A to B: Transport week at the New Statesman

Introducing a week of themed posts on how we get from here to there and back again.

It's not where you go, it's how you get there. We all need to get around, from the day-to-day (the average Briton spends three and a half hours commuting every week) to the less frequent (there were 45 million flights abroad in 2012, mostly to Europe).

And how we choose to do it matters. In 2011, 21 people died on the London Underground, while 16 cyclists died in the capital. Those numbers may be roughly comparable, but when you consider that the Tube carries four million people a day while there is an eighth that number of cyclists, it's clear that one group is taking a much bigger (though still small) risk.

Living with that risk may be the cause of the fierce group dynamic cyclists display. But it's not just them. How we travel can define us in surprising ways. From the shared drudgery of an eight and a half hour coach trip across England to the commuters standing in an overcrowded train doing its best impression of a sardine tin, the trip matters almost as much as the destination.

Of course, for some people, the trip is the destination. Take the itinerant retirees of the British canal system, who give up society to live a life of fields, tiny town shops and everlasting damp; or the hundreds of rough sleepers who make the most of London's night bus network to catch 90 minutes of safe rest.

Over the next week, we'll be taking a look at all these aspects of transport and more. Hayley Campbell gives her rules for cycling; Alan White shares his time on a narrowboat; Samira Shackle reports on the car-centric lives of wealthy Pakistanis; and there will be more besides.

Monday: Hayley Campbell has been cycling in London for two years and is inexplicably Not Dead. Now you can be Not Dead too.

Tuesday: Alan White shares his time floating around Britain's canal network, and Alex Andreou shares the unique relationship a migrant has with planes.

Wednesday: Samira Shackle writes about the dependence the rich of Pakistan have on their cars, and Labour's shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle calls of the government to end its stop-start approach to cycling.

Thursday: Holly Baxter shares her love-hate relationship with National Express, the red-headed stepchild of transport, and Eleanor Margolis recounts her experience with the vikings of the N22.

Friday: Caroline Crampton recalls the time her parents were lost at sea.

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.