Monday, 28 April 2014

Zero Hours: Now the Norm for the Young Working Class

"If we tolerate this, then our children will be next.." goes the song lyric.

Never has a line been more prophetic than on the subject of zero hours agency employed contracts for the new generation of 16+ working class jobs. My 21 year old son had friends round and one of them who had been unemployed over the winter had found a job at a local factory, employed by an agency on a zero hours contract. He was genuinely relieved and delighted after his previous job had been in an independent shop which had gone out of business. Our conversation was-

" Couldn't the factory employ you themselves for a 3 month trial then offer you a full time position?"
"The factory doesn't employ anyone directly. We're all agency staff."
"But after a successful period, surely they take on their own staff as they would want stability?"
" No. The agency told me I was lucky to get the job as people who couldn't provide their own safety boots themselves were put on the waiting list."
"As the agency are the employer they should be providing safety gear to you anyway" I said, genuinely aghast.

My sons friend looked at me blankly and then a sudden sick reality dawned on me. This younger generation have no concept of what a directly employed, full time contract job is, where employers value the stability and health and safety of employees and after a probationary period ongoing training and "getting on" with wage increments is normal. Now the ball is firmly in the employers court with a young generation who simply have no idea or expectation of "normal" work practice.

Some employers like several supermarkets and shops circumnavigate accusations of zero hours contracts by offering staff very low hours contracts instead. For example a local Supermarket employs a friend of mine on night shifts  at a guaranteed 7 hours work per week. He never knows from one week to the next whether he will be working full time or part time. He can't take the risk of renting privately with his girlfriend in case his hours literally go down to 7 hours per week, so at the age of 32 he is living with parents.

My generation of 40+ has a moral duty to both educate and campaign for whole scale reform on agencies and zero hours contracts. While Ed Milibands  announcement to restrict zero hours contracts to staff employed for less than 12 months, Labour need to go much further and outlaw zero hours, unless Jobseekers actively seeking agency flexible work want that non commitment. Any shop, factory taking on workers for say a 12 week probationary period should then employ staff on a full time contract, if that employee requires full time work or on a part time contract which traditionally has been 16 hours per week in the past. Zero hours contracts should be in the hands of those seeking flexible working conditions, not in the hands of huge corporations and shop chains, recruiting via agencies to get the cheapest, easily sackable work force it can.

Education by unions in schools for children in both primary and high schools is key. We cannot let a generation of children think they are powerless in the face of employers who have created a whole new army of people: the working poor. With 6.1 million working people now experiencing poverty and hardship, resorting to Foodbanks and choosing heat or eat, the time has come to redress this imbalance. If 21 year olds think zero hours is normal practice already, imagine what the generation still in school currently will come to see as "normal"?

Zero or very little hours contracts are the scourge of this Coalition government, putting  every playing card into the hands of the employer give ping them an easily disposable workforce with no conditions attached. After unions and the Labour Party had vigourously campaigned and won hard fought for conditions like holiday pay, sickness pay, maternity leave and pay, these rights have been eroded at a fantastical rate since 2010.

And don't believe for one minute as you are reading this that a protest vote for Ukip is the way forward! Forget immigration for a moment. Ukip are against maternity pay, paternity leave, and most rights in the workplace. They will place MORE power in the hands of employers to sack workers with no notice, make it hard for women to contemplate starting a family and returning to their old job, and will privatise the entire public sector. We all know what privatisation has brought to us since the Thatcher era? Rail journeys we can't afford and  electric gas and water that we can barely afford to turn on either!

Our children really are next. In fact zero hours as the norm is here now. You and I have to ensure that zero hours agency work is not here to stay. Educate your children, use your vote wisely in 2015 as a useless vote for Ukip lets Cameron sneak through the back door of No 10 for another 5 years, and join workplace and community campaigns that are springing up around the UK in retaliation to this attack on our livelihoods and our children's future. We owe our kids not to be working in soulless menial jobs without the security of even being able to afford a roof over their heads. Above all encourage them to join a union -today.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Foodbanks: are the poor "less deserving" of treats?

One of  my two local independent Foodbanks were this week delighted that they have been given a donation of Easter Eggs to put in food parcels. They have asked, if possible, for people to consider purchasing a small Easter Egg when shopping, so families where there are children, do not miss out on Easter Day.

Personally, and the same went for Christmas,  I see the Foodbank appeals for Easter Eggs or presents, for those who wish to donate, an essential part of their service. Why? Because seasonal occasions are not the exclusive rights of those who can afford it, the middle classes and our government.

Last year I was quite frankly appalled that as part of  a Foodbank promoting weekend, a local supermarket stacked all its white packeted value products at the front of its store and urged shoppers to purchase goods from the pile. I went round the supermarket and found buy one get one free branded products that were nutritionally superior and worked out at a lower cost than the value products. My whole reasoning then was that I want my donations to be of a similar quality to what I expect to eat. Those who are in need of a Foodbank parcel should be treated as I would wish to be treated, not as needy charity cases where the middle class get to feel good about donating a value tin of baked beans!

Which leads on to the question: Should Foodbanks be providing treats in their parcel? I have highlighted Easter Eggs due to the time of year, but I strongly feel a food parcel, whilst providing emergency food to get by should not be bereft of a few packets of biscuits, a box of chocolates or a bottle of wine if these items have been donated. I can already hear Tories choking over their champagne, but why does society think in general that the poor are somehow less deserving of  being included in mainstream society? At a time of both acute embarassment at having to be referred to a Foodbank in the first place, sitting in a queue to receive your charity handout, is it too much to ask that we treat those who are down on their luck, fighting austerity and losing, or fleeing domestic abuse as human beings?

Society somehow seems to stand in judgement on those who have the misfortune to be referred for a food parcel. Foodbank volunteers are continuously justifying on social media just who can and cannot receive food parcels. The voucher referral system which means those needing aid have to be referred by professionals such as social workers, teachers, support workers is reiterated time and time again as  "outraged"individuals accuse Foodbanks of handing out food to anyone who turns up with a sob story. It simply is not the case and a stringent referral system is applied. However, if I was running a Foodbank would I turn away someone who turned up at the door who was in desperate need? No, never. Rather hand out 1 food parcel than turn someone away in desperate need because they did not have a referral voucher.

By the time people arrive at a Foodbank they have a multitude of  problems. These can be benefit sanctions that are ongoing, rent arrears accruing, debt problems and mental health problems. It is certainly the job of society (now the Government have abdicated all responsibility) to meet the emergency need of food. But I believe we should go further. People in this situation are sitting at the very margins off society. This cuts them adrift from activities many of us take for granted. A trip to Pizza Hut for a child's birthday,  a glass of wine or bottle of beer watching Saturday night TV, a small box of chocolates to cheer yourself up. By relentlessly focussing on value tins of baked beans, tinned pies and tinned veg as being the epitome of what the poor should receive in a food parcel, we are essentially buying into the "less deserving" mantra that has become a cornerstone of Coalition policy.

The sheer despair of having to visit a Foodbank for help, to me warrants the odd treat in a parcel to make that person or family feel part of society and not simply looking into it from the fringes. A mum like myself with a large family to feed ,after opening the Foodbank parcel and feeding the family on the value products is entirely welcome to a box of chocolates to ease her misery and a few packets of Kit Kats for the kids. Because that is what many ordinary families have. When you have nothing at all, you are indeed very grateful for the help the Foodbank volunteers provide. As well as food this often takes the form of counselling or signposting to other support services. But being in this position should not be a reason for the middle classes to think the poor should be doffing their caps at every opportunity. When donating to a Foodbank we shouldn't be thinking we are wonderful people for offering the poor some bland value products from our shopping trip and that they should be grateful we are helping at all. I have come across this attitude on several occasions like the poor should be grateful for whatever they receive; for the crime of being guilty of having to resort to a Foodbank in the first place.

Surely the humanitarian thing to do, is to draw people back from the edges of society and make their lives a little less miserable at a time of huge vulnerability. The branded shampoo and conditioner you donate will make a mum or teenage daughter feel a little more human, a gift card for Pizza Hut could make a child's birthday, as their mum had previously explained birthdays were cancelled due to no money,  books, games,  a cake - all would have the desired effect to lift the mood of those with no other option than to ask society to feed them. The poor have already jumped the hurdle of having to gain a referral by a professional, so the people who donate and the middle classes need not worry their donations are open to misuse. I genuinely cringe when I hear this "holier-than-thou" attitude screaming from those with money that the poor should be thankful for what they receive.

Treat people as you would like to be treated. Who knows, you are one payday, one accident, one misfortune away of being a Foodbank client yourself.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Schools Textbook Scandal: Back to the Future with Gove!

I was 16 in 1983 at the height of the Thatcher years. My school was lucky as at that time it was only 20 years old so had none of the leaky roofs and buckets in classrooms suffered commonly by older schools at the time. One vivid memory was having 1 English Literature textbook on Macbeth between 3 of us. Homework was staged over 3 nights as the book was passed between us and the excuse of " But sir, Jenny forgot to bring it in" was given quite legitimately when homework could not be handed in on time. Parents rang the Head Teacher with their concerns, as this problem spread to other subjects. Our parents refused to pay for textbooks as they believed the school via the government should fund this basic equipment. Hence homework taking 4 days to complete.

Many local schools where I had other friends, were asking parents to provide exercise books too as well as textbooks to do O levels ; sitting in classrooms with huge cracks in ceilings and well in need of a concerted paint job throughout. For those with leaky roofs many a day was lost when the rain was just too bad and the buckets in classrooms couldn't cope.

My elder 2 sons did their GCSES under a Labour Govt back in 2005 and 2008. I can frankly say I never paid for a single textbook in all that time. We had voted for Education, Education, Education and it was delivered. Although we had school league tables they were certainly not the be all and end all, and my boys received a good quality education where subjects were taught and valued by enthusiastic teachers with resources. School trips to enrich the learning experience especially at GCSE level were commonplace. All GCSES were done in Year 11 after a 2 year period of study in June of that exam year. Labour had introduced swathes of different subjects too, so the less academic of students achieved practical NVQs. Every child mattered and every child was valued. Is it only a few short years since education was that good?

Fast forward to the years 2013 -2014. My two younger sons are now 15 and 16. The youngest is autistic. There have been four HeadTeachers in four years, each with a new vision of doing things which has led to my youngest sons year being "the guinea pig" year for every different method to do one thing only : get the school rocketing up the league tables. Where once we had education, education, education now we have league tables, league tables, league tables. To hell with the subject is the mantra as long as we get kids getting A*-C. Now the GCSES are fast- tracked into 1 school year which is effectively 8 months, Exams are mostly taken in May, not June. To get more results to boost the league tables children in Year 9 take 2 option GCSES, then a further 2 in Year 10 and the rest in Year 11. Some parents say it suits their brighter child, but the vast majority have seen the soul destroying way it is taught, without resources.

Wesrminster has definitely not ring fenced the education budget. It is a lie. Cuts are being made drastically. There are not enough GCSE textbooks to go round. Teachers are covering this up by photo-copying large amounts of handouts and asking pupils to put them in folders. Concerned parents like myself have had to turn to online retailers to buy the books so the children have a hard copy of their own for school and home. One GCSE textbook for Home Economics is peculiar to our exam board only at the cost of £20 each. One teacher, on noticing both my sons had their own Geography textbooks, rang me personally to ask whether I would consider donating them to school after the summer exam, as she only has 8 to cover the entire class. Another  older experienced teacher told me at parents evening that she was buying the latest textbooks for her class out of her own pocket as she said it is a catch 22 situation "If the children don't have the textbooks their results will be noticeably lower. This will reflect on me as a teacher through the league tables."

Schools are now slaves to the league tables. Getting up the league tables is the entire raison d'ĂȘtre of Headteachers. Their jobs depend on it, their funding depends on constant improvement.
"So why not put younger pupils in Year 9 and 10 in for exams early  and boost results further? So the children only have 8 months to cram the coursework and the subject in, school trips have to be missed, but hell it's ok because it's the school league tables that matter!" This is what is going on in many schools currently. The constant pressure to outperform the previous years results has now boiled down to a constant treadmill of exams over 3 years where the exam not the subject is taught. I had a son who adored history last year. This year I have a son who never wants to learn history again! The previous Headteacher decided to opt for a "vertical curriculum" where children could possibly leave school in Year 11 with a potential 14 GCSES. Only GCSE days for their 2 option subjects are done all day on Mondays and Fridays with the core subjects done Tuesday-Thursday. Drama and Home Economics benefit as they have all day for practical and theory work. The History and Geography teachers loathe it as children sit at desks all day going from topic to topic cramming in 2 years work in 8 months, with little love or knowledge of the subject , just merely instruments of passing the exam itself. And those who are C/D borderline are helped the most while those A/B students are left to their own devices. Why? So those pupils are pushed to get a C not a D as this reflects on those blasted league tables!

My younger sons have no depth of knowledge of the subjects they are taking this year. Yet they will pass exams in those subjects at GCSE as they have been taught the exam knowledge. It's not good enough. At parents evening I watched every teacher flicking through huge folders of extraordinary statistics as they searched for my boys grades and predicted grades at GCSE. I actually spent a lot of time questioning teachers on their stress levels! The Head of Science has just returned after a breakdown last summer, my sons are experiencing revolving doors of supply teachers across a range of subjects as teachers are ill with stress related problems. As a parent of children doing GCSES I am constantly on the phone telling the Head this is impacting on my children. I have read textbooks myself and tried to learn many of their GCSE subjects so I can help them at home when the supply teacher has no idea who they are and their particular problems or knowledge of a subject. I too am on the exam treadmill!

It was very rare in my teenage years for a teacher to be off sick, in fact it was a talking point if they were! Now stress is unmanageable in the teaching profession which has a huge impact on our children. As my youngest son wearily showed me the options list for his final year next September, we picked 2 options purely because both teachers are never sick, and buy the class textbooks themselves!

My sons will look back at their High School Years as one big exam roller coaster in years to come, which simply satisfied the monster that is exam league tables. They too will recall the lack of resources as I have done. It is no coincidence that Tories were in control of the education department on both occasions. State education suffers under Conservatism full stop. Rich Tory MPs don't have to worry as their children attend private independent schools. The working class must fight back and say this system and lack of resources is not good enough for our children. We demand a world class education. Our children deserve it. One tip to Mr Gove: The champagne budget in the House of Commons has risen 72% under the Coalition Government. Spend it on education instead.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Time for the left to take on Ukip

Ukip won't go away. Nigel Farage in the wake of the Godfrey Bloom "women are sluts" furore is making Ukip toe the party line. For the past few years Labour have watched from the sidelines, delighted that Ukip are taking voters away from the Tories, thus splitting the Tory vote open.

But watching from the sidelines has to stop. Step into the street and never has a party with a perceived 1 policy only - immigration control- been so popular among working class traditional Labour voters. This can't happen think the Labour hierarchy. How can working class socialists turn full circle and vote in the opposite right wing direction? Well I could tell Ed Miliband why in a heartbeat. Labour are ignoring their traditional core working class voters at their peril. Sidestepping thorny issues on social security in order to woo the middle class vote has made us working class people feel cast to one side. Labour are directing many policies towards the middle class such as increasing childcare to 25 hours a week for 3 and 4 year olds and providing wraparound 8am-6pm primary school care. While this is to be lauded, it should not come at the expense of ignoring issues that matter to the working class.

On the issue of immigration and integration, Labour cannot pretend some things are not happening. Step foot into some factories as a young 18-25 year old, working class British male employed by an agency. My son works in one. Last year he was sent to a factory that was dominated by one Eastern European race from managers to staff. The British workers were in a minority. The hostility shown to my son over the course of a few days was intense. Only due to the fact the factory kept asking him to turn up daily then telling him there was no work available, meant he left entirely and found a better factory job elsewhere. Ukip, using their one policy mantra are appealing to young workers like my son by simply saying they will stop immigration or send foreign workers back to their homelands. Labour should be looking at the entire concept going on in these factories: zero hours contracts, agency staff, working conditions, racial integration. That little package is why some factories are powder kegs that could ignite at anytime. Young working class men and women aren't bothered what other policies Ukip stand for in these circumstances,as long as Ukip keep repeating they will stop immigrants "taking British jobs". Likewise older workers who have been lifelong Labour voters think Nigel Farage and his "blokeiness" image of  being down the pub with a fag and a pint appeals to them. This is simply because they are unable to recognise a Labour Party and cabinet full of middle class suits, posh voices and lives not remotely connected to the workers on the factory floor.

Sure the working class hear the occasional bit of policy like the scrapping of the Bedroom Tax coming from Labour: but these are the "scraps from the table" and the odd exception. Not a backbone raft of policies that will appeal directly to the working class and make us feel proud to be Labour voters.

What is needed by Labour is a full headlong attack on Ukip. Point out Ukips policy on the very rights trades unions have spent a hundred years fighting for! For example Ukip want to see the public sector jobs dissolve entirely and be privatised completely. The result being thousands will lose their jobs and hard fought for rights, to be replaced by some private company to pay low wages and make maximum profits for themselves. And women how will we fare under Ukip? Well forget maternity pay for a start! Ukip think businesses should not have to pay for pregnant women while they take time off to have a baby. A leading Ukip campaigner Alexandra Swann has resigned from the party recently after not being able to take the party's rhetoric on immigration and anti-gay marriage. She was concerned Ukip were not campaigning on immigration due to an immigrants skill level, but campaigning against immigration generally. Marta Andreason the Ukip MEP threatened to leave the party as Farage thinks "women should be in the kitchen or the bedroom".

Ukip want to repeal the human rights act, take the UK out of Europe (losing in the process thousands of UK jobs as we will have no trading partners) slash the NHS budget, slash the public sector by £77billion, increase defence spending by a staggering 40%, ban any showing of global warming films in schools and scrap renewable energy, abolish inheritance tax for the rich and cut coporation tax for the big companies. I would be literally shoving these policies under the noses of working class people like myself so we appreciate exactly what Ukip stand for. Let's break Ukips one policy on immigration mantra and look in depth at their bigger picture should they gain political representation in Parliament. This is what needs to be told to the electorate, not the slick TV news items, the calm laddish Farage on BBC Question time. The real truth of what will happen if a Ukip government ever get elected, or if in 2015 they should gain enough MPs to form a coalition for 5 years with the Tories
should be laid bare in front of the electorate and particularly working class people.

Unite the Union are busy currently preparing working class people on their Future Candidate programme, to seek to gain selection in their Labour CLP, and so to win elections as MPs. This will provide more working class voices to speak out on issues within the Labour Party which affect ordinary people and is very much needed. These candidates have their ears close to the issues which matter to us working classes and will speak out on our behalf.

Many trade unionists, workers old and young will be reading this and feeling alienated from a Labour Party they think has lost touch with the working class and are desparately seeking an alternative party to vote for. This is entirely understandable. But look at those Ukip policies and realise Nigel Farage's image of a nice bloke is a facade,a front to get him elected. Underneath he is a far right annoyed, angry Tory. A vote for Ukip in 2015 could well put Cameron and the posh boys back in power for another 5 years and which of us wants that?

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Want to send your birthday wishes to IDS and the Bedroom Tax?....

The hated bedroom tax is a year old on April 6th and dear old IDS is 60 on April 9th.

Why not join Unite the Union's birthday greetings and send your message to IDS?

Please click this link Stop the Bedroom Tax

which will redirect you to Unites website where you can leave your own birthday messages. My message simply asked that both the Bedroom Tax and IDS retire now! But you may have your own particular message to send him. Lets see the strength and depth of public feeling for this pernicious hated bedroom tax on the most vulnerable in our society and stand up and speak out now!