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Workers' Weekly Internet Edition: Article Index : ShareThis
Whose Economy? Our Economy! Who Decides? We Decide!:
Working People Need their Say in Trade Deals
Interviews with Striking University Staff
Letter to the Editor:
The Corona Virus and Social Responsibility
Home Secretary Priti Patel announced on February 18 the government's intention to restrict those who wish to come to Britain to work to those she called "skilled". She said that the government wanted to "encourage people with the right talent" and that businesses could recruit from among eight million "economically inactive" potential workers.
It is said that low-skilled workers would not get visas under the post-Brexit immigration plans unveiled by the government. Under the points-based system, workers would have to reach 70 points to be able to work in Britain. Having the offer of a skilled job with an "approved sponsor" would supply 50 of these points. More points would be awarded for qualifications, the salary on offer, and working in a sector with shortages. Speaking English would also be required. Furthermore, the salary threshold for skilled workers wanting to come to Britain would be £25,600.
The government's argument that it is interested in developing skills among the British people is fraudulent and racist. The ruling elite has had no qualms about recruiting workers from abroad to drive down wages and conditions when it has suited them. Now that they are decimating the manufacturing base and wrecking the economy, they are imposing arbitrary conditions. The announced plans are an attack on the rights of all workers, who have bitter experience of the monopolies and multinationals in this regard and will regard this as an attack on the most vulnerable in society.
The ruling elite are not interested in talk of a "hostile environment" being fostered; nor do they seem to care much about being called racist. They even want to "repatriate" people, such as sections of the African and Caribbean communities. They apparently do not currently want to attract workers from anywhere at all.
To say that the problem is low-skilled workers from abroad is diversionary and is aimed at depriving people of an outlook by wrecking public opinion. In particular, it is aimed at blocking workers from themselves discussing the problems they are facing and organising against the anti-social offensive.
The government directs the economy to serve narrow private interests, and their policy on immigration is all about furthering these private interests. First and foremost, the ruling elite cannot view migration as a matter of humanity. It is instead viewed as a matter of human capital. The rich only recognise their own assumed right to claim on the social product, and prefer populations not to migrate from where labour is cheaper or where the claims of the majority on the economy in the form of social programmes is lower, from their perspective that views such claims as costs. Rather, they prefer to shift production to such "low-cost" regions where possible.
At the same time, they seek to replace labour altogether through increasing automation. Even though workers generate value, capitalist economics is narrow in outlook. Taken individually, skilled labour produces a great amount of value, but unskilled labour collectively is highly productive when organised, such as when part of a manufacturing process with a division of labour. Denigration of unskilled work is based on a lie that equates unskilled with unproductive.
This is just as much the case in sectors other than manufacturing, such as health and social care. Here there is an additional layer of untruth to contend with, which is that these sectors themselves are depicted as "costs". In reality, they create massive value that is used by the rest of the economy, new value that goes largely unrealised. Organised collective unskilled labour in the NHS and social care services contributes a huge part of this value. Much of this labour is done by national minorities.
The immigration plans spell trouble for adult social care. Many people employed by the sector are low-paid care workers. They are responsible for providing daily help to older and disabled adults in care homes and the community. Foreign workers make up a sixth of the 840,000-strong care worker workforce in England. It is hard to see how in the future these staff could qualify under the new plans. This work is not even classed as skilled, and even if it were, many workers do not come with A-levels. The pay is often below £20,000. Nor is the role classed as a shortage occupation, even though there are already significant shortages - one in 11 posts are unfilled.
By posing the question as "Who is skilled?", the government sets up a divisive debate by arguing definitions. Benchmarks, categories, job evaluation schemes, and so on, are long-standing methods used to demarcate workers and undermine collective solidarity in historic wage struggles. Such a debate places skilled workers at odds with unskilled workers. These highly contentious arguments do not serve the interests of the working class.
There is a necessity for workers to speak in their own name, to discuss the problems they face and organise to take up these problems for solution. They should reject with contempt the racist outlook of the ruling elite and its representatives in power.
Organising to solve these problems means fighting to change the direction of the economy. Is the government's immigration policy going to solve the problems of the economy? The answer is no. The whole notion of a points system is irrational. How can talent be measured? Who decided what skills are necessary? The working class and people reject this policy, which is shot through with racism and puts narrow private interests in pride of place.
The only conclusion is to defend the rights of all!
The British government and the European Union have each set forward their negotiating positions for the talks on a UK-EU trade deal to come into force after the transitional period of the Withdrawal Agreement ends at the end of the year.
The Financial Times reported: "Diplomats [of the EU] have been working on the text over the past few weeks, seeking to make sure that the union's offer of a tariff-free, quota-free trade deal comes with enough caveats to protect Europe's businesses.
"The meeting on Monday focused on how exactly to frame EU demands that Britain agree to maintain a 'level playing field' in areas such as environmental and social policy. France secured some final tweaks to the wording to emphasise that Britain should still stick closely to EU rules even as they evolve over time."
The briefing from the Westminster government is that it is upholding the "independence" of Britain, and will not be bound by the "level playing field" of alignment with any European regulations, the European Court of Justice on the interpretation of European law, or even the European Convention of Human Rights, a non-EU convention, on the grounds that, as has been reported, "We will uphold human rights in our way."
It demonstrates that the negotiations which led to the signing of the Withdrawal Agreement by Boris Johnson were not carried out in good faith. It is absurd for the Prime Minister to now claim that all that counts is his election manifesto, since that means he now represents the people of Britain who have given him a mandate to act as he likes. That is just it: the government is acting, as it believes, with impunity under the hoax that it represents the people as against parliament, as against the states of the European Union.
But where is the input of working people into these negotiations and trade deals? Where is their voice? Boris Johnson is fond of saying how "fantastic" everything will be when it finds its own way in the world. But this is not an "independence" where the people decide the direction of the economy, and are empowered, for example, to conduct trade on an equal basis and for mutual benefit.
Indeed, Britain's colonial and imperialist history gives the lie to claims that the issue is for the country to regain its sovereignty which has been eroded by the EU. Britain's role in the world has been criminal and shameful, and it continues to act shamefully, as with its racist treatment of people who have Caribbean heritage, as with its interference abroad, its militarisation of the economy, and its active seeking of regime change in many states that have challenged its hegemony.
Its dealings with the EU itself has no coherence. The government speaks of a "rules-based international order", while abiding by no international norms and legality. Everything points to the hollowness of a claim of even following "British" interests. The Conservative Party may have a parliamentary majority, and have expelled pro-EU figures from its ranks, but that, if anything, has only contributed further to its division into factions, its dysfunctionality, its coming into contradiction with the machinery of state and the civil service.
No doubt the rich oligarchs continue to prosper, but that is not due to Boris Johnson's delusion that his class has the god-given right to govern. The situation in fact points to the necessity for the working people to claim centre-stage, say No! to the direction in which the government is taking the economy, and articulate their demands that the direction of the economy must favour them and the political system enshrine the rights of the people.
Whatever trade deals that Boris Johnson signs will not benefit the working people, because they have no input, no say, no voice or participation in them, and the instincts of the rich and privileged will win out. This goes for the other so-called "free trade agreements" also, which are designed to by-pass the interests of the working people and make them shoulder the burdens of the economic crises, as well as tying Britain to the war chariot of the United States. A "no-deal" Brexit is no better. The government is not concerned, despite its claims, over the health of industry, of agriculture or fisheries. It is all pragmatism to ensure that the people do not acquire an outlook which empowers them to direct the economy and resolve the imposition of a social system under which their voice has no weight.
The situation demands a new approach and solutions that working people want. They must put forward their demands in their own name, not leave the field open for Johnson to claim he represents them. Working people need their say in trade agreements, as part of being empowered to determine the direction of the economy and unblock the path to progress.
Workers' Weekly spoke with two members of staff at the universities of Oxford and Cardiff who are currently on strike, so that they can explain to our readers what is at stake in the struggle and what are the latest developments.
Workers' Weekly: University staff have been in action since 2018 over pensions, pay and conditions. What are the issues and your demands?
Oxford: We are involved in two industrial disputes. One is the Universities Superannuation Scheme pensions dispute, over which we went on strike in 2018 and are in dispute over again now. The second is on pay and pay equality; in other words, the gender and ethnic pay gaps, casualisation, and workloads.
Cardiff: We should perceive the demands of the University and College Union [UCU] in the context of the commercialised university. Britain has been pioneering at the global level in the commercialisation of higher education and the operation of the universities as corporations. Directly related to this is the first demand regarding wages, which in real terms have declined by 20% since the harsh austerity that has been implemented. At the same time, most Vice-Chancellors have increased their salaries, which now range from around half to nearly £1 million. These salaries are not so much a reflection of their high position in the university hierarchy, as of their role as managers in this commercialised system. So, a first demand is related to a significant rise in wages, much higher than the 1.8% offered by the employers, which is below inflation.
A second issue, related to pay inequality, is associated with the gender inequalities: according to the UCU's estimations, the wages of female staff are lower by 16% compared to those of their male counterparts. This issue cannot be disconnected from the wider gender inequalities in society and most workplaces.
Third, workload is among the most urgent issues. The casualisation of industrial relations in the universities has had hugely negative impacts on university workers' living standards. Again according to UCU estimations, a typical week has 50 working hours on average, with 29% of academics averaging more than 55 hours. Additionally, the part-time and zero-hour contracts, with no working rights and security, have become a common phenomenon. The significant teaching gaps are filled with these precarious jobs and by PhD researchers, who are treated by the universities as students and not as workers. Characteristically, more than 100,000 teaching staff on casual contracts report that they are only paid for 55% of the work they do.
The final issue that initiated the first round of industrial action, back in 2018, is that of the pension system reform, reducing the pensions, increasing the contributions, and pushing university staff towards private solutions.
WW: What are the latest developments?
Oxford: We took eight days of combined strike action on the two disputes in November, and are now in a period of fourteen days of strike action, spread out over a month. Already, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association have agreed to meet us to discuss the pay and equalities dispute, and we will meet Universities UK to discuss pensions.
Cardiff: The latest developments are characterised by the low willingness of the employers' associations to engage with negotiations and offer solutions, despite the third round of strikes.
WW: Can you comment on how this struggle relates to the nature of the university system itself and to safeguarding the future of higher education?
Oxford: This is a strike for the heart and soul of higher education; it as about far more than just pay. The university sector has seen a continuous decline through marketisation in conditions of employment and in the ideals that it is meant to embody. We are trying to draw a line and reverse that.
Cardiff: These deep restructurings have been related to the deepening of the university commercialisation. All of this restructuring has been pursued by the Vice-Chancellors/Managers of the university-corporations in order to achieve fiscal balance and improve their credit risk profile, seeking to borrow with better terms in the international financial markets. This is something that is not viable and we cannot allow to continue, and is an issue that requires serious discussion.
WW: Could you tell us about the support you are receiving from students?
Oxford: The support has been fantastic; the official Oxford Student Union is in support of us, and there are numerous other spontaneous groupings of undergraduate and graduate students in support of our action.
Cardiff: Although they are affected by the strikes, most students have been supporting the strike action of the university staff. And this support has been increasing from one round of strikes to another. This is impressive, as, considering the recent student mobilisation in the early-2010s against the increase of tuition fees, it shows that the student movement is still developing and can play a crucial role. Only by connecting the struggles of university staff with the student movement, against a common target, the commercialisation of higher education, can the university movement be more effective and win.
WW: How have things been going locally, at your pickets, meetings, rallies and other actions?
Oxford: Excellent, pickets have been growing day by day, and our rallies have brought together unions and movements from the broader region.
Cardiff: Pickets and rallies have been lively in most of the university campuses across the country, despite the expectations of the employers that entering the third round of strike action, the university staff would start getting tired in terms of mobilisation and participation in the industrial action. The total number of 36 days of strike action in two years is impressive, and delivers the message that staff remain determined to win.
WW: Would you like to say something in conclusion?
Oxford: This strike has huge importance for the future of universities. The last round of strike action happened in the shadow of a general election, and the possibility of a transformative government. We are now in a different place, and must find new ways of resisting the managed decline of our conditions of employment.
Cardiff: Deepening the level of disruption; connecting with students; integrating professional services staff; getting in touch with other parts of the society in struggle, such as the Royal Mail workers: these are all significant in order to achieve our aims. Targeting the restructuring at the core of university commercialisation is crucial.
Members of NEU, the National Education Union, working in 34 sixth form colleges or 16-19 academies went on strike on February 27 to demand more funding for their colleges.
Many attended a rally at Parliament Square in Westminster, followed by a march to the Department for Education.
The NEU is in dispute with the Secretary of State and seeking improved pay, conditions and employment through better funding for 16-19 education. There is currently an overall shortfall of at least £700 million in funding for Post-16 Education which the NEU wants to see rectified in the forthcoming Budget.
NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: "16-19 education has suffered brutally under successive Conservative governments, and the funding increases announced before the election fall at least £700m short of what is needed. The trajectory is unchanged: jobs are being cut, class sizes are rising, and pay is falling. Striking is always a last resort but our members know that the future of the sector is at threat and it is students' education that will continue to suffer."
The issue of the fear factor is very real. However, [...] what it really points to again is the absolute necessity for the most comprehensive and centrally organised and socially provided health care system for all. A pandemic or mass outbreak of this kind just cannot be dealt with on an individual basis. Asking people to self-isolate, for example, is almost ludicrous. Who looks after people when they become ill? And who does the work whilst people are off ill? Who keeps things up and running? And there has been almost no discussion about public health provision or what we as a society need to do and think about to deal with an outbreak of this kind.
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