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A race to the bottom

Happy new year to one and all, although I suspect for many it will be a new year of trepidation rather than hope and excitement.

It seems that every way we turn there is a strike or a threat of a strike in this country, reminiscent, according to the media, of the 1970s.  It also seems that every public service we think about (I mean this in the wider context so would include Royal Mail for example,) is failing in one way or another.  The one thing that strikes me though, pardon the pun, is that none of this has suddenly happened.  And yet, if you were to believe media reporting, this is something that is caused by those pesky unions and intransigent workers or is it the other way round?  Anyway, the constant rhetoric of there is ‘no money’, if said often enough by politicians and echoed by media pundits becomes the lingua franca.  Watch the news and you will see those ordinary members of the public saying the same thing.  They may prefix this with ‘I understand why they are striking’ and then add…’but there is no money’.  

When I listen to the radio or watch the news on television (a bit outdated I know), I am incensed by questions aimed at representatives of the railway unions or the nurses’ union, amongst others,  along the lines of ‘what have you got to say to those businesses that are losing money as a result of your strikes or what would you like to say to patients that have yet again had their operations cancelled’? This is usually coupled with an interview of a suffering business owner or potential patient.  I know what I would like to say to the ignorant idiot that asked the question and I’m sure most of you, especially those that know me, know what that is.  Ignorant, because they have ignored the core and complex issues, wittingly or unwittingly, and an idiot because you already know the answer to the question but also know the power of the media. Unbiased, my …. 

When we look at all the different services, we see that there is one thing in common, a continuous, often political ideologically uncompromising drive to reduce real time funding for public services.  As much as politicians will argue about the amount of money ploughed into the services, they know that the funding has been woefully inadequate over the years. I don’t blame the current government for this, it is a succession of governments and I’m afraid Labour laying the blame at the Tory governments’ door just won’t wash.  Social care, for example, has been constantly ignored or prevaricated over, long before the current Tories came to power, and the inability of social care to respond to current needs has a significant knock-on effect to health care.  I do however think the present government is intransigent in failing to address the issues that have caused the strikes.  Let us be clear though, this is not just about pay as many in government and the media would have you believe.  I’m sure, if it was, many would, as one rather despicable individual interviewed on the radio stated, ‘suck it up and get on with it’. I have to add, I nearly crashed the car when I heard that, and the air turned blue.  Another ignoramus I’m afraid.

Speak to most workers and they will tell you it is more about conditions rather than pay per se. Unfortunately, those increasingly unbearable and unworkable conditions have been caused by a lack of funding, budget restraints and pay restraints. We now have a situation where people don’t want to work in such conditions and are voting with their feet, exacerbating the conditions.  People don’t want to join those services because of poor pay coupled with unworkable conditions. The government’s answer, well to the nurses anyway, is that they are abiding by the independent pay review body. That’s like putting two fingers up to the nurses, the health service and the public.  When I was in policing it had an independent pay review body, the government didn’t always abide by it, notably, they sometimes opted to award less than was recommended. The word recommendation only seems to work in favour of government. Now look at the police service, underfunded, in chaos and failing to meet the increasing demands. Some of those demands caused by an underfunded social and health care service, particularly mental health care.

Over the years it has become clear that successive governments’ policies of waste, wasted opportunity, poor decision making, vote chasing, and corruption have led us to where we are now. The difference between first and third world country governments seems to only be a matter of degree of ineptitude.  It has been a race to the bottom, a race to provide cheap, inadequate services to those that can’t afford any better and a race to suck everyone other than the rich into the abyss. 

A government minister was quoted as saying that by paying wage increases it would cost the average household a thousand pound a year. I’d pay an extra thousand pound, in fact I’d pay two if it would allow me to see my doctor in a timely manner, if it gave me confidence that the ambulance would turn up promptly when needed, if it meant a trip to A&E wouldn’t involve a whole day’s wait or being turned away or if I could get to see a dentist rather than having to attempt DIY dentistry in desperation.  I’d like to think the police would turn up promptly when needed and that my post and parcels would be delivered on time by someone that had the time to say hello rather than rushing off because they are on an unforgiving clock (particularly pertinent for elderly and vulnerable people).

And I’m not poor but like so many people I look at the new year with trepidation.  I don’t blame the strikers; they just want to improve their conditions and vis a vis our conditions.  Blaming them is like blaming cows for global warming, its nonsensical.

And as a footnote, I wonder why we never hear about our ex-prime minister Liz Truss and her erstwhile Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng; what a fine mess they caused. But yesterday’s news is no news and yet it is yesterday’s news that got us to where we are now.  Maybe the media could report on that, although I suspect they probably won’t.

The ‘Chocolate Cost-of-Living Crisis’

Despite the turmoil and mess the country is currently in, this week’s blog post is dedicated to chocolate, and how to maintain a very much needed chocolate fix during the cost-of-living crisis and the sh** storm which British Politics currently is. Do not even get me started on the Casey Review (2022) which has been overshadowed by that sh** storm I previously mentioned. So, in an attempt to address a serious concern plaguing us all, but disproportionately those most vulnerable, I would like to share some of my findings on the ‘chocolate cost-of-living crisis’.

Before the ‘official’ cost-of-living crisis hit, chocolate was seriously upping its price tag. What used to be 99p or £1 for branded ‘share’ bag (I mean who actually has the self-control to share a share bag?!), has now risen to a huge £1.25 per bag! Now this is for Cadbury’s ‘share’ bags (buttons, wispa bites, twirl pieces to name a few), you are looking at £1.35 for Mars products (Magic stars, Minstrels, Maltesers, MnMs)! Those of us that eat Vegan, lactose-free chocolate are looking at an even higher price tag for an even smaller product. Supermarket chocolate has also gone up in price, and remains nowhere near as scrumptious as the likes of Cadbury, Mars and even Nestle (although I myself am not a Nestle loving due to their questionable ethical practices*). But given the sh** storm the Country is currently in, and the impact of the cost-of-living crisis is having, we need chocolate more than ever! But do not fear: I have some handy tips when it comes to selecting the most reasonably priced and therefore affordable chocolate to help get us through these sh***y times.

The key when looking at the cost of chocolate, and all products, is to look at the price per g/kg. This is usually in teeny tiny writing at the bottom of the price tag on the shelves. Most chocolate (and because I am a self-proclaimed chocolate snob, I am discussing branded chocolate) is coming in around the 85p+ per 100g mark. But there are some sneaky little joys which are undercutting this, and I highly recommend stocking up!

Terry’s Milk Chocolate Orange: £1, (63p/100g): a clear winner! They have various types, dark chocolate, white chocolate and popping candy, and these vary in weights but come in between 63p/100g to 69p/100g!

Cadbury Dairy Milk (360g bar): £3, (83p/100g): the key to Cadburys is the bigger the cheaper! Do not be fooled by the smaller bars and their ‘cheaper’ price. They are not cheaper: and lets be honest who wouldn’t want 360g of chocolate over 150g?!

HOWEVER

Galaxy Caramel (135g bar): 99p (73p/100g): good news for caramel lovers! The smaller caramel bar is cheaper than the 360g Galaxy smooth milk bar (97p/100g), so in this case less is actually more!

Galaxy Minstrels ‘More to Share’ Bag: £1.99 (83p/100g): best value share bag out there at the moment. Again, do not be tricked by the smaller and what may seem like cheaper bags, because they are not!

Growing up with a single-parent father who worked the ‘mum’ shift in a warehouse meant we were very stringent and careful with money: mainly because we didn’t have much. This skill of checking value for money and the price per g/kg is something engrained within me, and something I am extremely grateful for! Check those £’s per g/kg people! It may mean you can have a treat at the end of the week, which doesn’t burn through your pockets, to help off-set the sh** we are currently dealing with.

*it has recently been brought to my attention, the unethical historical practices of Cadbury’s in relation to the Slave Trade, and their racist advertisements in the early 2000’s (not sure how I missed this)! Morally, as I try to avoid Nestle products due to their unethical practices, I will also attempt the same with Cadbury’s: but I fear this will not be an easy transition.

ASUU vs The Federal Government

It will be 8 months in October since University Lecturers in Nigeria have embarked on a nationwide strike without adequate intervention from the government. It is quite shocking that a government will sit in power and cease to reasonably address a serious dispute such as this at such a crucial time in the country.

As we have seen over the years, strike actions in Nigerian Universities constitute an age-long problem and its recurring nature unmasks, quite simply, how the political class has refused to prioritise the knowledge-based economy.

In February 2022, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) leadership
(which is the national union body that represents Nigerian University Lecturers during disputes) issued a 4-week warning strike to the Nigerian government due to issues of funding of the public Universities. Currently, the striking University Lecturers are accusing the government of failing to revitalise the dilapidated state of Nigerian Universities, they claim that the government has refused to implement an accountability system called UTAS and that representatives of the government have continued to backtrack on their agreement to adequately fund the Universities.

The government on the other hand is claiming that they have tried their best in negotiating with the striking lecturers – but that the lecturers are simply being unnecessarily difficult. Since 2017, several committees have been established to scrutinize the demands and negotiate with ASUU, but the inability of these committees to resolve these issues has led to this 8-month-long closure of Nigerian Universities. While this strike has generated multiple reactions from different quarters, the question to be asked is – who is to be blamed? Should the striking lecturers be blamed for demanding a viable environment for the students or should we be blaming the government for the failure of efforts to resolve this national embarrassment?

Of course, we can all understand that one of the reasons why the political class is often slow to react to these strike actions is because their children and families do not attend these schools. You either find them in private Universities in Nigeria or Universities abroad – just the same way they end up traveling abroad for medical check-ups.  In fact, the problems being faced in the educational sector are quite similar to those found within the Nigerian health sector – where many doctors are already emigrating from the country to countries that appreciate the importance of medical practitioners and practice. So, what we find invariably is a situation where the children of the rich continue to enjoy uninterrupted education, while the children of the underprivileged end up spending 7 years on a full-time 4-year program, due to the failure of efforts to preserve the educational standards of Nigerian institutions.

In times like these, I remember the popular saying that when two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. The elephants in this context are both the federal government and the striking lecturers, while those suffering the consequences of the power contest are the students. The striking lecturers have not been paid their salaries for more than 5 months, and they are refusing to back down. On the other hand, the government seems to be suggesting that when they are “tired”, they will call off the strike. I am not sure that strike actions of the UK UCU will last this long before some sort of agreement would have been arranged. Again, my heart goes out to the Nigerian students during these hard times – because it is just unimaginable what they will be going through during these moments of idleness. And we must never forget that if care is not taken, the idle hand will eventually become the devil’s workshop!

Having said this, Nigerian Universities must learn from this event and adopt approaches through which they can generate their income. I am not inferring that they do not, but they just need to do more. This could be through ensuring large-scale investment programs, testing local/peculiar practices at the international level, tapping into research grant schemes, remodeling the system of tuition fees, and demonstrating a stronger presence within the African markets. As a general principle, any institution that wishes to reap the dividends of the knowledge-based economy must ensure that self-generated revenues should be higher than the government’s grants – and not the other way. So, Universities in Nigeria must strive to be autonomous in their engagements and their organisational structure – while maintaining an apolitical stance at all times.

While I agree that all of these can be difficult to achieve (considering the socio-political dynamics of Nigeria), Universities must remember that the continuous dependence on the government for funds will only continue to subject them to such embarrassments rather than being seen as respected intellectuals in the society. Again, Nigerian Universities need a total disruption; there is a need for a total overhaul of the system and a complete reform of the organisational structure and policies.

‘Now is the winter of our discontent’

As I write this blog, we await the detail of what on earth government are going to do to prevent millions of our nations’ populations plummeting headlong into poverty.  It is our nations in the plural because as it stands, we are a union of nations under the banner Great Britain; except that it doesn’t feel that great, does it?

As autumn begins and we move into winter we are seeing momentum gaining for mass strikes across various sectors somewhat reminiscent of the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1979.  A few of us are old enough to remember the seventies with electricity blackouts and constant strikes and soaring inflation.  Enter Margaret Thatcher with a landslide election victory in 1979. People had had enough of strikes, believing the rhetoric that the unions had brought the downfall of the nation. Few could have foreseen the misery and social discord the Thatcher government and subsequent governments were about to sow.  Those governments sought to ensure that the unions would never be strong again, to ensure that working class people couldn’t rise up against their business masters and demand better working conditions and better pay.  And so, in some bizarre ironic twist, we have a new prime minister who styles herself on Thatcher just as we enter a period of huge inflationary pressures on families many of whom are already on the breadline.  It is no surprise that workers are voting to go on strike across a significant number of sectors, the wages just don’t pay the bills. Perhaps most surprising is the strike by barristers, those we wouldn’t consider working class. Jock Young was right, the middle classes are staring into the abyss.  Not only that but their fears are now rapidly being realised.

I listened to a young Conservative member on the radio the other day extolling the virtues of Liz Truss and agreeing with the view that tax cuts were the way forward. Trickle down economics will make us all better off.  It seems though that no matter what government is in power, I have yet to see very much trickle down to the poorer sectors of society or for that matter, anyone.  The blame for the current economic state and the forthcoming recession it seems rests fairly on the shoulders of Vladimir Putin.  Now I have no doubt that the invasion of Ukraine has unbalanced the world economic order but let’s be honest here, social care, the NHS, housing, and the criminal justice system, to name but a few, were all failing and in crisis long before any Russian set foot in the Ukraine.

That young Conservative also spoke about liberal values, the need for government to step back and to interfere in peoples lives as little as possible. Well previous governments have certainly done that. They’ve created or at least allowed for the creation of the mess we are now in by supporting, through act or omission, unscrupulous businesses to take advantage of people through scurrilous working practices and inadequate wages whilst lining the pockets of the wealthy. Except of course government have been quick to threaten action when people attempt to stand up for their rights through strike action.  Maybe being a libertarian allows you to pick and choose which values you favour at any given time, a bit of this and a bit of that.  It’s a bit like this country’s adherence to ideals around human rights.

I wondered as I started writing this whether we were heading back to a winter of discontent.  I fear that in reality that this is not a seasonal thing, it is a constant.  Our nations have been bedevilled with inadequate government that have lacked the wherewithal to see what has been developing before their very eyes.  Either that or they were too busy feathering their own nests in the cesspit they call politics.  Either way government has failed us, and I don’t think the new incumbent, judging on her past record, is likely to do anything different. I suppose there is a light at the end of the tunnel, we have pork markets somewhere or other.  

Chaos in Colombo: things fall apart

Following the mutiny that we witnessed in Downing street after members of the Johnson’s cabinet successfully forced him to resign over accusations of incompetency and the culture of inappropriate conducts in his cabinet, the people of Sri Lanka have also succeeded in chasing out their President, G. Rajapaksa, out of office over his contributions to the collapse of the country’s economy. This blog is a brief commentary on some of the latest events in Sri Lanka.

Since assuming office in 2019, the government of Rajapaksa has always been indicted of excessive borrowing, mismanagement of the country’s economy, and applying for international loans that are often difficult to pay back. With the country’s debt currently standing at $51bn, some of these loans, is claimed to have been spent on unnecessary infrastructural developments as well as other ‘Chinese-backed projects’, (see also; the Financial Times, 2022). Jayamaha (2022; 236) indicated that ‘Sri Lanka had $7.6 billion in foreign currency reserves at the end of 2019. However, by March 2020, it had exhausted its reserves to just $1.93 billion.’ One of Rajapaksa’s campaign promises was to cut taxes, which he did upon assuming office. His critics faulted this move, claiming it was unnecessary at that particular time. His ban on fertilizers, in a bid for the country to go organic (even though later reversed), had its own effect on local farmers. Rice production for example, fell by 20% following the ban – a move that eventually forced the government to opt for rice importation which was in itself expensive (see also; Nordhaus & Shah 2022). Critics warned that his investments and projects have no substantial and direct impact on the lives of the common people, and that what is the essence of building roads when the common people cannot afford to buy a car to ride on those roads? The fact that people have to queue for petrol for 5 days and only having to work for 1 day or where families cannot afford to feed their children simply shows how the government of Rajapaksa seem to have mismanaged the economy of the country. Of course, the problem of insecurity and the pandemic cannot be left out as crucial factors that have also impacted tourism levels and the economy of the country.

Foreign reserves have depleted, the importation of food is becoming difficult to actualise, living expenses have risen to high levels, the country is struggling with its international loan repayments, the value of Rupees has depreciated, there is inflation in the land, including shortages of food supplies and scarcity of fuel. Those who are familiar with the Sri Lanka’s system will not be particularly surprised at the nationwide protests that have been taking place in different parts of the country since May, because the Rajapaksa’s regime was only sitting on a keg of gun powder, ready to explode.

In an unprecedented fashion on July 9, several footages and images began to emerge online showing how protesters had successfully overpowered the police and had broken into the residence of the President. Their goal was to occupy the presidential palace and chase the president out of his residence. In fact, there are video footages online allegedly showing the motorcade of the president fleeing from his residence as the wave of protest rocked the capital.

Upon gaining entry into the innermost chambers of the president’s dwelling, protesters started touring and taking selfies in euphoria, some of them had quickly jumped into the presidential shower, others helped themselves to some relaxation on the president’s bed after days of protests, some were engaged in a mock presidential meeting in the president’s cabinet office, some preferred to swim in the president’s private pool while others helped themselves to some booze.

Indeed, these extraordinary scenes should not be taken for granted for they again reaffirm WB Yeats classic idea of anarchy (in ‘the second coming’ poem), being the only option to be exercised when the centre can no longer hold.

Of course, some may ask that now that they have invaded the presidential villa, what next? In my view, the people of Sri Lanka seem to be on the right direction as President Rajapaska has eventually bowed to pressure and agreed to resign. The next phase now is for the country to carefully elect a new leader who will revive the sinking ship, amend the economic policies, foster an effective democratic political culture which (hopefully) should bring about a sustainable economic plan and growth reforms.

Importantly, this is a big lesson not just for the political class of Sri Lanka, but for other wasteful leaders who continue to destroy their economies with reckless and disastrous policies. It is a lesson of the falcon and the falconer – for when the falcon can no longer hear the falconer, scenes like these may continue to be reproduced in other locations of the world.

Indeed, things fell apart in Colombo, but it is hoped that the centre will hold again as the country prepare to elect its new leaders.

Here is wishing the people of Colombo, and the entire Sri Lankans all the best in their struggle.

References

Financial Times (2022) [Twitter] 20 July. Available at: https://mobile.twitter.com/FinancialTimes/status/1549554792766361603

Jayamaha, J. (2022) “The demise of Democracy in Sri Lanka: A study of the political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka (Based on the incident of the Rambukkana shooting)”, Sprin Journal of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, 1(05), pp. 236–240. doi: 10.55559/sjahss.v1i05.22.

Nordhaus, T & Shah S, (2022) In Sri Lanka, Organic Farming Went Catastrophically Wrong, March 5, FP. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/03/05/sri-lanka-organic-farming-crisis/

“…the result is the same:  beasts of prey and ignorant thieves”

Photograph by AP in The Guardian

Since the ousting of a close Putin ally (ex-President Viktor Yanukovich) from Ukrainian politics and territory in 2014 during the Euromaidan revolution, the closeness the country had come to actually joining the defensive NATO alliance seems to have irked Putin enough to swiftly “recognise the independence” of, as with Crimea in 2014, two Eastern-Ukrainian regions, Donetsk and Luhansk. It is not a new politically strategic move and certainly not unique to Russia. Examples of this kind of act can be seen around the world in regions where complex power interplays are rendering regional enclaves powerless in garnering enough support for the recognition of their own independence from oppressive regimes, genocide or in securing mere rights to self-determination (e.g. Kashmir in Northern India, Artsakh in South-Eastern Armenia etc.).

Yesterday morning we awoke to the news that Russia’s Vladimir Putin had ordered a full-scale attack on Ukrainian sovereign territory, in violation of international law (among many other violations of basic morality and human decency). I should emphasise here that this is a Putin-centred issue rather than one which encompasses the Russian Federation, since it is not inconceivable to suggest that ordinary Russian citizens are not particularly excited that their relatives, friends, children are being sent to die like cattle in another country while their billionaire leader basks in complete safety in his ivory tower. With an attack from the northern, eastern and southern borders of the country…and now the imminent arrival of Russian troops in Ukraine’s capital Kiev…this does not seem like just a case of Putin’s desire to rebuild a modern-day Russian empire incorporating its former Soviet nations, but a much deeper personal desperation to be seen to be the only globally-remaining strong leader.

The stepping down of Angela Merkel in Germany, ousting of Donald Trump from the US, and the failure of Brexit in achieving what he thought would be a political and economic disaster for the European Union, have all contributed to Putin’s desperation. The poisoning and subsequent arrest/detention of Alexei Navalny, the populist Russian opposition leader who in recent years managed to almost successfully stage a political coop against Putin, demonstrates the lengths Putin will go to convince his increasingly oppressed citizens that the alternative to his leadership will equate to the kinds of political and economic failures they have witnessed of Western nations.

It is clear that the UK’s sanctions have not gone near far enough in preventing the kinds of miscarriages of justice that will inevitably follow from Putin’s appointment of a de facto Russian leader on Ukrainian soil without democratic support from the Ukrainian people. But I wonder whether the seemingly lazy response from Boris Johnson and the UK Conservative Party is indicative of the deeply-rooted corruption which helped his eventual election into British politics. We had for many years been aware of the extent of foreign money laundering through UK banks by Russian and Azerbaijani oligarchs, the billions of pounds’ worth of UK property owned by those with close ties to the Kremlin, the millions donated to fund the Conservative Party, and perhaps most significantly, the “we’ll return the favour” investments by Conservative politicians in Russian-owned banks, stocks and shares. Is it then surprising that Putin was so supportive of the Brexit campaign and the election of Donald Trump, both seemingly aimed at destabilising the West; the US, UK and EU? Surely, now is the time for the British public to demand the highest level of openness and transparency of their politicians, particularly those who have already been elected under the banner of lies. Perhaps this will help in our collective political and economic response to miscarriages abroad, as well as within our borders.

NATO nations’ unwillingness to intervene, militarily, in this conflict is evidently the green light Putin needed to set foot in sovereign territory under the guise of “denazification” (bizarre considering Volodymyr Zelenskyy – the current Ukrainian President –  is himself Jewish).  This should form a stark reminder to former Soviet nations not to be seduced by the thought of reliving some kind of Soviet nostalgia of perceived religious and cultural similarities with Russia which has been drip-fed for many years since the collapse of the USSR. Those living in this hazy nostalgic dream will soon forget the reality that the experience of a Russian invasion will be grounded not in the form of communism which once secured its citizens with guaranteed housing, easy employment, and annual trips to the sanatorium…but in a dangerous oppressive dictatorship and an isolationist economic model. To quote a well-known message from a 1993 Russian film Window to Paris: ‘Sure. You brought up builders of communism. Now, it’s builders of capitalism. And the result is the same: beasts of prey and ignorant thieves’.

Former Soviet nations not aiding and abetting the current aggression in Ukraine (as Belarus is doing) should now be alert to the fact that they will never be safe in a military limbo, nor under Putin’s wing. It is a time where citizens of these regions should let go of any hope of a return to a “simpler way of life” and move to securing effective political and military support for their nations away from Russian influence.

United Nation’s (UN) World Day of Social Justice

Image: United Nations

Achieving justice through formal employment

This Sunday 20th February marks the United Nation’s (UN) World Day of Social Justice. The theme this year is ‘achieving justice through formal employment’. The focus is on the informal economy, in which 60% of the world’s employed population participate. Those employed in the informal economy are not protected by regulations such as health and safety or employment rights and are not entitled to employment benefits such as sickness and holiday pay. People who work in the informal economy are much more likely to be poor, in which case housing and unsanitary conditions can compound the impact of working in the informal economy.

When we in the global North talk about the informal economy, there is often an assumption that this occurs in poorer, less developed countries (it is semantics – here in the UK we use the preferred term of the ‘gig economy’). However, this is a global problem and often the richest industries and countries engage in abusive employment practices that form part of the problem of the informal economy. Let’s take Qatar as an example. Qatar has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, but it also has an extremely high level of income inequality. I heard Natasha Iskandar recently discussing the case of migrant workers in Qatar during construction for the football world cup. Migrant workers are vulnerable to the informal economy due to various labour and visa restrictions throughout the world. In Qatar migrant workers were needed to build the stadia, however this came at a cost to employment conditions including wage theft, forced overtime, debt bondage and intimidation. At the time in Qatar, it was illegal for such workers to withhold labour and they could not voluntarily leave the country without the consent of their employers. The often-abusive employment conditions within the Kafala system of sponsored migrant labour would push people into the informal economy. Having come under some criticism, Qatar has since reformed the Kafala system to improve social protections for migrant workers and were the first of the Gulf countries to do so.

The informalisation of the education economy

On a global scale, the problem of the informal economy is vast there are unique challenges to different groups and social contexts. It will take a large-scale effort to make changes needed to abolish the informal economy globally if it ever can be abolished. Perhaps though we can start by looking a little closer to home and see if we can make a difference there. Academia has traditionally been perceived by those outside of it as a sector of elite institutions, the ‘ivory towers’, where highly paid, highly skilled academics talk from their parapets in a language those outside of it cannot understand. There is a perception that academics are highly paid, highly skilled workers with job security, good pensions, and a comfortable working life.  Higher education management in some institutions have been known to refer to academics using derogatory terms such as ‘slackademics’. As every hard-working academic will tell you, this cannot be further from the truth.

What used to be a place of free thinking, sharing of ideas, and encouraging students to do the same (note: I’m told academics used to have time to think and read) has become a place where profit and business ethos overrides such niceties.   The marketisation of education, which can be traced back to the early 1990s has seen a growth in informal employment putting paid to the myths of job security inter alia, lecturing staff well-being.  As Vicky Canning put it in the below Tweet, this constitutes institutional violence, something we criminologists are charged with speaking up against.

The university industry has become increasingly reliant on casualised contracts leading to staff not being able to get mortgages or tenancies. During my time at a previous institution, I worked on fixed term contracts as a teaching assistant. The teaching contracts would typically last for 10-12 weeks, there were constant HR errors with contracts, which were often not confirmed until the week before teaching or even after teaching had started. Each semester there would be at least a few teaching assistants who got paid incorrectly or did not get paid at all. These are the people delivering teaching to students paying at least £9,250 per year for their education. Is this value for money? Is this fair? In a previous round of strikes at that institution I let my students know that after all the work they put into writing, I only got paid for 20 minutes to mark one of their 3,500-word essays. They did not seem to think this was value for money.  

While I was working under such contracts, I had to move to a new house. I visited many properties and faced a series of affordability checks. As the contracts were short term, landlords would not accept this income as secure, and I was rejected for several properties. I eventually had to ask a friend to be a guarantor but without this, I could easily have ended up homeless and this has happened to other university teaching staff. It was reported recently in the Guardian that a casualised lecturer was living in a tent because she was not able to afford accommodation. All this, on top of stressful, unmanageable workloads. These are the kinds of things casualised university staff must contend with in their lives. These are the humans teaching our students.

This is just one of the problems in the higher education machine. The problems of wage theft, forced overtime, debt bondage and intimidation seen in Qatar are also seen in the institutionally violent higher education economy, albeit to a lesser (or less visible) extent. Let’s talk about wage theft. A number of universities have threatened 100% salary deductions for staff engaging in action short of strike, or in simple terms, working the hours they are contracted to do. Academics throughout the country are being threatened with wage theft if they cannot complete their contractual duties within the hours they are paid for. Essentially then, some higher education establishments are coercing staff to undertake unpaid overtime, not dissimilar to the forced overtime faced by exploited migrant workers building stadia in Qatar.

Academics across the country need to see change in these academic workloads so we can research the exploitation of migrants in the informal labour market, to work towards UN sustainability goals to help address the informal economy, to engage in social justice projects within the informal economy in our local area, and to think about how we can engage our students in such projects. In effect academics need to work in an environment where they can be academics.

How can we begin to be critical of or help address global issues such as the informal economy when our education system is engaging in questionable employment practices, the kind of which drive people into the informal economy, the kind of employment practices that border the informal economy.  Perhaps higher education needs to look inwards before looking out

Visiting the Zoo: a staple of privilege

Whilst the current weather may not imply it, we are into the summer months! At this time of year staff and students begin to take a much needed and well-deserved rest after the challenging academic year we have all faced. With this time, holidays, day trips, meals out, picnics, walks and many more joyful pastimes begin to fill up the calendar, although many of us find ourselves quite restricted due to the ongoing pandemic. Nevertheless, we should all make the most of the time off to re-charge and spend time with our loved ones. For myself and my partner, this meant a day trip to Whipsnade Zoo!

Whilst the weather app assured us it would not rain, we spent a fairly windy and wet day walking around Whipsnade Zoo viewing the animals and all in all having a fabulous day. The schools are not out yet, therefore most visitors were adults on annual leave, individuals who I assume are retired, or parents with small children. We had plenty of space and time throughout the day to see the animals, read the information plaques and enjoy a wet but scrummy picnic. I dread to think what it would have been like in the height of the summer holidays!

But where am I going with this other than to brag about my fabulous day at the Zoo and what has this got to do with checking our privilege? Well, it begins with the cost to entire said Zoo. I have not been to a Zoo since I was in my school years. We used to visit Colchester Zoo most summer holidays with the Tesco Clubcard vouchers, which in a nutshell meant you could exchange Clubcard points for vouchers/tickets which included the Zoo. Therefore a trip to the Zoo when we were younger cost petrol money and a picnic (which was always done on the cheap). This is an affordable day out, but we were only a family of 3 (1 adult and 2 children), so not that many Clubcard points required, and quite a minimal picnic. Also we were fortunate enough to have a car which is not the case for all families. So even with the vouchers and picnic I cannot help but reflect and think how privileged we were to be able to visit the Zoo.

The Zoo trip this week cost just short of £50 for a student admission and an adult admission. I did think this was quite a lot. I think about what the cost would be for 2 adults and a child (or multiple children). Already this is gearing up to be an expensive day out. The Zoo has lots of interactive parts for children to engage with and learn from, and of course they have animals. But is the Zoo really aimed at educating all children or is it only those children whose families can afford it (E.I children belonging of a certain socio-economic status)?  Once we arrived at the Zoo and looked around the carpark we couldn’t see a Bustop. What about the families who cannot afford a car? The food outlets were extortionate: £4 for a coffee!! Its cheaper in the West End! The same statement although different prices applies to ice-cream. I feel good that we have taken our makeshift picnic and flasks with us: but what about those who cannot?

The long-winded and verbose point I am trying to make is that even everyday things require us to check our privilege. I spoke to my partner on the drive home about the beauty and wonder of the Zoo and how we are fortunate to be able to go and how I was fortunate to go most summers as a child. But once the Clubcard vouchers stopped, so did the trips to the Zoo. There are many who are unable to enjoy the Zoo, to gain from the educational experience of learning about the animals, what they eat, where they live etc. And I can’t help but reflect and wonder is this establishment really inclusive to all? Is there something society can do to break down the class barriers which appear to be present when planning a trip to the Zoo?

My new year nightmare: finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy

“Pregnant and homeless” by Ed Yourdon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; “Cash” by BlatantWorld.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The new year is here.  At its last knockings, the previous year offered hope of some sort of return to normality.  The second new vaccine was on its way, far easier to store and distribute, it offered hope. Unfortunately, the joy of the new year has been somewhat muted as we have witnessed Covid-19 cases rise to new heights. Talks of stricter measures have turned into our new reality, as one minute the government insisted on schools opening then the next a partial U-turn before a forced full-scale retreat. But as we watch all of this unfold, I am reminded of a comment I heard from a radio presenter on the lead up to Christmas. Her view was that there was much to be happy about, we know more about the virus now than we ever did and scientists have developed a vaccine, several vaccines, in record time.  Over the Christmas and new year period I reflected on last year and tried to think about what we have learnt. 

Brexit has just proved to be a complete farce.  Promises of a good deal turn out to be not so good, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ the politicians said.  And then in desperation, realising that any deal was better than no deal and that the best deal was the one where we were in the European Union they settled on something and thanked the gods that there was far more pressing bad news to hide their incompetence.  So, we are now a ‘sovereign’ nation but poorer to boot and whilst we think we have regained control over our borders, it is only limited to bureaucratic, time consuming form filling, as we beg people to come here to work in our care homes and on the farms for a pittance.  Perhaps the refugees that we have reluctantly accepted might help us out here. Brexit has been delivered but at what cost?  No wonder Stanley wants to take up his opportunity for a French passport.

We are all equal its just that some are far more equal than others. We saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and I have a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to do that discussion justice; I’ll leave that to others that are far more capable. It did have a profound impact on me though as a former serving police officer, I would like to think it had an impact on others both retired and serving, but I’m not so sure.  I think that quite often the police are simply a reflection of our society and I’m not willing to bet much on that changing rapidly.  I remember Michael Holding, a former West Indian cricketer, turned commentator, talking about ‘white privilege’ and he provided what I thought at the time was a good example. Now I’m not so sure, this so called ‘white privilege’, isn’t privilege at all, it’s rights. It’s the rights that white people avail themselves of everyday in a democratic society (well that’s what we are supposed to be in anyway) without a second thought.  The problem isn’t that white people have those rights, it’s that Black and ethnic minority individuals don’t, or where they do, the rights are somehow conditional.  I might be wrong in my thinking, but I know one thing, without some very clear leadership from government, institutions and general societal attitudes are unlikely to change sufficiently.  Although footballers and staff take a knee before every match, I fear that the momentum is likely to be lost.  By the way, I’m not holding out much hope on the leadership gambit.

Sticking to the we are all equal theme; the pandemic has shone a spotlight on poverty in this country.  Yes, Mr high and mighty Reece-Mogg, there really are very poor people in this country and they do need a helping hand. The fact that food banks are even required is shameful. The fact that foodbanks rely on charity is an even more shameful indictment of our government. The fact that a senior politician can stand up in the house of commons and accuse a charity of political motives when distributing aid beggar’s belief.  I find it extraordinary that pre pandemic, homeless people were left to their own devices on the streets, reliant on charity and handouts and yet as soon as we went into lockdown, the government found money from somewhere to house them.  What changed? My worry is that when the pandemic is over, the government are going to be more concerned about balancing the books than they are about the pervasive poverty endemic in our nation.

Children returning to school has been a huge issue for government and they rely on evidence that suggests that the best place for children is at school. A headmaster reminded us in an interview on the radio that this ‘online learning’ phrase that trips off the tongue is far easier to talk about than to achieve. What hits home is the huge disparity in opportunity for children to avail themselves of online learning. Poorer families cannot provide the technology required. Poorer families are likely to live in cramped conditions making it impossible for children to concentrate on work as siblings run around trying to keep themselves amused. And let’s not forget the plight of the parents who are more likely to be in jobs that require them to be at work, not home. Then of course there are those children that are vulnerable where school is a safe haven from abuse, whether that’s physical or mental or simply because school is where they will be fed. So, in a sense for many, school is a better place than home, but we really ought to be asking why that is. What does that say about our society? If I were to hazard an educated guess, I’d say its broken. The return of children to school had wider implications. What about the teachers and staff? It seems to me that government have different standards of risk depending on what suits. I’ll come back to this in time but I think the closure of schools owes itself more to the action of teachers in their refusal to turn up to work in an unsafe environment than it does any sensible government strategy.

Sticking to the education theme, the pandemic shone a rather harsh spotlight on higher education too. What became increasingly obvious was that the return of students to campus was purely financially driven.  At least one vice chancellor put his head above the parapet and stated as much.  His university would fail if he did not fill the halls of residence. So here we had a situation where scientific advisors were stating it was folly to open universities and yet universities did so with the backing of government. The reason, we can’t put education on hold and yet how many students take a gap year, before going to university? Putting education on hold doesn’t appear to be that damaging to the individual, but it is very damaging to a morally corrupt educational business model that needs halls of residence to be filled to prop up the system. To make matters worse, students flocked to university only to find that face to face teaching was patchy, the university experience was not what they were promised or envisaged it would be, and more time was spent in isolation and lock down than was healthy.  If education was supposed to be good for their mental health, it had the opposite effect for many.  I don’t think it required a rocket scientist to work out that online teaching was really going to be a default position, so either management and government were very naïve and reckless, or they were somewhat economical with the truth.   Time to revisit higher education, I think.

Talking about government advisors, what’s the point in having them? Everything I read suggests that government advisors say one thing and government does something else or dillies and dallies its way into a dead end where it finally admits the advisors are in some way right, hence another eleventh hour lock down. The advisor’s said universities should not go back, they did and is it coincidence it coincided with a rise in Covid-19 cases? Advisors were saying schools shouldn’t go back but the government insisted they should and many did for just one day.  There is a saying about tactics and strategy. Strategy is unlikely to be achieved without tactics but tactics without a strategy are useless. I have yet to understand what the government strategy is, there is however a plethora of disparate (or is that desperate?) tactics . The result though, anguish and suffering to more than is necessary.  Some of the tactics seem to be based on decision regarding who is most at risk.  We hear that term an awful lot.  I watched the prime minister at lunch time, the man who promised us a fantastic Brexit deal, as he explained how important it was that children went back to school.  Children are at very little risk going to school he said and then added, and teachers are not at very much risk or at least at no more risk than they would be normally.  He bumbled and blustered over the latter part; I wonder why?  A few hours later he told us schools would be closed until at least the 15th February. What happened to ‘no risk’? When we talk about risk, there are a number of ways of viewing it.   There is the risk of death, easily understood and most definitely to be avoided, but what seems to be neglected is the risk of serious illness or the risk of ‘long Covid’.  By ordering schools to be opened or that universities resume face to face teaching, the policy seems to have been that as long as you are not at a high risk of death then it is an acceptable risk.  Time for a bit of honesty here.  Does the government and do managers in these organisations really think that a group of people in a room for a number of hours with inadequate ventilation is not a serious risk to the spreading of the disease? Maybe some of the managers could reassure us by doing most of the face to face teaching when we prematurely come out of lock down again.

It seems to me that much is being made, on the news in particular, about the effect a lock down has on mental health, especially children. And I do understand the mental health issues, I can’t help but think though that whilst this is a very valid argument there is the elephant in the room that is either ignored or conveniently understated. The elephant; the fear engendered by the virus, the fear and anguish of those that have had to face the loss of a loved one. Just to put that in perspective that’s over 70,000 people whose families and friends have had to go through firstly the fear and anxiety of a loved one being ill and then the additional fear and anxiety of having lost them. Add to this the fear and anxiety of those that have caught the virus and ended up in hospital coupled with the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. Now add to this the fear and anxiety of those who have to work in conditions where they are at serious risk of catching Covid and the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. And then of course there is the fear and anxiety caused to the general population as the virus spins out of control. Somehow I think a little perspective on mental health during lock down might be needed. Is it any wonder teachers decided that what they were being asked to do was unsafe and unnecessary?

And then I think about all of those parties and gatherings despite restrictions. The shopping trips from tier 4 areas into tier two areas to snap up bargains in the sales. The Christmas and New years eve parties that defy any logic other than pure self-indulgence. Just as we see all of those selfless people that work in organisations that care for others or keep the country running in some capacity, we see a significant number of selfish people who really don’t care about the harm they are causing and seem to be driven by hedonism and a lack of social values. Unfortunately, that accusation can also be aimed at some of the very people that should be setting an example, politicians.

We should of course be happy and full of hope. We have a new vaccine (that’s providing it still works on the mutated virus) and normality is around the corner, give or take a few months and a half decent vaccination strategy (that’s us done for).  A vaccine that was found in an extraordinary time period.  I wonder why a vaccine for Ebola wasn’t found so quickly?  I agree with my colleague @paulaabowles when she says we all must do better but more importantly I think its about time we held government to account, they really must do better.  After the second world war this country saw the birth of the NHS and the welfare state. What we need now is a return to the fundamental values that prompted the birth of those provisions. There are so many pressing needs and we really mustn’t allow them to be forgotten.  A strategy to tackle poverty might just ameliorate a raft of other ills in our society and the cost of tackling it might easily be mitigated by a reduction in demand in the NHS and many other public services.  I can but dream, but my reality envisages a nightmare world driven by finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy.

A Lockdown Moan

As the second lockdown has come to an end, I find myself reflecting on my own lockdown experiences quite a lot. My overall sense is that of gratitude, in that I have been fortunate enough to maintain and be offered new employment during this difficult time.   

During the first lockdown I was a key worker and travelled to and from work on public transport whilst everyone else was ordered to ‘stay safe, and stay at home’. At times this was frustrating, and although I generally had faith in humanity my views on this were tested. During, lockdown 1.0 I witnessed people being much more aggressive to key workers. I worked in a place where I did not expect people to be nice to me, but even on my route to and from work I found that I was subjected to the odd remark.  

One morning at 6am whilst in the city center I was even called ‘a rapist’ because I did not have any change to give to a homeless person, he then sort of offered to fight me. Of course, I wouldn’t ever fight anyone, and he would have been completely unaware that I had just finished a night shift so I would not prove to be a worthy opponent in any sense. I also remember sitting on the bus one night whilst a man, who appeared mentally unwell, persisted to cough all over me (mask free) before exiting at his stop. 

I didn’t take any of these experiences personally, and thankfully I didn’t get Covid. It was clear that these people had many of their own problems – many of which may have been exacerbated due to Covid. The lack of understanding of Covid for some people also highlights a key issue i.e., that mainstream concerns are not being communicated to wider population within our society.  

I did find myself frustrated by the general population who in my experience, did not appear as positive and kind as the media seemed to suggest. I experienced many incidents of people being selfish, such as people snapping and venting their frustrations at others who are simply just trying to do their jobs (with shocking pay and poor contracts might I add). On top of this was the notion of visiting a supermarket after a 12 hour night shift whilst people scramble for the last scraps of essentials whilst you are walking around like a zombie. With bare shelves, rude people and long queues….what more could key workers ask for? For Christ sake, someone even tried to steal a tin of beans out of my shopping trolley on one occasion!  

During lockdown 2.0 I have been very privileged indeed, as I am able to work from home. Staying in this bubble of mine has also made me feel much less frustrated. But I do still wonder, why is it that we feel that those who provide a ‘service’ to us are not people themselves? People with their own problems, thoughts and feelings. Do we think that people are robots? Is this why some people think that it is ok to vent their frustrations at others? I am sure that other people have had more positive experiences than this, but I can’t understand why people aren’t being more kind and understanding of each other. There is a difference between being a service provider and being a servant…people seem to forget this sometimes.  

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