Letter in the Guardian: Pay Ratios

As sent. Published on January 12

Madam,

Your leading article “The Guardian view on Corbyn and pay: close that gap” was entirely right to say that “pay for those running FTSE companies is too high” and you were right to welcome the proposal floating by Jeremy Corbyn to set a ratio of top to lowest pay.

There’s nothing novel about this proposal.
This has been Green Party policy for many years – although we’re calling for a ratio of 10:1, not 20:1.
There’s a growing civil society movement calling for companies to publish their pay ratios, as provided for in the US Dodd-Frank legislation.
Historically and globally, it is the extremely large ratios found in America and the UK now that are anomalous, not attempts to restrict them.
Countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Japan have ratios an order of magnitude lower than the UK’s, and in the 1960s a ratio of 20:1 was the norm.

Smithy Wood – not the site for a motorway services!

On Sunday I found a very productive – if muddy – way to spend the morning, in the beautiful Smithy Wood.

The idea that this ancient woodland (and the bell pits that are remnants of mining dating back to the 1400s) might be levelled for a motorway services really is ridiculous.

fungi on a tree

A wide range of biodiversity

hawthorn

A very old, twisty hawthorn

tree

The beauties of nature

Happily the Woodland Trust is backing a campaign to save it.

Spending the time plucking plastic drinks bottles out of puddles and extracting them from the middle of brambles really did provide time to focus on the urgent need for replacing these single-use plastics with a bottle deposit scheme – and moving to complete end single-use plastics. (One good thing, I suspect there would have been a lot more carrier bags a couple of years ago – there were very few, and a lot of those were clearly old.)

rubbish bag

One of the many rubbish bags we collected

Oddest thing I picked up – a car muffler. I don’t know what kind of car it was from, but it was very heavy!

Another fare rise in our failed, privatised rail system

Another chilly January morning, another protest against further rises to what are already the most expensive rail fares in Europe.

From 7am yesterday morning I joined members of Sheffield Green Party at the station to sympathise with travellers, many of whom were facing the rise on their first day back at work after the festive break. Greens across Yorkshire (and the country were doing likewise – travelllers reported to us they’d seen Greens in Leeds, Rotherham and Barnsley.

We were criticising the rise, but more than that, focusing on the failed structure of our privatised rail services, and encouraging people to sign this petition calling for rail to be brought back into public hands, to be run for the benefit of passengers, not shareholders.

This video explains more:

And here’s how our action was covered in the Sheffield Star.

Educating Beyond Borders: Students With a Rightful Grievance

In 2010, visa rules for international students changed. Recently I met with a representative of some of the students who’ve been left in a disastrous, unreasonable situation as a result who’ve got together with supporters to form Educating Beyond Borders (EBB). They have effectively been defrauded of very large sums of money, paid in good faith on the expectation they would achieve complete qualifications.

To fully achieve professional qualifications in a number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) and VET (Vocational Education and Training Courses), there’s a requirement for students to work in a supervised way for a period after completing the academic components of a university course. In total it is thought 415 STEM and 222 VET courses are affected.

So for example to become a RIBA-qualified (Royal Institute of British Architects) architect, you have to work in an approved practice for two years before taking a final exam. Only after that can you get your qualification.

Students pay £200,000 or even more for courses, and then do the work (explicitly excluded by law from minimum wage legislation because it is part of their training).

Yet in 2010, for visa purposes, this was reclassified as “employment” for international students. Instead of being able to complete this period under a “Tier 4” student visa, the students have to find a way to get a far more difficult “Tier 2” working visa.

For some it’s impossible, for others it is extraordinarily difficult and expensive. It is going to be the students of relatively less means who find it the most difficult.

Yet many students started their studies before the rules changed – they, and any other student who started their course in good faith, should at a minimum be able to complete their studies and the achieve the qualifications they’ve paid for, under Tier 4.

More, universities should not be offering these courses to new foreign students unless they have government guarantees that they’ll be able to complete the practical part of the course they’re paying huge sums for.

This situation needs to be distinguished from an issue affecting many students that at first glance looks similar, and is often confused with it. That’s the issue of “post-study visas”, the right for which was removed in 2012.

This allowed all non-EU graduates to remain in the UK for two years after their studies to work – a highly valued right that allowed students to them return to their home countries with combined practical and academic experience.

The loss of this been blamed in part for the plummeting numbers of students from the sub-Continent.

It’s an important issue, but a different one from what the EBB is addressing.

More, there’s an even bigger underlying issue here, about which I’m hearing increasing concern – that universities are treating non-EU students as “cash cows”, not properly meeting their needs or reasonable expectation. And there are accounts of universities using the threat of immigration officers to try to extract money from students and bring them into line.

And disturbing suggestions that students are getting a message that they’ll put their status in danger if they take part in political activities while they’re here. Very disturbing when you’d hope one of the “British values” they’d be learning about here is the right to peaceful political activity.

Sheffield Needs a Payrise: Taking the message to the high street

I was delighted to be asked to speak at the rally today at the start of the Sheffield Needs a Payrise march, a campaign that’s calling for a minimum £10/hour wage for all workers in Sheffield and beyond (particularly apt since South Yorkshire is the fifth poorest region in Northern Europe). There was a great turnout of around 300, excellent on a busy, cold day just before Christmas.

We heard many examples of the difficulties workers face as a result of low pay and zero-hours contract. An Usdaw representative said she’d just been trying to help a member with six jobs, who needed to use a food bank to get by.

Gareth Lane from the bakers’ union spoke of the difficulties faced by laid-paid workers in McDonalds, citing particularly one young father left rarely seeing his children by computer-allocated shifts that took no account of his family responsibilities.
I spoke about the great radical political tradition of Sheffield, and how it was again politically leading the country with this campaign. Our economy, that’s increasingly dominated by low-paying, tax-dodging multinational companies that are parasites, isn’t doing what an economy is supposed to do, which is to provide for our needs, one of which is stable, secure, decent-paying jobs – jobs that you can build a life on.

Responding to populism: we need more politics in energy, not less

I write for The Ecologist:

“It’s a pall that hangs over almost every meeting in every sector of society at the moment: the rise of the populist right. And it was certainly hanging in the air at the University of Exeter Energy Policy Group conference in London this week. …

One speaker from the floor summed it up very well: “we need more politics in energy policy, not less.”

Amy Mount from the Green Alliance suggested that the answer to ‘post-truth’ politics was more transparency.”

More

“FearLESS” – excellent title for a campaign to end violence against women and girls

Some telling figures today from Action Aid UK at the launch of a report on their “FearLESS” campaign. Women’s Rights Organisations received only around 1.5% of the aid money committed for gender equality worldwide. For UK aid the figure is under 1%.

The people best equipped to understand the situation and tackle it are not getting the support they need. 

I heard this in the rather grand surroundings of the Speaker’s House at Westminster, although telling that the oil portraits gazing down on us were all male.

But it wan’t all bad news. World Bank figures report that the number of countries with legislation against domestic violence has increased from seven to 127 in the past 25 years.

One case study given was of the work of Mifumi, a Ugandan organisation that for two decades pushed for a law, passed in 2016, banning refunds of the “bride price” as a condition for the dissolution of customary marriage – a practice that trapped women in abusive relationships and put them at risk of violence.

Another was of the Alliance Breaking the Silence and Impunity in Guatemala, which helped indigenous women from the Sepur Zarco community win a case against two former soldiers who were found guilty of crimes of sexual violence, a landmark in which sexual violence as a war crime was raised in a national court. (It was declared as such by the UN Security Council Resolution 1820.)

We also heard at the event from Jess Njui of the Africa Youth Trust about its work in tackling violence against women and girls at the informal Kenyan communities – was great to hear her paying tribute to the work of early feminists in Kenya who laid the ground for work today.

Agroecology and “climate smart” agriculture: there’s one way forward

Looking at sustainable farming practices with Shopshire Wildlife Trust

Looking at sustainable farming practices with Shopshire Wildlife Trust

Just published on the Ecologist, I reflect on the discussions I joined at the climate talks in Marrakesh.

I started with some context: “there is currently plenty of food in the world. The fact that 800 million people regularly go to bed hungry is a failure of distribution, not production. But the world’s population is growing, and production is under threat from the damage being done by the industrial agriculture that’s trashing our soils, drawing down fossil water supplies and polluting our rivers and oceans. Adaptation means ensuring there’s enough food to go around in future in our changing climate. That’s a huge ask.”

I conclude: “agroecology is the only possible approach: climate change is only one of many pressing environmental issues that threaten our future and that of the Earth as a balanced ecosystem. Agroecology addresses such diverse problems as biodiversity loss, soil degradation, pollution of our rivers and oceans. And it can create huge numbers of jobs, sustain small businesses, and offer far greater food security.

Understandably, there was at COP a lot of talk about the development of agroecology for the Global South, where food security is the most obviously pressing issue. But I’m interested in how we can develop this in the UK – where we also need to think hard about food security – given that we import 40% of our food, and 75% of our fruit and vegetables, which are particularly critical for health.”

How I got to the COP climate talks in Marrakesh from London by train

Guided by the invaluable Man in Seat Sixty One, I booked my tickets for the journey to Marrakesh a couple of months in advance, which kept the costs down.

mara1

The trip started with a simple Eurostar hop to Paris, then I left Paris Gare de Lyon in the early afternoon for the long but comfortable and relaxed run to Barcelona.I’m working on a book, so the power point by the seat (European plug of course) came in very handy, and glancing up from my work to see the countryside rolling by was very pleasant, as was the chance to get up and stretch my legs whenever I wanted.

I was pleased to find a number of other Britons travelling to Barcelona by train, and I swapped coffee runs with a lovely couple travelling for their daughter’s wedding in the Spanish city. They’d chosen train for its reliability – they’d had some bad times with flights being hopelessly delayed and cancelled, and this was one journey they wanted certainty on.

I overnighted in Barcelona at the one star but surprisingly good Hotel Transit (budget accommodation has improved a great deal since my backpacker days), and the next morning had only a short stroll from the hotel for the 8.30am train.

That whizzed me in high comfort on to Antequera-Santa Ana, where there was time for a quick lunch in the station cafe before boarding the local train to Algeciras. The views along the way were spectacular – the snow-capped Pyrennes, great stretches of olive trees standing strong in apparent desert, and as long as I didn’t glance at the speed indicator I wouldn’t have had any idea I was travelling at 300kh/h. Announcements were in a range of languages, but there was no difficulty in understanding the necessary details. If I got an orange juice when I was trying to order pineapple, that was undoubtedly my own fault in trying to speak Spanish – English would have worked fine.

This was a local, slow train – and one with a great many British accents (this is just inland from Malaga) – but there was still a power point at every seat and plenty of room between the comfortable seats.

Arriving at Algeciras, it was a five-minute stroll to the port. You could see the sea from the train station, and from there I walked straight on to the bus transfer to Tarifa, the port for the fast catamaran across the Med, which took only an hour. It was a sober thought as I stood looking at the sea I was about to cross in air-conditioned comfort, the same sea where so many thousands have lost their lives in a desperate bid for safe European refuge.

But I was soon in Tangier, and settling into the wonderful, economical, comfortably aged grandeur of the Continental Hotel. I’d arrived at 9pm and could theoretically have caught the 9.55pm sleeper to Morocco that night, but I chose to take 24 hours of holiday in the comfortable, relatively untouristy streets of Tangier.

I was able to buy my ticket at the train station next day, left my bags at a hotel nearby, and took the day to explore, before settling into my comfortable £28 couchette – sharing with three Moroccan women – a bargain.

mara2

All up, the trip cost about £200 – the most ridiculous bargain being Paris-Barcelona for 33 euros. It was a great way to travel, and provided excellent work time.

By contrast, my journey home on BA (forced by a long-booked appointment) was a tale of cramped misery. I was probably cutting it fine in arriving at the airport 90 minutes before the flight, then on a fully booked plane I spent four hours packed into sardine conditions. The gentleman beside me had his elbow in my ribs the whole way, he had nowhere else to put it, ditto his knees in my space. I’m seldom glad of being only 1.6 metres – this time I was, for the man on the other side also was in “my” space, for want of any alternative. I didn’t move for four hours – I couldn’t without causing widespread disruption. I couldn’t even reach the bag under the seat in front of me, while my other carry-on bag was travelling in business, for want of any space in the cattle cabin. I didn’t get any work done, and when I arrived at Gatwick, train delays meant it took 2.5 hours to get to King’s Cross station – as long as from there to Paris. It “only” cost £80 – some of the worst £80 I’d ever spent.

Of course there’s no justification for this travel mode costing less – and it doesn’t, if you count the externalised costs of greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, noise pollution and taxes avoided. (For aviation is avoiding taxes under worldwide regulations brought in when it was fledgling industry governments wanted to encourage).

mara4

And there’s no single rail ticket to Marrakesh – why not? Without the invaluable contribution of an individual’s website, it would be hard to organise. Governments could do so much more to encourage this mode of travel – if only they had the will.


Standing up to racism, and reflecting on our refugee successes

Last night I was delighted to speak at a packed, enthusiastic and determined Birminghamd Stand Up to Racism meeting.

img_20161102_195933

There’s much of course to be concerned and worried about, not just the post-referendum vote surge in hate crime, but also the desperate conditions in which so many migrant workers are forced. A speaker from the Gambian community spoke of the shocking events that saw five of its members lose their lives in an industrial incident in Birmingham in July.

But in my speech I wanted to focus on the positives that we’ve seen over the past year. For it’s little more than a year ago that more than 100,000 peopl came out on the streets of London to say “Refugees Welcome”, and since then, a whole new social movement has been born.

Big sums of money, and large amounts of essential goods, from tents and sleeping bags to shoes and clothes, have been collected and taken to refugees in need, in Calais and other parts of southern France and also over to Greece. A massive voluntary effort has provided support at Calais, Dunkirk and in Greece and other parts of Europe, meeting desperate needs while tradition aid sources have been absent.

Also, the government has been forced to give way on allowing “Dubbs children” and “Dublin chiildren” into the UK. Not nearly enough, and only most grudgingly, but we shouldn’t think that the May government has suddenly grown a heart – rather they’ve been forced by public pressure into giving way.