Culture and Life
by Rob Gowland
The "good old days"
The English cartoonist Bill Tidy devised a satirical comic strip about modern British social history, tracing the fortunes of a great north country tripe manufacturer. At the beginning of the story, the future "tripe king" and his family are homeless and destitute. On the road, walking towards hoped-for employment in a northern mill, they are accosted by a mill owner in his carriage. Something about father has caught his eye. "You can trust a man who tucks his shirt inside his underpants!", he says to himself. He offers them work and graciously allows them to run behind his carriage until they reach the mill. Their dog-like devotion and intense gratitude ingratiates them with their employer. They are excessively honoured when the tripe manufacturer's son defiles their daughter. From here on the strip chronicles their rise to the top. Tidy delightfully encompasses every aspect of a mill-owner's view of the world as it should be. It is in fact the fond dream of virtually every capitalist: a world where workers and other riff raff touch their forelock and say "Yes sir", "No sir" and "Anything you say sir". Where they work with the eagerness of people who know what it is to have no job, and are grateful for whatever you toss their way, preferably a shiny coin from your purse — surely they need no more? And if the workers are so ungrateful as to ask for more, why, you toss 'em out and get some others who know their place. Last year the 270 workers at Lufthansa Skychef, the plant at London's Heathrow airport which prepares in-flight meals for a number of airlines, went on strike for one day. They were all sacked. Their union, the Transport & General Workers' Union (TGWU) is still battling to get them reinstated. It is now Britain's longest-running strike. But of course, the Skychef experience is hardly unique these days. Bosses everywhere are trying to bring back Bill Tidy's imaginary world where workers toil without murmur and can be paid in old clothes and vouchers redeemable at the company store. They want to reduce the organised working class to the status of servants. Frankly, I don't fancy their chances.
* * *Getting around the law Still in the airline industry, and still in Britain, where legislation has just introduced a minimum wage (set far too low, but at least it's set). At least one British employer is taking advantage of globalisation to get around the new laws. A civil air transport delegate to the recent Congress of the Transport & General Workers' Union reported that, just prior to the introduction of the minimum wage, a subsidiary of British Airways shipped out thousands of jobs to India, where it could go on paying poverty wages. And capitalist governments prattle about humanity and justice and "human rights". * * *Saudi "democracy" One capitalist (or should that be feudal?) government that doesn't bother to talk about human rights is that in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, who have banned all independent trade unions and scorned to sign any of the ILO conventions, are also having industrial trouble in London. Last year the Saudi Embassy presented its English staff with new draconian contracts that radically worsened their conditions and pay. When the staff objected they were sacked. When the workers' union took the Saudis to court for wrongful dismissal, the Embassy tried to claim the workers were part of the Saudi mission and therefore not subject to British labour laws. The contracts in question increased the working day by one hour with no increase in pay, altered workers' pay from net to gross (effectively cutting their pay by a whopping 33 percent), and made staff liable to work when and as directed, even after hours or on weekends. To make matters worse, the Saudis — who are not exactly short of a bob or two, themselves — had apparently been deducting employees' tax and national insurance contributions from their paypackets but not bothering to actually pay them to the Inland Revenue. The result is that the workers have been landed with huge unpaid tax bills and are ineligible for pensions or unemployment benefits. One of the fired embassy workers, translator Mohamed Nasser said of his super rich former bosses: "They think that God sent them to Earth to treat the workers as slaves." Well, if not slaves then certainly servants. And what's the difference between the Saudi oil sheiks and the suave corporate bigshots at British Airways? Not a thing as far as fundamentals are concerned. All capitalists think workers should be grateful to them for so generously providing the deserving among us with work of any sort. But the days of forelock tugging and cap doffing have gone forever. And no amount of intimidation of workers and union-busting is going to bring them back.