Rung choice: a workman up a ladder paints traffic lights in 1933. Photo: Getty
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I know it’s silly but I am superstitious: I’m trapped in the Hovel by a ladder in the doorway

Down and Out with Nicholas Lezard. 

I have to go out but as I open the front door I see a ladder propped up bang in front of me. Like many rationalists who revere science and the rule of reason, I am deeply superstitious, all the more so for knowing that it is very silly. It is the very silliness that exercises its grip on me.

Anyway, there it is. It’s bad luck to walk under a ladder and now I am paralysed by wondering if opening a door to find yourself already under a ladder can be said to constitute walking under it; and then by trying to work out whether I am slightly to the left or right of its centre, so that if I sidle out in that direction, I can claim that I have not, strictly speaking, contravened the injunction by not having passed through its vertical axis.

All this is very annoying, as I am cutting it a bit fine for the thing I have to go to and do not have time to go back in, have a cup of tea and hope that the workmen painting the bit above the front door will have finished and gone away by the next time I try to leave.

I muse a lot on fortune, though. Long-term readers of this column with unusually retentive memories may recall that I used to invoke The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, in which he remarked, while in prison after falling spectacularly out of favour with Theodoric the Great, that life’s all ups and downs, innit, although he put it rather more elegantly than that. We are all at the mercy of fortune’s wheel, he said: consul one moment, awaiting execution and sharing your bread with rats the next.

Because of my great good fortune of having been born in an affluent country at an epoch in history in which there are anaesthetics and medications that relieve asthma (once, gasping without an inhaler in the middle of a spidery house in the middle of nowhere in France, I found an old medical textbook that confidently asserted that asthma attacks were “never fatal”; had I been born even a century earlier, nothing on the broader scale of time, I would have been killed by medical ignorance), there is a certain resistance to the downward motion of the wheel. If you’re born to a poor family in most parts of the globe (and, increasingly, this one), then your lowly position on the wheel isn’t going to change very much.

So I’m not grumbling. But there is a certain contingency to all lives and somehow it has to be acknowledged. I once thanked Providence that I had met a certain person; she said that this sounded a little bit like thanking God. Maybe it is but I tried to wriggle out of this one by saying that it is a neutral way of not taking things for granted and Providence is nothing more than a shorthand for “what has happened” or “the way things have turned out” – although, yes, I did capitalise the word in my head, just in case Providence turns out, despite the lack of unambiguous evidence, to be a matter of the Abrahamic God, or the Fates, or some Nordic crones with a thing for spinning wheels, who have a stake or an agency in what goes on. I like to cover my bets, for the precise reason that one never knows what might happen.

Meanwhile, I know that very bad things indeed can happen, even if you have been born to become an adult in 21st-century Britain. It may not feel like that at the moment, when the worst here merely looks like the rise of Nigel Farage or any of the other clowns who constitute the political scene, but there are terrible things out there – the imagination can become a fire hose spewing out nightmares if you let it run away with itself and even if touching wood and thanking Providence are obviously futile gestures that will have no bearing on anything, they at least represent, like the coin in the chugger’s bucket, a token of consideration, the homage made to the sense that one ought to do something, however small, however feeble the gesture. And I am still aware, as indeed are the National Westminster Bank and all my other creditors, that I am too near the precipice to be able to walk with a carefree swagger through life.

Anyway, after a while, I decide to sidle round the doorway as far to the right as possible, the people in the shop next door thinking that I, always clearly on the brink of madness, have finally sailed off the edge. Breathing a sigh of relief at having outwitted the Norns, or whoever, I get run over by a No 13 bus on Gloucester Place. All right, I don’t actually but it could have happened

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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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.