Wednesday 30 April 2014

Winning the battle, losing the war

British politics: All at sixes and sevens

Immigrants are taking the flack right now.  According to Ukip, EU immigration is the reason we now have Eastern European crime gangs on our streets.  This is nonsense.  Y'see the thing about criminal gangs is they break the law.  If they weren't too fussed about laws governing theft, they weren't all that fussy about immigration law either.  The police have been dealing with such long before January 1st 2014.  But hey, at least they're not claiming benefits.  Barely worth the hassle when construction site theft is so lucrative and easy to get away with.  And they're certainly not after my job - or yours.

What we have here is a problem with policing - not immigration. A topic for another time.  But it cannot be denied that immigrants are taking low skilled jobs.  Not just new jobs... existing ones.  Today I spoke with a well connected private security contractor who has just been replaced by cheaper labour.  And it's not just him.  The older, experienced guards with fixed hours contracts are being pushed out in favour of anyone who will take a zero hours contract. (ie nobody with a mortgage to pay or kids to feed - or anything else we would regard as a normal standard of living.)

We hear talk about "defending our British way of life", but thanks to the internet we are now so atomised and independent of each other, with few reasons to congregate (especially in a post faith country) there is no British way of life.  The only thing that binds us in common culture is that we all experience our rainy British life as well off, healthy people - compared with the rest of the planet that is.  And that is what is being undermined for many. But it isn't immigration doing that.

In the boom years, the influx of Polish workers raised a few eyebrows, but nobody complained about cheap Polish plumbers and they weren't taking working class jobs away because a generation of them were safely ensconced in baloney education courses or on welfare, either as job-seekers or written off and parked on the disability register.  This was at a time when you could surf between jobs and take your pick.  But in 2008 that came to a crashing halt.

Jobs dried up, mobility ground to a halt and people stopped taking risks by changing jobs.  The labour market was a grand game of musical chairs and suddenly the music stopped and has remained stopped ever since.  Naturally this has made it a buyers market for labour.  People will take what they are offered, especially with the Job Centre having an itchy trigger finger on benefit sanctions - even if that means taking a zero hours contract.  And zero hours means zero hours some weeks.  No human being can live that way, especially with contracts that forbid being on standby for other employers.

Idiot Tory think-tank economists and bubble dwelling free-market hacks praise these contracts as a sign of market liberalisation, celebrating the fact it makes a more nimble, mobile, flexible workforce.  I have made those arguments myself because I'm one of those "I'm alright, Jack" tossers with no children, no commitments and no special loyalty to my employer.  That's great if you're an IT contractor or engineer commanding an impressive hourly rate - and going self-employed to duck taxes is even better.  But when that dynamic is extended to low-skilled workers, with families, who cannot move cities for a job at the drop of a hat, it becomes exploitation - and a means to duck minimum wage.

Now, broadly speaking, I am against the minimum wage in normal conditions, but with open borders, it must be enforced otherwise British workers with roots and settled lives cannot compete.  But enforcement of this is poor, and next to impossible to police when so many are now "self-employed" and notionally pay themselves from their invoices.  Moreover, the raft of employment paperwork and regulation means such jobs are moving out of the legitimate market altogether and instead are turning into cash-in-hand arrangements with no questions asked.  This is certainly the case with security contracting, I am told.

This is bad news.  It's bad for health and safety, it is bad for health, it is bad for quality of life... and it is bad for the rule of law.  But it is entirely predictable and entirely understandable.  Cameron's recent pension auto-enrollment was yet another regulatory imposition on employers who already negotiate a labyrinthine array of requirements governing tax, NI and things us mere mortals have never even heard of.  I pay an umbrella company to do it for me because if I had to do my own accounts I wouldn't have time to do my job, let alone write these blogs. Employers simply cannot keep expanding their back office operations to cope with the onslaught of red tape, so are turning to alternative means of obtaining labour.

One way to get around this torrent of red tape and avoid paying living wages to play the Job Centre game.  All manner of twisted labour market distortions have been introduced by the Tories that make their figures look good - and make millions for their hard-lobbying corporate friends.  Take a look at this testimony from a Job Centre official...
“The reforms have been designed to hide the numbers of unemployed.  So many have been sanctioned and are not counted in the official figures.  Many are desperate and will take these Mickey Mouse zero-hour contracts to escape the fortnightly gauntlet.  I must also add truthfully that I had never come across a zero hours vacancy until the last couple of years.  That is not to say they did not exist but I never encountered one.  Now they are everywhere.

“Apprenticeships are another tool to hide unemployment figures.  Very cynical.  Older folks will hear the spin – ’1 million apprenticeships,’ and say ‘great!’.   Wrong! Coffee shop apprentices, call centre apprentices etc, are just a way for employers to undercut the minimum wage.  They are doing this in the thousands.  Who can blame them?  £98 per week and then get a new one in after 12 months.  Fantastic! Britain now has a time served coffee shop worker to compete in Cameron’s global race.

“Wage Incentives. This scheme is an absolute disgrace.  Employ an 18 – 24 yr old for 6 months and the taxpayer will give you £2.5k.  Paid at minimum wage you will make a profit even if you get them to lick stamps. Vacancies that were full paid jobs are now changing to Wage Incentive vacancies as Job-centre staff convince employers to accept money for nothing.  This is seriously affecting the jobs market and it is all down to Coalition pressure to increase Wage Incentive targets.  They can then claim falsely that the scheme has created 1000’s of vacancies, when in truth it hasn’t.  The vacancies were already there.  The taxpayer has just paid 2.5k to employ A instead of B.  Economic sense? Nope.”
While I am not in the least bit surprised by any of the above, what interests me is this...  "I must also add truthfully that I had never come across a zero hours vacancy until the last couple of years.  That is not to say they did not exist but I never encountered one.  Now they are everywhere."  The last couple of years huh?  I smell a large furry rodent.

Interesting that this phenomenon coincides with the introduction of the EU Agency Workers Directive - granting full employment rights and employment equality to temporary workers after a mere twelve weeks.  This in itself was a regulatory reaction to the EU laws of the 90's that spawned the perpetual rolling six month contract, which curiously caused an explosion of high street job agencies.  This was the imposition of regulation that put the limit at six months and made it almost impossible to fire a permanent employee.  And so we saw the death of the permanent job.

Perversely, the Tory think-tank types got their wet dream of a more liberal, mobile workforce by way of distinctly illiberal demands of unions lobbying the EU.  It is also Ironic that those who doctored the Ukip poster above (pictured) advocate joining a union, but our ineffectual unions are the ones who lobbied for the Agency Workers Directive in the first place. Now they reap what they have sown.

Many benefited from the explosion in temporary work which suited the zeitgeist of young, flexible people keeping their options open, but this latest intervention condemns the low-skilled to take whatever they are offered and like it.

In the wake of this gradual decimation of our labour market we see politicians from all sides demanding a "living wage" (for council workers) and a bogus promise by Ed Milliband to "end dependency on cheap foreign labour".  Naturally this involves more draconian and stupid law, and gold-plating EU laws that are largely unenforceable.  He proposes:
  • Increasing fines for firms that breach minimum wage legislation
  • Banning recruitment agencies from having a policy of hiring only foreign workers
  • Stopping the use of "tied housing", which allows agricultural firms to pay less to workers who get accommodation as part of their job
Last time I checked, there are already fines for companies that breach minimum wage but it is not a deterrent because it is unenforceable. The labour market is being pushed underground and off the books and off the radar of the state.  Secondly, no recruitment agencies have a public policy of hiring only foreign workers.  The burden of proof falls on the inspectorate - which is even more difficult to prove.

To Miliband's credit, he understands the role of tied-housing in allowing foreign labour to undercut the market, but this can already be addressed by the use of House of Multiple Occupation law and proper Environmental Health enforcement - which is actually the one thing our local authorities do relatively well, not least because it is a revenue source. At present, because it is not enforced as well as it could be, it allows foreign labour to undercut domestic labour.  We Brits are meant to compete by moving out of our homes and bedding down in a sleeping bag in a shared room, in a dangerously overcrowded house with faulty wiring. YAY for the free market!  We are to debase ourselves and our standard of living on the altar of global competitiveness.

What this all points to points to is a grossly malfunctioning labour market that is pushing legitimate labour deeper underground, reducing the living standards of everybody and turning us into a more corrupt society.  It was Tacitus who said "The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws".  Who could argue?  Our culture of fair play, decent living standards and the honour of contracts is being undermined by an onslaught of EU regulation, gold-plated by our own politicians.

On the one hand you have idiot Tories foolishly celebrating the labour market "liberaliation" which allegedly makes us more competitive, and on the other hand a labour party with a full on death-wish, hell bent on making things worse.  Both parities compete with their stunted narratives, completely oblivious to the hollowing out of the British economy and society as we know it, while the EU remains the unchallenged elephant in the room - and neither party has the will or the wisdom to take us out.

As more and more agreements and contracts happen outside of the rules, avoiding oversight and avoiding tax, our country tips over into the state that Greece was in, whereby corruption rules and only public sector "workers" and slave drivers make money - unless you have your hand in someone else's wallet.  It is little wonder then that so many turn to Ukip.  The public understands something is deeply wrong and that the country is changing for the worse.  Yet Ukip is not thriving because it has made the case I have.  It is thriving because it is scapegoating immigration, which is rather like punching the monkey because you don't like the organ grinder's tune.

The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.
It makes the assumption that the public cannot understand what is going on, even though it is those same working class people who are informing this analysis - from the the security guard in the shopping mall to the Job Centre bureacrat.  What is worse is that the more Ukip positions itself as a BNP-lite party the more it paints itself into a populist corner.  Rather than making an intellectual case for leaving the EU it has committed to making the debate about immigration - which will always have a glass ceiling, especially after decades of brainwashing making most people terrified of being branded racist.

What we are witnessing in the run up to the Euro-elections is a bubble. Ukip has sacrificed its intellectual and moral high ground in exchange for rapid expansion based on nothing but scapegoating and populism.  It may be working, but what is it they say about the brightest star? Ukip may be on the up, but polls suggest our chances of winning an EU referendum are shrinking. Euro-sceptics may be winning a battle, but we are losing the war and time is running out.

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