Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Haunting echoes of 1938

For some time now, the recent trend towards right-wing nationalism in Europe has reached a disturbing pinnacle in Italy. Although the current government had - like so many other parties across the continent - been relentless in their onslaught of anti-immigrant rhetoric since before the last elections, the recent controversy truly took off last November.

In a startling echo of the darkest chapter of recent European history, the rape and murder of an Italian woman by a Romanian immigrant - and the subsequent abduction of a baby by a teenage Roma girl near Naples - led to a series of incidents of mob violence and vigilante attacks against Gypsies. The government, meanwhile, has done nothing to try and quel the xenophobic violence. When a rioting mob burned a gypsy camp close to the scene of the baby-snatching incident, with police barely managing to evacuate the occupants in time, Roberto Maroni of the Northern League said "this is what happens when gypsies steal babies."

Whilst refusing to take action against the racist attacks, however, the Northern League and Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia government have been quick to launch a pogrom - there is no more appropriate word for it - of collective punishment against the Roma. As well as, for the first time, making living illegally in the country punishable by a four-year prison sentence, setting down a six-year sentence for foreigners who lie about their identity, and deporting all foreign nationals who have been imprisoned for more than two years, the Italian government has responded to what Berlusconi calls a "Roma emergency" by taking a compulsory census of the Roma people. All Roma, including children, are photographed, fingerprinted, have every detail taken on a government form, and are given an identity code. And to make matters even more surreal, the Red Cross has been drafted in to help gather the census data.

The world has been awakened to these events in the most dramatic way. On Sunday 20th July, the Daily Mail published pictures of the aftermath of two teenaged Roma girls drowning on a beach in Naples. After being recovered, the bodies were left covered by beach towels for an hour before they were collected as people continued to sunbathe, indifferent to the nearby corpses.

The parallels to Italy's history are telling enough. It was Mussolini who first expelled gypsies from Italy in 1926, describing them as "subhuman," and over the vext twenty years more than a million died alongside the Jews in the death camps. However, there is another part of European history that this most recent crackdown directly resembles - Kristallnacht. The "Night of the Broken Glass" was actually two days of Nazi-directed rioting which saw Jewish businesses and homes ransacked and burned and many Jews murdered in the chaos, and was followed by a series of brutal measures designed to punish the entire Jewish community. Most tellingly, it all occurred in the aftermath of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jewish boy.

These recent events, and their similarity to history, are not just a parable about the direction that Italy is heading in, but that of all of Europe. The current Swiss government came to power after an openly racist anti-immigrant campaign which included a poster of white sheep on a Swiss flag, with one of them kicking off a black sheep. The slogan underneath was "bringing safety." In France, Jean Marie le Pen and the Front National continue to garner incredible support in elections. Six million French people voted for him in the last elections. In Austria, the Freedom Party (FPO) hold six cabinet posts. In Denmark, the far-right Danish People's Party is holding together a centre-right government coalition and has drafted tough anti-asylum policies and cut aid to the third world. In the Netherlands, the nationalist Pim Fortuyn's List (LPF) is preparing to enter a coalition government with the Christian Democrat Party. Norway's anti-immigrant Progress Party has been propping up a coalition government since last October. Whilst in Portugal the Popular Party has entered a right wing coalition on the promise of tight limits on immigration. And, of course, we cannot forget that in the UK support for the BNP is growing and - though unlikely to ever enter parliament thanks to the FPTP voting system - now has a record number of local councillors.

Political discourse in Europe is on a continual rightward march, and if it is not addressed soon Italy may not be the only EU country in which people are witnessing echoes of Kristallnacht.

Monday, 14 July 2008

"Elf and safety Nazis?" They're as real as the tooth fairy...

On a semi-regular basis, right-wing commentators such as Richard Littlejohn will regularly spout off about "Elf and Safety Nazis." The implication is that health and safety law in the UK is so restrictive and so full of ridiculous regulations that almost nothing of any interest is actually allowed any more in case people get hurt. Here's one such example:
Officials in Gateshead have been touring chip shops confiscating salt shakers with more than five holes in them.
They have spent £2,000 on replacements, which are being given away free.
Middlesborough council have issued fish & chip shops 5 hole salt shakers instead of the normal 17 holed ones to try and get people to use less salt on their meals.
According to a spokesman: 'Research carried out by us discovered customers were often receiving huge quantities of salt with their fish and chips - up to half their daily allowance.'


It's none of the council's damn business how much salt people choose to consume.
If the taxpayers of Gateshead wish to sit around eating salt by the tubload until their arteries resemble a Siberian mineshaft, that's entirely a matter for them.
Their GP might want a quiet word with them, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the tinpot condiment nazis at the Town Hall.
You can find huge archives of such stories, where over-zealous officials have all but wrapped citizens in bubble wrap to prevent them hurting themselves by living their day to day lives. There's only one problem with such stories; the fact that, despite Littlejohn's constant assertion that "you couldn't make it up," he and others so very often do. So much so, in fact, that the Health and Safety Executive's website has a "Myth of the Month" section, dedicated to debunking such scurrilous claims.

I'll cite just a few pertinent examples:

The "Ban" on Firefighters' Poles
"It was widely reported that a fire station was built without the traditional pole for 'health and safety' reasons.

As the county’s Chief Fire Officer said: 'Whilst every consideration regarding health and safety was taken into account, the reason a pole was not included was purely due to space restrictions.'

Poles are not banned and firefighters around the country continue to use them."

Teachers "Sued" by Pupils
"The main legal duties lie with the employer, not the teacher – or even the head teacher, unless they own the school and employ the staff.

We can’t find a single instance in the past five years of a teacher being personally sued for compensation.

Over the years a handful of teachers have been prosecuted following very serious incidents, but only where they failed to follow direct instructions and departed from common sense.

Teachers who act responsibly will be on the right side of the law."

"Hard Hats" for Trapeze Artists
"Despite being widely reported at the time and regularly repeated since, this story is utter nonsense. There never were any such regulations.

Hard hats do an excellent job of protecting building workers from falling debris - but they have no place on a trapeze."

Christmas Decorations "Banned"
"Bah Humbug! Each year we hear of companies banning their workers from putting up Christmas decorations in their offices for ‘health and safety’ reasons, or requiring the work to be done by a ‘qualified’ person.

Most organisations including HSE and local councils manage to put up their decorations, celebrating the spirit of Christmas without a fuss. They just sensibly provide their staff with suitable step ladders to put up decorations rather than expecting staff to balance on wheelie chairs."

Nearly every incident of "Elf and Safety Nazism" is either covered in this section of the website or a variant of one of the covered myths, and therefore utter nonsense. In fact, it has got to the point now where such regular rehashing of the myths, rather than any actual regulations, is the cause behind cases of over-zealous actions by companies. People, believing the constant barrage of media propaganda, are acting in accordance with these non-existent "laws" and thus making the stories themselves self-fulfilling prophecies.

The response is simple. In order to stop people acting rashly and ridiculously in compliance with regulations that don't exist and, more importantly, to stop authorities removing necessary and life-saving health and safety regulations in a populist response to the perception that "health and safety has got out of control," we need to counter these lies and stop companies and individuals from behaving as if they really exist.

The sooner the better.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Islam, Christianity, and religious indoctrination

Today, the Daily Express reported an incident in a school in Alsager High School near Crewe, where, according to the article, "two schoolboys were given detention for refusing to kneel and “pray” to Allah." Of course, like most things the Express and its counterparts The Sun and the Daily Mail report, the headline leads the reader to a different conclusion than the article does. The children in question were not being forcibly converted to Islam or making actual prayers to Allah, but rather "had been taking part in a practical demonstration of Islam in a religious education lesson."

Of course, the methods employed still pose a lot of questions about just how ethical the teaching in the class is, but the underlying issue is a far more insidious and wide-ranging one than the newspaper and the outraged parents it quotes would lead us to believe. Yes, it is wrong to force children to partake in a religious ritual against their will, and these children should no more have been made to kneel to Allah than they should have been made to drink fruit punch laced with nitroglycerine in the hopes of being taken up to the mothership. But the reasons posited by the parents of the children as to why this is wrong are mistaken.

The Express reports that "furious parents claimed their children’s rights were breached by being forced to behave in a manner contrary to their religion." It then quotes one mother as saying "I do not have a problem with my child being taught about other religions, but this was going far too far." Nick Seaton, of the Campaign for Real Education, backed this up by saying "What appears to have happened here is tantamount to asking a class of Muslim children to recite the Lord’s Prayer to teach them about Christianity. Somehow I cannot imagine that happening."

And, of course, they are right to object about this and their protests are aimed in the right direction. To a degree. Look closer, though, and you can see the constant references by parents to other religions, rather than simply religions, as well as Seaton's parallel with Muslim's being forced to partake in Christian rituals. The underlying assumption is that the children in question are Christian, and this is simply wrong.

As one parent said, "“I understand you have to teach different religions ... but you don’t have to practise them.” Exactly. Unless, of course, it comes to the religion of your parents, in which case you have no choice. As misguided and wrong as this particular instance is, it is nowhere near as insidious and sinister as what, now and for centuries, happens to children worldwide in the name of "religious education." Children are branded from birth with a religion that they have no knowledge of, registered and branded as Christians - or Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, etc - before they even have any concept of what their favourite colour or football team is, let alone a question as personal and complex as what they believe about the universe and God, or a lack thereof.

All children are born agnostic, ie not knowing what to believe about the question of deities. To brand them as anything else, whether it be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, or whatever else, is not only fallacious but part of a wider programme of subtle indoctrination. In RE, children do not receive equal amounts of teaching on all the different belief systems and the autonomy to decide for themselves. The religion of their parents - by extension, in this system, their religion - monopolises the largest portion of their time with other religions that other people believe in reduced to little more than a footnote.

Just one in seven children escape the religion of their parents. The British government is pouring money into faith schools that serve only to advance the indoctrination of children and encourage religious segregation. Atheism, naturalism, and rationalism don't even figure into the curriculum. Freedom of religion is a near unattainable mirage, inter-faith hostility is deepening, and it is our children who will ultimately pay the price. The system has to change, and soon.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

The erosion of workers' rights

There is an insidious and ongoing campaign by the corporate world to roll back the rights and protections that the working class have won for themselves through the labour struggles of the last century. In the past few weeks alone, several stories have emerged that highlight precisely how big business is exploiting the working class and robbing us of our hard-earned livelihoods.

Arguably the biggest of these stories is the scam revolving around restaurant and hotel staff and the tips that people give to them. In a lot of instances, the employers use the fact that their employees get tips to exploit a loophole in labour laws and pay them less than the minimum wage, saying that the tips they recieve more than make up the shortfall. However, as Unite the Union explains in the introduction to their campaign on the matter:
Money left as a tip on a credit card or paid as service change on a menu is legally the property of the employer to dispose of as they wish. Bad employers use this as an opportunity to take a cut of waiter’s tips and only pass on a proportion back to them. ... employers justify their actions by charging a so called admin fee for processing staff tips. This can be anything from 8% to 15% of the money received.

The result is that, through a legal technicality, the employers not only get away with paying their staff less than the legal minimum wage, but also manage to steal away a proportion of the tips that are supposed to make up this shortfall. And it is not just the company itself, but also managers who are getting in on the act. As Unite explain, although "some employers pool tips and distribute them on a points system," which intially seems a fair way of going about it, "managers award themselves the highest points and receive the lion’s share of tips while those doing the hard work loose [sic] out." And, to add insult to injury, when incidents occur such as broken plates or glasses or customers walking out without paying, "many employers expect waiting staff to pay for these shortages out of their tips."

But this is not the only example of employers using loopholes to pay workers less. It has also been revealed that, at a construction site of an NHS hospital in Nottinghamshire, migrant workers have been paid as little as £8.80 for a full week's work. As The Guardian reports, "according to industry guidelines and an agreement between unions and the building firm Skanska, which is overseeing the project, workers on the site should have been earning more than £7 an hour."

However, the employers were taking monthly "deductions for rent, tool hire and utility bills" on a weekly basis, leaving the workers "virtually destitute." The list of abuses is a long one, wherein "one man worked a 39-hour week and took home just £8.80 after his entire monthly rent was deducted in one week, in breach of the law. A second worker was paid £79.20 for a 63-hour week and a third worked 70 hours a week for just £66. As they were registered as self-employed they did not receive holiday or sick pay. One man had £228 taken from his pay in one week for tools. The men each had a further £76.80 deducted weekly as their payment to the "construction industry scheme", which technically registers them as self-employed, meaning their employers have no requirement to pay national insurance," even though "the amount [employers can deduct for accomodation] is limited by law to a maximum of £30.10 a week, or £4.30 a day." As UCATT, the building union, states, "this means that an employee working 37 hours at £6 an hour should take home a minimum of £174.14 a week unless they have agreed to any other deductions."

And this is at a government construction site. As Michael Clapham, MP for Barnsley West and Penistone, observed: "This happened on a government project where there are good rules and a strong union - who knows what is happening on the hundreds of smaller sites around the UK?"

The third story relating to workers' rights relates to Tesco, which has come under fire from several directions at once for its business practices. Whilst Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's campaign about the welfare of Tesco's chickens and its use of produce from Zimbabwe are the most high-profile issues, there are further examples of its lack of business ethics.

As the Evening Standard reports, Tesco has been accused of "exploiting workers who are paid an average 16p an hour" because it is supplied by "an Indian factory where textile workers earn, on average, £8.75 for a 54-hour, six-day week" and "the lowest paid receive less than £7 a week." Like most cases of sweat-shop labour, "workers risk dismissal for failing to meet strict targets and are forced to work overtime but only receive money for half the extra hours recorded," and "factory bosses ordered employees, most of whom are women, to work on a Sunday to prevent them attending a union meeting scheduled for that day," whilst "as many as four out of five women examined by doctors for the Indian workers' rights organisation Cividep showed evidence of malnutrition."

At the same time, US Presidential Candidate "has written to Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy about workers' rights at its US subsidiary Fresh & Easy" in response to the fact that Tesco, like Wal-Mart in the US, refuses to recognise trade unions.

These are just a few recent examples of a trend that has been ongoing since the 1980s, when a pro-business onslaught led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan set out to crush the trade unions. Since then, union membership has been in steady decline and thus their influence has waned substantially, with even the Labour Party distancing itself and relying more heavily on donations and support from the business sector and rich private donors.

As a result, many workplaces are without worker organisation and thus any kind of protection from their employers. A lot of businesses even go to the lengths of deliberately employing students and part-time workers because they are less likely to join unions. Thus, the minimum wage is pretty much the only protection that some people have, and even that is abysmal. As well as the examples highlighted above, one of the other loopholes exploited - particularly by large American fast-food chains - is the fact that the minimum wage applies to those over-21, and thus they refuse to pay it until their employee turns 22. This is clearly unfair, as there is no justification for paying younger workers less per hour than their older counterparts doing the exact same job. On top of that, the minimum wage as it stands does not go far enough, as the TUC estimates that the minimum necessary to meet the requirements of a living wage is £6.80ph, over a pound more per hour than the current minimum wage.

And the problem continues to grow. Multinational corporations move their factories to countries where they can exploit a lack of labour laws for cheap products, migrant workers thought unable to defend themselves are exploited and paid pitiful wages, and workers in the service sector are continually taken advantage of because they are expendable. At the same time, the government is dismantling the welfare state that provides us with a safety net when we are out of work, or unable to work through disability or injury - pouring scorn upon it with populist sneers such as "sicknote Britain" - and replacing it with an even larger welfare state for big business through tax breaks, business loans, and corporate welfare.

Despite this trend, however, the working class as a whole remains largely indifferent. Why? Because the corporate media has set up a perfect scapegoat for all the things resulting from their own practices - from the social housing crisis to the stagnation of wages - to preoccupy us. Immigrants and Asylum Seekers.

As long as we continue to focus our discontent and anguish on these people, our fears perpetuated by xenophobic organisations such as the BNP and MigrationWatch, the destruction of our protections will continue and our problems will only get worse.