall in prices represents a real increase in relative living standards; and yet, pre-empting market adoption runs the risk of artificially dampening the final figures. For instance, blu-ray players were added to the basket in 2010, when they looked like the future of home entertainment; with the growing popularity of streaming services, they now look like an evolutionary dead-end, and yet their continually dropping prices will have lowered inflation, albeit by a miniscule amount.

The ONS always has a tricky job to do in balancing these competing demands, and it is further hampered by the fact that spending habits differ greatly between the most and least well-off in society. Trying to come up with a single figure to represent the whole nation may be an impossible task, but they will carry on trying to do so for as long as we ask it of them.

Included:

Bag of sweets (not chocolate), replacing bag of boiled/jellied sweets, to allow representation of foam sweets which have taken an increasing share of the market.

Tablet computers, introduced to represent a significant and growing market. Also improves coverage in an under-represented area of the basket.

Chicken and chips, takeaway, introduced to improve coverage of catering which has been identified as an under-represented area of the basket.

Pineapple. Fruit prices vary greatly, so it is beneficial to collect across as broad a range as possible.

Removed:

Develop & print 135/24 colour film, this item has a low and decreasing weight due to the increasing popularity of digital cameras.

Step ladder, a relatively low weighted item in an over covered area of the basket.

Subscription to cable TV, replaced by bundled communication services reflecting a change in the way in which this service is purchased.

 

Get the full data (pdf).

 

The lowly pineapple, finally in the inflation basket. Flickr/ECohen, CC-BY-SA

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.