We are troubled by your soft curiosity But delighted to be anti everything you were taught
– Parquet Courts
Welcome to the second edition of Nine Twenty Magazine.
The political and cultural ground on which we stand in the UK, and abroad, has taken some seismic shocks since our last edition.
A whopping Tory majority gained in the general election and the UK’s formal departure from the EU come to mind first, but we also saw U.S. forces withdraw from Kurdish-administered northern Syria, where a war still rages on, and watched as Donald Trump’s impeachment trial came and went.
Catalonia’s independence leaders were jailed for nearly 100 years; protests across the world from Hong Kong to Chile and Lebanon intensified, and in the UK a general election was rife with misinformation, epitomised by the Conservative party creating a fake fact-checking site.
The speed at which these events are covered, digested and then abandoned seems to get faster with every passing month, leaving a trail of disaffected and unsatisfied people in its wake asking ‘why, and how?’.
As a result, the ability to properly hold governments and powerful people to account is dwindling when the spotlight shifts from topic to topic at a dizzying speed.
The press industry, which should be a diverse expression of the free press, is controlled by only three companies – News UK, Daily Mail Group, and Reach. Together, they dominate 83% of the market.
All of these companies are owned by billionaires. It is a troublesome time.
As we were writing this article, one week before this edition was released, we were looking for examples of how flawed the British media is – which was one of the reasons we created Nine Twenty Magazine – and the first thing we saw on Twitter that day summed it all up so neatly.
Around five million people will have read those front page stories of Boris Johnson getting married and having another child, and will have fallen a little bit further under the ‘charm’ of the UK Prime Minister.
Even The Observer, a supposed stalwart of left-wing publications, gave this non-story front page coverage, equal to that of Johnson’s former employer, The Times.
This is not how it was ever supposed to be.
In the UK, we have slept-walked into a constitutional crisis in the Brexit debacle, enabled by a media system which celebrates the powerful instead of checking and balancing them.
We have entered a realm where thinking critically and questioning what we see is a rare and devalued commodity.
Movements towards populism and anti-immigration stances, alongside increased inequality and poverty, has been rebranded as a fault of anything but our own current economic system.
Racism and xenophobia are being legitmised by the political class across the spectrum, from the left to the right, which is giving strength to the nastiest and most divisive parts of our society.
The traditional working class has been totally eroded, and replaced by millions of low paid, atomised, exploited workers now in the service sector, in outsourced contracting firms without union representation, or in bogus self-employed jobs.
With five years of a Tory government ahead and a departure from the EU human rights act, the average person living in the UK is in a perilous position – we need to hear the voices and stories of those people now more than ever, and we can’t rely on the Telegraph or the Daily Mail to do it.
At Nine Twenty Magazine, we are a one stop shop for the disaffected and disillusioned.
There is no thematic or political object that ties it all together – this is our strength.
We’re not attempting to be a member of the left-wing media vanguard, nor are we trying to innovate the industry.
We are aiming for the eye, with a critical and thoughtful space for current affairs analysis and social commentary that plans to stick with a topic when the rest of the world has moved on.
Nine Twenty Magazine is slow journalism. It’s thoughtful journalism. We take stock of the bigger picture and investigate our articles carefully.
We provide stories in context and, at the moment, we do not need to be more than that.
For now, we’re five people who have the opportunity to say something when it needs to be said.
And an opportunity to experiment and learn new skills – podcast production to open source investigations; video editing to website development; image sourcing to copy-proofing; and a collective approach to problem solving.
So. Come on in, enjoy our second edition, and if you have something you want to say, let us know.
– Nine Twenty Magazine
By Oliver Crunden
Mathew Taylor, named as new Interim Director of Labour Market Enforcement, is due to put forward his new approach to tackling employment rights abuses – but will it bring much-needed change or deliver more of the same? With the number of workers illegally underpaid set to double to just under a million by 2024, a significant change is the only credible option.
Those of us watching this space have seen some important developments in recent months, starting with the appointment of Mathew Taylor – previously chief policy advisor to Tony Blair – as Interim Director of Labour Market Enforcement in August 2019. Since then, the government has taken steps in the right direction. They have committed to developing a single body responsible for enforcing rights in the workplace and, as part of a new naming and shaming exercise, to publishing lists of employers who have not paid out Employment Tribunal fees to workers they have wronged.
This all seems fine, but there have also been signs that change on the ground is not quite keeping pace with official rhetoric. Shocking, I know. Here we take a look at Taylor’s approach and how likely it is to achieve real change, and take the opportunity to aim some rotten word-tomatoes at employers who’ve been named and shamed – just like the good old days.
A familiar head for a new body
Who is Mathew Taylor and why do I care? As a well-known name in the small, mostly London-based policy bubble, you are forgiven for not knowing and still asking ‘why do I care?’. His appointment would seem, in theory, a step forward for employment rights. He has been vocal about the need to create a single body for enforcing employment rights, a move that comes recommended by the International Labour Organisation, and he enjoys notoriety for a stated commitment to improve the quality of work in Britain.
Yet his significant shortcomings in relation to this commitment are well known, and his ‘Good Work Plan’ is set to bake-in the status quo rather than shake up the world of work. Taylor is a self-professed and committed ‘gradualist’ – seeking small incremental changes while leaving the core mechanics of the beast untouched – and his appointment will be the latest test of where this approach leads us. I can’t predict the future, but it feels like we’re firmly on track and headed steadily towards More-Of-The-Samesville, an increasingly real dystopian world, available for hire today (with a no returns policy)!
With an extremely narrow array of tools available, Taylor and his new body face a tall task identifying and weeding out unscrupulous employers from capitalism’s garden. As anyone who has visited B&Q recently can attest, tools don’t come cheap – and while Taylor’s new body comes dressed up in a fancy new coat, its pockets are certainly no deeper than before.
The latest spending review announced a welcome 4% increase (after inflation) for enforcement activities, yet this still seriously underestimates the scale of the task. The amount the UK invests in making sure the legal rights of workers are met falls well short of other countries and leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation. UK firms can expect a visit from the inspectorate once every 500 years. Their Canadian counterparts are far chummier with their municipal inspectors by comparison, laying out the welcome mat once every ten years.
In his first speech in post, Taylor seemed all too aware of these shortcomings. The picture he painted of his capacity to effect change was not one of naïve optimism, or any other form of optimism for that matter – ‘pragmatism’ and ‘making do with what we have’ were the take-home messages. This self-awareness came together in a sharp point with his response to a question from the audience, in which he stated that “there is no conceivable future in which the resource for enforcement will be able to match the nature and scale of the problem”. (Choo-choo! Next stop….)
Mathew, Goliath and the trusty tomato
The scale of the challenge will only increase over the next four years. The Conservative’s plans to increase the minimum wage to £10.50 by 2024 will certainly put more money into low paid workers’ pockets, but it will also increase the number of workers paid at the minimum wage and therefore vulnerable to illegal underpayment. The Low Pay Commission estimates that around one in five minimum wage workers were illegally underpaid in 2019. Assuming the same proportion of tomorrow’s workers are, that stacks up to just under 1 million employees short-changed by 2024.
Without the resources required to deploy any kind of serious and proactive approach to identifying and clamping down on cowboy-employers, Taylor has dusted off an old tool at the back of the shed: shame. One of the oldest forms of social control will be used to deter would-be cheaters, today taking the form of a published list of guilty employers instead of the pillory and rotten tomatoes of the 16th century. But how effective is the trusty tomato as a deterrent when pitched at million-pound multinational conglomerates?
The first list is yet to be published, although the scheme was announced way back in December 2018, but looking at previous attempts from the Government to shame organisations into changing their ways does not fill you with confidence. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has (attempted to) run a similar scheme in the past, publishing names of employers found to have illegally underpaid workers.
Wagamama still at it
Wagamama topped the most recent list, published in May 2018. From 2014 to 2016, they were found to have stolen £133,212.42 from 2,630 people. If Wagamama were hit with the largest fine that BEIS can levy, they would have been slapped with a £266,424.84 penalty – just 0.07% of Wagamama’s revenue for financial year 2018/19. I’m no behavioural scientist or hospitality tycoon, but I’m pretty sure that a financial penalty amounting to less than 0.1% of annual turnover is not an effective disincentive.
Business Minister Andrew Griffiths seemed to disagree, stating that the naming round “serves as a sharp reminder to employers to get their house in order”. That was back in 2018, and recent events indicate that Wagamama may need another reminder, and with a much sharper barb.
Flash forward to valentine’s day 2020 and the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) have organised a boycott of Wagamama in protest of their poor treatment of workers. Two years after they were named and shamed, IWGB have accused Wagamama of effectively underpaying the minimum wage by forcing long and unpaid wait times on Deliveroo riders. Seems like more of the same to me.
Which brings us back to our familiar head and his new body. With half the number of inspectors recommended by the International Labour Organisation, the defining feature of the British enforcement landscape is the fact that workers themselves are made responsible for both understanding and enforcing their rights at work. They are also responsible for reporting violations of those rights to the authorities, with a low chance of any positive outcome. Only one in two workers who win their Employment Tribunal case receive the financial awards they are due. For those who pursue further justice to force employers to pay out what they are owed, around a third of awards still remained unpaid. Other nations understandably opt for enforcement systems that are more of the kick-down-the-front-door variety.
It’s not all bad. The new enforcement body should make it easier for workers to report violations, and new shaming lists that name employers who haven’t paid out their Employment Tribunal awards are miles better than nothing. But we need more than a new enforcement body – we need boots on the ground kicking doors down. And there would be no need for new lists to shame employers who haven’t paid tribunal fees if someone had the power and will to force employers to pay the fees they owe in the first place.
This is not rocket science, it’s a matter of priorities. Invest in enforcement and rights will be upheld; don’t and watch them become nothing more than another set of empty promises. In the absence of a cash injection, Taylor’s appointment – with his reputation for being the ‘Good Work’ guy – merely wraps up the same broken system in new packaging and obscures the real issue in the process: chronic underfunding stemming from an ideology that prioritises business over people.
By Laurie Gerhardt
The rise of far right figures across the globe has sown seeds of division and fear. We know what these leaders don’t want – immigration, human rights, social progressivism – but know far less about what they do want, particularly from the international stage. Laurie explores the aims of the “New Right” and how they plan to achieve them.
In September 2019, President Trump made his first address to the United Nations, declaring to the world: “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.” On the surface this statement sounds like more of the ‘America First’ ideology that Trump deployed consistently during the 2016 US election. Beneath this nationalist rhetoric, however, lies a hint of something else – a shift from the military imperialism and isolationist nationalism of the early 20th century to a new philosophy that unites the ‘New Right’.
Commentators are keen to brand New Right figureheads – such as Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orban – simply as ‘isolationists’, suggesting they are only concerned with domestic matters and are reluctant to involve themselves in world affairs. Yet this fails to recognise their international solidarity, expressions of alignment with each other, and their attempts to form cross-borderpolitical alliances. In Europe, under Steve Bannon’s leadership, this has even taken the form of a group known as ‘The Movement’ to help nationalist political parties work together. Pablo de Orellana and Nicholas Michelsen have coined the term ‘Reactionary Internationalism’ to describe this new doctrine.
Clearly, many prominent New Right leaders are driven primarily by a desire to withdraw from liberal institutions such as the European Union (EU): Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy and Nigel Farage in the UK being three of the most famous examples. Typically, however, analysis of these New Right figures focuses only on what they don’t want. Rarely is the question asked – what do they want?
Inequality among identities
As de Orellana and Michelsen explain, ‘rather than advocating for the end of internationalism, the New Right seeks to reconstitute its normative architecture on the basis of inequality among identities.’ Essentially, the New Right share a unifying disdain for the liberal world’s idea that all identities are equal; a belief in undermining the liberal institutions which advocate progressive values such as gender equality, the right to asylum, and the application of human rights. Yet instead of simply withdrawing from them, Trump and his allies in the new global reactionary movement wish to co-opt those same institutions to legitimise their worldview and deliver a world of uncontrolled and unregulated competition between nation-states. This is a very different set of aims from the imperialist fascists of the 1920s and 1930s.
Hitler withdrew Germany from the League of Nations (a precursor to the United Nations) and declared that his European neighbours must bend to the will of Germany’s military imperialism. The New Right instead broadly maintains a facade of respecting international law and involvement in global institutions like the UN. The Old Right built their identity on the basis of specific genetic traits – such as the white ‘master race’, or Mussolini’s ‘New Man’ – but the New Right find themselves in a time of significant ethnic diversity already existing within their national borders. Instead of genetic identity, the New Right see identity as purely related to the state you live in; the national banner you are born under is what defines you, and you owe your loyalty to it.
The New Right in the old system
The predominant global economic and political system of today is generally accepted to be neoliberalism, an amorphous term whose meaning has been diluted through overuse and is typified by the economic and political philosophies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Its core goal is the establishment of free-market economic systems through use of the central state. Neoliberalism is not a political ideology which seeks to disempower the state, as is sometimes suggested, but in fact an ideology which ascribes a significant role to the state – using it to ‘create and sustain markets at all costs’. It does so through privatisation, de-regulation, and the establishment of new markets, through state actions such as the dispossession of indigenous land or the selling-off of public spaces.
Instead of seeing the global neoliberal system of financial frameworks and liberal institutions as their enemy, the New Right sees them as an opportunity, a space to fill. These systems, which have characterised an era of unprecedented state-interconnection as well as the concentration of wealth in the hands of the 1%, offer a similar enough economic formula to the New Right that they can simply insert themselves into the void left by hollowed out institutions. Despite claiming to be an anti-establishment movement, the New Right has no qualms with the neoliberal establishment’s approach to the invisible hand of the market – and in fact, seeks to accelerate rather than overturn their economic practices.
Yet when it comes to human rights, gender and sexual progressivism, the laws of war, and crucially migration, the New Right is openly hostile to the establishment. The rules-based international institutions which claim to secure these universal rights are to be hollowed out and left in all but name in order to free the ‘national spirit’ of all of our ‘birth-cultural identities’, or our nature as productive and competitive components of the state. De Orellana and Michelsen describe this process as an attempt to ‘restructure international norms, replacing liberal assumptions of universal humanity and its protection through institutions, with the promotion of inequality among identities’. Just as neoliberals did before them in the aggressive creation of markets, New Right leaders deploy the power of the state to expand loopholes and back doors through legal, parliamentary and congressional processes in order to allow unhindered state, military and economic competition – all while stating that they are enacting “the will of the people”.
Government for… “the people”
In the name of “the people”, the New Right are blunting the power of the legal frameworks which protect the most vulnerable, subverting the already-limited democratic processes of elections, and eating away at the freedom of the press. This process can already be seen in domestic policies across Europe, North America, South America and Asia. In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party has styled itself as “The People’s Government” while undoing the legal checks and balances which ostensibly protect the people from unfettered state power, and simultaneously strengthening the power of the police to confiscate the homes and property of travelers – in direct violation of human rights law. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro rose to power through a judicial coup which led to the jailing of his main opponent. He now sits at the head of a government calling for extrajudicial killings. In the United States, Donald Trump has survived an impeachment process ridden with corruption and cowardice, while putting in place legal barriers on asylum in violation of international law to protect the US from what he calls an “invasion”. In India, Narendra Modi has unashamedly begun the process of denying millions of its Muslim population citizenship despite this being in clear violation of his country’s constitution, driving violent anti-Muslim mobs to beat and kill scores of Muslims, who are seen as foreigners. All around the world, political freedom is on the decline. The “will of the people” strangely seems a lot like authoritarianism.
Each of these domestic policies represents a violation of legal frameworks which protect vulnerable groups, but one of the key components of the New Right’s philosophy which still remains overlooked is their strategy to reconstitute not just national legal structures but international rules and systems.
A more competitive world
Internationally, just as they are doing in the domestic realm, the New Right deploy state power to break down human rights norms and erode the rules of warfare, offering instead a vision of society in which the strong conquer the weak, and national power stands unchecked and unregulated. The already meagre protection of civilians in wartime under the laws of international warfare have become even more diluted than ever before. Under Donald Trump’s presidency, the use of drones – a policy more typically associated with Obama’s presidency – has reached unprecedented levels of not only total strikes but civilian casualties, which are no longer even recorded.
“The New Right see themselves as having an international agenda characterised by an emphasis on freedom to … engage in conflict without the unjust limitations imposed by liberal internationalist norms, which they refer to as ‘globalist’”. – de Orellana and Michelsen
This past decade of New Right leaders emerging around the world and coalescing with their natural allies in longer-standing authoritarian states – such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and China’s Xi Jinping – reveals how the “might is right” world order may look. In Syria, Russia’s five year campaign of aerial bombardment deliberately and repeatedly targeting hospitals, schools and civilian homes in direct violation of international humanitarian law has killed more civilians than ISIS – with no repercussions whatsoever for Russia. After a UN Security Council Resolution was passed to condemn this behaviour, the number of attacks on health facilities actually increased. Chemical weapons have been used against civilian populations over 200 times. A few hundred miles away in northeast Syria, Trump’s sudden and unilateral abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies in 2019 allowed an emboldened President Erdogan of Turkey to claim a slice of Kurdish territory as his own, calling it a “security corridor” and displacing 100,000 civilians from their homes in the process. Nearly 12 million people – over half the pre-war population – have been displaced by the Syrian war since it began earlier this decade.
While these New Right leaders are virulently and unapologetically callous, it would be wrong to suggest that they are unique in undoing the protections that these norms and institutions provide. The ‘rules-based’ international system constructed after World War II with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the normative protections that it offered has been undermined repeatedly since it was first signed in 1948.
It’s well-known that the United States has long abused its hegemonic power to flout international law: the illegal torture and rendition programs which occurred throughout multiple Democratic and Republican administrations; George W. Bush’s declaration that “diplomacy has failed” before rejecting the UN Security Council’s designation that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 would be illegal; countless examples of drone strikes causing mass civilian casualties. All of these tragedies long precede the rise of the 21st century New Right, and the liberal institutions that seek to protect human rights did not prevent them.
In fact, the violation of these international laws under neoliberal leaders may have lain the groundwork for the disdain of the liberal system itself, which may in turn have contributed to the New Right’s meteoric rise across the world. But it’s bad enough having hegemonic and imperialistic powers like the United States throwing their weight around on the world stage unhindered without the rest of the world’s strongmen leaders following suit, unconstrained by the international systems which are meant to protect the vulnerable.
Restraining the state
Today, global institutions and their legal procedures, flawed and limited though they are, remain one of the few ways in which the actions of states can be restrained. And in some places, it looks as though these institutions may finally be kicking into gear to protect those they were intended to protect. The genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar – which was brought to the world’s attention by the mass slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians, leading to the exodus of nearly a million people – is now being examined at both the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In Italy, the Italian senate has finally voted to lift the political immunity of far-right leader Matteo Salvini over his detention and deliberate drowning of migrants at sea. In March of this year, the ICC decided to investigate war crimes committed by the US and Taliban in the Afghanistan war, despite anger and threats from the United States that it would revoke the visas of ICC judges. The US has never been brought before an international criminal court before.
In the dark era of the New Right, there is still some hope that state power can be restrained. But it will require a continued global effort by people, states and institutions who care about human rights protections and equality. If the New Right is allowed to hollow out institutions, leaving them in all but name whilst normalising a system of might-is-right competition between states under the guise of a still-interconnected world, even the mild protections that exist today will wither away.
When Donald Trump tells the United Nations that “the future belongs to patriots”, he does not mean that there is value in being proud of your national culture. He means that the future belongs to those who are born in their country and stay there, and those who flee, those who are victims of authoritarian state oppression, have no future. And unless we defend human rights, the freedom to seek asylum or migrate beyond your nation’s borders, and the institutional restraints on states that we have now, he may well be right.
By Sam Sufrin
Sam Sufrin reflects on his work with asylum seekers on Chios, Greece
The port in Chios, Greece, is 14.6 km from the port in Cesme, Turkey. A boat ticket costs about 23 euros and takes around 30 minutes, but thanks to European Directive 2001/51 it is unlikely that any asylum seeker in Chios was ever able to take a safe and inexpensive commercial boat from Turkey. Instead they are forced into unsafe and expensive smugglers’ boats. Directive 2001/51 affects all who seek refuge in Europe by requiring commercial transport services to pay for the return of those who are unsuccessful in their asylum claims. Commercial services are therefore forced into deciding who is and who is not a legitimate asylum seeker before they are allowed to board. The response of these services has been to deny access to anyone without appropriate visas so as to avoid the risk of having to pay for the return of unsuccessful asylum seekers. This forces large numbers of people into using the dangerous smugglers’ boats. . The UNHCR estimates that 17,821 people have died or gone missing on their land and sea journeys to Europe since 2014. Directive 2001/51 is surely responsible for a large proportion of these.
In the summer of 2019, I worked as a volunteer for the NGO “Action for Education” that operates on the Aegean Island of Chios. My longer-standing colleagues at the Youth Centre and School had noticed a disturbing trend. When young asylum seekers had just arrived and started using our services they seemed relatively positive, engaged, and happy to participate in the activities. After a couple of months this positivity tended to fade and students would start to demonstrate much less energy and positivity, they became very tired and participated much less. You do not have to spend much time on Chios to understand why this happens. The conditions for asylum seekers on the island are abysmal and were only made worse by the 2016 EU-Turkey deal that forces asylum seekers to stay on the island whilst their cases are processed, which takes up to a year. The whole process can only be understood as structural violence.
Vial, the refugee camp on Chios, is situated several kilometers away from the city, right beside a garbage processing centre. Residents must walk past this every time they leave the camp. Once they have passed it, it is about a two hour walk to the city. There are no buses, except for the few provided by NGOs, but these only permit asylum seekers who are using their services to board, so in order to access vital services in the city such as banks, doctors, and Western Union, camp residents are forced into a four hour round trip on foot, or an expensive taxi ride.
Vial was designed to house around 1,000 residents, but since the summer of 2019 the actual number of residents has fluctuated between 2,000 and 6,000. Overcrowding has resulted in large numbers of temporary tents being used. The tents are hot during summer days and lack protection from the cold and wet winter weather. They are insecure, so residents are forced to guard their property from potential thieves. This is usually done by groups of friends or families using rotas. This severely restricts freedom of movement for the tent residents. One of my students, an unaccompanied minor, would miss school once a week because he was on guard duty.
The isolation of the camp is made worse by its lack of services. There are no parks to play safely in and few activities for young people to take part in. Almost every night I would see young children playing on the dusty road just outside the camp reception area, only 20 or 30 meters from the garbage processing centre. One game I observed many times on my way home from school was a sort of imaginary war with the local stray dog population. Children of about 5 or 6 would charge the dogs, laughing and screaming excitedly as they threw stones at them. The dogs would always scarper and would never put up a fight, but it made for uneasy viewing nonetheless.
The quality of the camp’s existing services is low. Food is repetitive and non-nutritious. For example, breakfast always consists of a single dry croissant and a carton of chemical-tasting orange juice. Water is limited: camp residents have two time slots each day to shower, and overcrowding of the camp has led to long queues for the showers, as well as poor hygiene.
The school was built by the UNHCR, and is run by Metadrasi (a Greek educational NGO), which permits Action for Education to teach English in its classes. It is far too small to enroll all of Vial’s minors, so a “five strikes and you’re out” system is used, the nominal aim of which is to give as many children the opportunity to attend as possible. The system appears simple at first: miss five days of school without a good reason and your spot is given to someone on the waiting list, while you get put at the bottom of that list. The problem with this is that students and teachers often do not speak the same language and teachers are often heavy handed in their application of the rule. Some students either do not understand the rule, are unsure how many days they have missed, or are unable to communicate legitimate reasons for absence to the teachers. On many occasions I saw teachers sending students back to the camp and to the back of the waiting list, while there were empty seats in classrooms. The students frequently appeared not to understand why they had to leave and seemed frustrated to be missing school.
The conditions in Vial made the strike system seem brutal. It is important to understand that many of the students were unaccompanied minors, such as the student who missed school to guard his tent, and many of them had suffered traumatic experiences before arriving in Greece. This makes sleep routines difficult, and waking up in time for school feeling motivated even more so. What made the strike system seem even worse to me was what I learned from a post traumatic stress disorder(PTSD) handbook, distributed to volunteers. The handbook highlights how important it is for minors suffering from PTSD to understand and have control of decisions that are directly affecting them. This is especially important for those suffering from PTSD who come from war-torn countries, where their limited understanding and control of the broader situation is often compounded by their horrific experiences.
The strike system robbed young people of that of understanding and control. The way that it seemed to punish asylum seekers for the conditions they found themselves in summed up perfectly the structural violence of the system that exists on Europe’s border. A lack of resources, and a legal framework designed to make movement across borders as difficult as possible, creates violent conditions in places that theoretically exist to assist and protect people on their journeys.
There were, of course, positive aspects to life in Vial. The camp is located next to a 6-a-side football pitch and residents frequently organize matches and tournaments. They form national teams, compete against each other, and every couple of weeks a new “world cup” champion is crowned – I think the DRC had just won as I was leaving. I also heard that residents had created their own schools within the camp, where children can learn to read and write in their mother tongues. That this level of agency, self-organisation and cooperation can still be sustained against the backdrop of the structural violence and the bleak conditions of Vial, seems reason to hope that change is possible.
Note: As I was writing this article Turkey opened its European borders which has led to approximately 13,000 asylum seekers attempting to cross the border into Europe. They have been met with lethal violence from state police forces, including tear gas and live ammunition – what is known as ‘push-back’. This wave of asylum seekers has resulted in changes to the situation on Chios as described in the article. Therefore this article stands as more of a historic account of the conditions on Chios.
By Anna Freeman
Brexit is not only screwing the Great British pound and the price of Tesco’s Finest Prosecco – it’s screwing sex workers, too. A huge number of women selling sexual services in the UK hail from the EU-28 (43 percent of non-British sex workers in 2009 were EU nationals, according to a TAMPEP study). The threat of tighter immigration controls and the loss of freedom of movement has put an already vulnerable social group on high alert. Migrant sex workers now face even greater levels of precarity, marked by violence, fear, and the constant threat of deportation. Until sex work is legitimised in the eyes of the law, this workforce will be forced to stalk the shadows of a state-sanctioned black market.
Sex work in the UK exists as a quasi-criminalised industry. Although selling sex is not in itself against the law, the legal system, as it stands, works to punish those who do. Ironically, existing laws that claim to help reduce exploitation and abuse – by criminalising ‘pimping’, brothel-keeping, and soliciting on the streets – in fact contribute to greater insecurity for sex workers. In essence, it is only legal for sex work to be performed in isolation, without advertising and on private premises. This is a total impossibility for many.
It is migrant workers who are made most vulnerable by this legal framework. Niki Adams is a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), a leading campaign group that supports the decriminalisation of prostitution. She told Nine Twenty Magazine: “All the laws surrounding sex work make women totally powerless and vulnerable to exploitation because you’re torn between working alone in dangerous conditions and getting arrested… and since Brexit, we’re seeing that migrant workers are being targeted far more with police raids, so they are scared to work in groups… and they’re reluctant to report violence, which has increased against EU nationals in an unprecedented way.”
The Home Affairs Committee published its first ever inquiry into the sex industry in 2016, recommending a radical overhaul of how legislation on sex work is implemented. It even went as far as to argue for potential decriminalisation. The inquiry noted that lawmaking approaches often arise from “moral values” rather than fair precedent, and that there is “no clear evidence” that treating soliciting as an offence reduces demand for prostitution. Migrant sex workers who are slapped with criminal records for said misdemeanors cannot then find alternative work due to stigmatisation and racism. They may also have their EU settlement applications denied on the grounds of “criminal activity”. More frequent police raids on premises are seen by many sex work advocates as kowtowing to populist anti-immigrant narratives, handing immigration services easy targets for deportation.
UK sex markets generally fall within the informal and unregulated economy, despite European Law ruling that sex work is a profession based on self-employment and should therefore be subject to taxation. As with most unregulated sectors, however, there is a gaping disparity between legality and law in practice. EU migrant sex workers are being told that they are not exercising their treaty rights because sex work is not work. According to Dr. Laura Connelly, a criminology lecturer at the University of Salford, a large number have been forced to seek a second source of income such as retail or cleaning to reference “legitimate work” in their EU settlement applications. “Removing laws that criminalise consensual sex work will pave the way for it being seen as legitimate work,” Dr. Connelly explained to Nine Twenty Magazine. “That way migrant sex workers could apply for the right to stay as legal workers in the UK.”
Too often, lawmakers conflate consensual sex work with trafficking and forced sexual labour. The controversial 2018 FOSTA-SESTA bill introduced in the US, aimed at reducing trafficking at the expense of autonomous sex workers’ rights, is a blueprint for Western legislative approaches. If decriminalisation is a prerequisite for improved working conditions and policy reform, then cultural conceptions of what sex work is fundamentally need to change. But even if attitudes could shift on the legitimacy of sex work, deepening conservatism in UK institutions – compounded by a spike in racially-driven hate crimes – is a more troubling impediment. Migrant workers in the UK are characterised as public nuisances, criminals undeserving of basic human rights.
Brexit has given rise to a highly vocal anti-immigrant sentiment. Dr. Connelly is currently collaborating with SWARM Collective and ECP to examine the far-reaching effects of Brexit on the UK sex industry, and preliminary findings show that migrant sex workers feel especially targeted. Dr. Connelly sent out a survey online asking migrant women about their experiences in post-Brexit-vote Britain. Over half of the respondents reported an increase in hate crimes against them. 65 percent said the attitudes of their clients had changed because of popularised xenophobic beliefs. The majority of sex workers surveyed expressed heightened fear of arrest and deportation, which in turn made them more powerless to deal with problematic clients.
Dr. Connelly referenced one migrant sex worker whose client threatened to report her to the Home Office if she didn’t give his money back. Other surveyees echoed similar treatment, pointing to the ways dangerous clients feel more emboldened to hold the balance of power over sex workers and act with impunity. In a tragic catch-22, these sex workers are then less likely to report violent and abusive clients for fear of forced removal from the UK. Some migrant sex workers are changing their habits, Dr. Connelly explained, working longer hours for less money, and taking on high-risk clients in unsafe circumstances in order to survive.
Further to the insecurity felt by those already living in the UK, stricter immigration policies will make the sex industry more dangerous for female migrants entering the country illegally. These women will be more vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking and sexual violence if legitimate pathways dry up. “Women don’t cross borders for nothing, and that’s not going to change,” Adams says. “Punitive border controls do not stop the flow of immigration. Instead we will see an increase of women entering the UK sex industry in dangerous and precarious ways.” Relying on people smugglers is one such route that leaves migrant women vulnerable to abuse. Sexual coercion, exerting control over women’s working conditions and which clients they see, keeping them in debt bondage, and wage theft are just some of the violations that have been documented by human rights groups.
Doors closed. Shutters drawn. The true price of selling sex in a post-Brexit future is still unknown. Collective organising by migrant sex workers has not disappeared, but it has been forced underground – like sex work itself. Women exchange information in whispers via Whatsapp groups and educate themselves about their rights in covert meet-ups, Adams said, but it is unclear if and when they will step out of the dark once again.
Without their voices, social and political reform feels unlikely. How can sex workers galvanise change if mainstream culture deems their work unworthy of radical transformation? It falls on some of the most disenfranchised in society and their allies to call for – nay demand! – fair and legitimised employment rights. Sex work is work. Period.
By Oliver Crunden
A huge divergence is emerging in how the UK public views the state of the nation, and the wider world. The lens of one group reflects a crumbling world, characterised by struggle and underpinned by malice and deep injustice. In the other is reflected an imperfect but improving world, progress pumping through the veins of history and manifesting in (their corner of) the modern world as comfort and security. The first group advocates radical overhaul as the only option, while the second requires only minor tweaks here and there to smoothen out the workings of an ultimately well-functioning machine.
Try getting both groups into a room to discuss how to solve
Problem A. It’s impossible. Differences in opinion on solutions to a problem
are necessary and productive. But this productive disagreement is a distant
fantasy while everyone is stuck squabbling about what the problem is in the
This running series will attempt to demystify our current
squabbles and demonstrate that the state of the nation is not merely in the eye
of the beholder. There are many ways to look at and represent the world, but
there is one set of material conditions ‘out there’. In the first-of-the-series
we look at poverty in the UK, and how different ways to measure the extent of
it are used to further political ends and distance us from human experience.
Poverty is a concept that we all instinctively understand
and have a clear picture of, yet trying to actually define what it means is a
bit more difficult. The picture in my mind’s eye and the definition I think of
are probably very differently to yours.
There are two main ways to think about poverty, in absolute
or relative terms. Both involve thinking about a ‘poverty line’, a threshold
below which people are considered to be ‘in poverty’. Relative poverty sets
this line relative to others within
society, so that if living standards of the middle class went up, so too would
the relative poverty line. Absolute poverty fixes the line to a concept,
usually fulfilling basic human needs –
having enough food, water and adequate shelter – and does not consider
how much others in society have.
Now, what is considered when calculating the poverty line,
whether relative or absolute, varies between countries and over time. Just
before the turn of the 20th century in the UK, Seebohm Rowntree
sought to provide a ‘scientific’ measurement of poverty. He wanted to challenge
the prevailing narrative of the day, that the poor were behaviourally defective,
individually responsible for their wretched fate and therefore undeserving of
times have changed). Rowntree wanted to find a level of income that someone
living a completely sterile life – swearing off alcohol, tobacco or any other
perceived excesses of the day – would still be unable to achieve “physical
efficiency”. Not keeling over and wasting away, in today’s terminology. He worked
out the price of the cheapest diet that would just about keep one foot swinging
in front of the other. And while feet would move, presumably the bowels would
not. Dinners of potatoes with milk, bread and cheese featured heavily
throughout the week, with no ruffage in sight. The cost of this paupers
not-so-feast was then taken as the (absolute) poverty line. Because of his
austere approach to setting the threshold, no Government minister of the day could
even attempt to claim that the poor were at fault. His work persuaded the
Government to act, passing the National Insurance Act in 1911 and taking the
first step towards the creation of the welfare state.
Forty-two years later in 1997, Peter Townsend proposed a
radical re-definition and established what we now know as relative poverty: the
inability to participate in the customs and norms afforded to the rest of
society. Poverty as exclusion. This is now the essence of the working
definition of poverty across the European Union – a lack of resources that
deprive an individual of a minimally acceptable standard of living.
So why does any of this matter? Well, each definition of
poverty is fundamentally political in nature. Our choice of measure determines
what we understand about the extent of poverty and how we speak about it – we
didn’t do anything to help the poor until Rowntree provided irrefutable proof
that it wasn’t their fault. Nowadays politicians don’t overtly discuss who is
at fault, but veil this sentiment in discussions over the technicalities of
For example, this relative/absolute distinction is often
used as a riposte to any less than flattering report published on the state of
the UK. Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is a particular fan of this little bit of
plate-spinnery, with the latest devastating UN
report on the state of the nation being the most
recent target. He’s seen responding to a seemingly hard hitting question
about rising poverty levels in the UK by looking down his bespectacled nose and
citing in his oh so polite tone that absolute poverty has been continually
falling in the UK, actually.
So which is it? Rising or falling? Interestingly, both.
Absolute poverty is falling yet relative poverty is rising. And is projected to
rise even further in the coming years, with large regional disparities. The
proportion of children in relative poverty is projected to rise from 29.7% in
2017 to 36.6% in 2021, with rates
of increase in the northern regions double those expected in the south.
To understand this apparent paradox,
we need to understand how relative and absolute poverty are being measured. In
the UK, the relative poverty line is 60% of the median income for that year. The
median is just the middle value in a list. So if we listed all of the incomes
in the UK from lowest to highest, the median is the middle value, with exactly
half of the incomes listed above and half below. If we took 60% of that middle
value we would arrive at the relative poverty line for that year. The UK’s
absolute poverty measure does not fix the line to achieving “physical
efficiency” or fulfilling basic needs, but to 60% median income in 2010/11.
Whether 60% of the average Jane’s income this year is really an accurate
indicator of someone’s ability to participate in society is another story. (second
spoiler alert: it’s not). And why the absolute poverty line is fixed to incomes
of ten years ago is anyone’s guess.
So, absolute poverty is falling because people are earning
more than they did in 2010/11, and relative poverty is rising because people in
the middle and top of society are increasing their earnings much faster than
those at the bottom. Ok, but these measures tells us nothing about the lived experience
of poverty. Numbers, percentage point changes, inflation rates, and consumer
price indexes become the focal point in all of this, not the lives of the
people the numbers are supposed to tell us about. We’re no closer to getting
that firm grip on material reality.
There are better ways of finding a hold on reality, but we
need to look beyond the airwaves and talking heads. University of Bristol have
been investigating poverty since the 60’s, using what’s called a consensual
approach. It’s simple, they ask people what they think the necessities of life
are – being able to heat your home or invite friends round for dinner once a
month – and then assess how many people are deprived of those necessities. Just
as Rowntree’s approach was the first scientific way to measure absolute
poverty, this is the first scientific measure of relative poverty. And it
paints quite a different picture than the official figures. The latest investigation
in 2012 was the largest study of poverty ever conducted in the UK. It found
that nearly three in ten people in Britain were living below the minimum
standard accepted by society. This proportion was double that found in 1983,
and the proportion of people who couldn’t adequately heat their home in 2012
was treble that of 1983. During a time of supposedly unparalleled economic
growth, the number of people who found themselves living in conditions the
public deemed unacceptable doubled. If that doesn’t make you question the
‘growth paradigm’, I don’t know what will.
All of this is not to say that we should do away with the official
income measure of relative poverty that we currently have. Yes it is
inadequate, but it’s the measure that will show the Government’s failure to
achieve the goal enshrined in the 2010 Child Poverty Act – to reduce relative
child poverty below double digits by 2020. Unless Government officials have a
belated Ebenezer Scrooge
moment and go handing out wads of cash to poor children on New Year’s Eve,
that’s not happening.
My point instead is to reaffirm that all measurement is
political, and that behind seemingly objective calibrations are political
calculations. The official figures make us lose sight of what’s important and
weaken our much needed grip on reality. Yet the unequivocal reality is this:
three in ten people are forced into a standard of living that the public deem
unacceptable. Now the actually interesting questions can be raised: is that
fair? Do enough of us care enough to do anything about it? And why do those
three people find themselves there?
I feel that in responding to these questions, many,
including Mr. Rees-Mogg, may invoke a similar argument to those that Rowntree disproved
all those years ago. That it’s the natural order, some are just better than
others and rise to the top, other’s wilt and drift below. And here, thinly veiled
behind a technical discussion lurks the same ugly and plainly wrong argument: relative
poverty is nothing to worry about because individuals are to blame for finding
themselves in it. Yet we can’t see people for what they really think when we’re
stuck squabbling over what the problem is.
The bar is set low when it comes to how Government ministers
engage with the reality of poverty in the UK. Yet former Secretary of State,
Amber Rudd, defied all odds by successfully limboing underneath this bar in her
to the very same UN report on poverty in the UK. She disregarded the
findings out of hand, claiming they were barely believable, too political, and
didn’t match up to what the public and Ministers see with their eyes. So too did MP Phillip
Hammond. Apparently it’s unnecessary to engage in manipulating technical
jargon to befuddle the public at all anymore. Why not just say you don’t
believe in it?
The mystification of measurement and our shallow media have
created a bizarre situation where more information seems to provide us with
less clarity. No wonder it’s so easy to leverage public support with the “we’ve
had enough of the experts” schtick, as Amber Rudd and ‘leaders’ across Europe
and America are doing with increasing frequency. Technical terms are so poorly
explained that people like Jacob Rees-Mogg can win a discussion on the Tories
record on poverty. Something has gone very wrong here. We’re seeing populism
and anti-expert sentiment flourish in a time where expertise has never been
more accessible. It’s terrifying to think that we might look back with
nostalgia to a time when politicians exploited gaps in public knowledge with
smokescreens of technical jargon.
By Oliver Crunden
We’re facing a number of crises. But I don’t want to sound
alarmist – some are exciting. They could be liberating, destructive, or some
combination of both. Bio-genetics, unprecedented technological innovation and
the rise of robots all carry this dual potential; shared prosperity and freedom
from the drudgery of labour, or the creation of a new ‘underclass’.
With such futuristic possibilities sketching themselves on
the horizon, it can be easy to forget the material conditions of the present.
We shouldn’t. The UK, the fifth largest economy in the world, currently relies
on charitable giving to ensure that the basic subsistence needs of its
population are met. Between April and September 2018, 658,048 emergency food packages were given out by
the UK’s largest network of food banks, the Trussell Trust. People are going
hungry in the UK, and food banks are becoming an ever-more established ‘short-term’
Professor Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on
extreme poverty and human rights, toured the UK’s network of food banks last
December, briefly bringing the topic into the national conversation. Alston
stated what has been known for many years now: austerity is a political
decision that is having a profoundly damaging impact on British society, and
something needs to change. Westminster, however, chose to brush aside Alston’s
analysis, too heavily draped in ‘political language’ to deserve engagement. It
seems Alston forgot the official party line: that poverty is apolitical. Being
poor is the result of behavioural deficiencies: laziness, mismanaged money and
too many take-aways. Tory peer Lady Jenkin reminded
us of this at the launch of a report examining the causes of food
poverty, when she claimed that the root cause is the working class’ lack of
While Lady Jenkin was demystifying the origins of food
poverty, a cross-party group of MPs and interest groups, led by independent MP
Frank Field, began turning the wheels of action. In 2015 the All-Party
Parliamentary Group laid out a national zero-hunger strategy. The report
recommended the creation of a national network, linking food banks, food
industry representatives and Government. Its role: to facilitate the
redistribution of surplus, donated, or waste food from supermarkets to food
banks. Other recommendations included reviewing the impact of zero hours
contracts, pausing the rollout of universal credit and examining the adequacy
of state benefits. These more substantive recommendations for dealing with the
root causes of food poverty were discarded. The Government instead chose a
quick, cost-free fix, and handed over responsibility for feeding the hungry to
charities. The food bank model has become the UK’s (non-)response to food
Students of social policy are taught that politics boils
down to “who gets what, when, how”. In our current politics, the poor are gifted
food at indeterminate intervals by the good will of their neighbours – a
statement that sounds more at home in the 16th Century than the 21st.
So why are we here and what are we to do? The UN, through Alston’s report,
urged Government to adopt a ‘human rights approach’. This seems appropriate, given
that the UK is signed up to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and
Cultural Rights; article 11 of this Covenant obliges the UK to ensure that
every citizens’ right to food is satisfied. But let’s leave the legal issues to
lawyers far more qualified than me. We’re here for context, to better
understand the rise of food banks and their role in the UK today. Context that
will help us remember that contrary to the Government’s shallow rebuttal of Prof.
Alston, this is an inherently political issue.
The Rise of Food Banks
The first question must be this: the UK is one of the oldest
welfare states in the world, so why are we seeing a huge rise in the number of
food banks across the country?
After 10 years of concerted dismantling by Conservative-led governments,
holes in our social security net are evident. Ex-PM David Cameron and his
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne began their slash and burn romp
through the public spending accounts in late 2011. But first, they removed the
burden of all that lovely debt from the responsible banks who racked it up, and
transferred it to the irresponsible public. The
newly inflated national deficit created by this decision became the freshly
polished stick of choice to beat down any opposition to austerity. This
ideological attack on the state, and the people who rely on its vital services
was then repackaged behind the doors of No 10, reframed as a way to empower
communities to take responsibility and provide for each other – how nice.
But underfunding services does not reduce the level of need in a society. As the
Government stepped back, charities – both faith-based and secular – stepped
forward as the unwitting cost-free answer to the ongoing national dilemma.
Graph produced using Trussell Trust data. Available here.
Initial media coverage of this newly emerging phenomenon
focussed on the stories and voices of the volunteers as altruistic champions of
community spirit. I don’t doubt this assessment of their characters at all.
However, little space was given to the voices of those receiving food aid, and
even less to a discussion of why this major shift was occurring or what it
Psychological Impacts and (Un)sustainability
We are witnessing a sneaky switcheroo – the state tiptoeing
away from its responsibilities, leaving unsuspecting charities to fill in the
gaps. Previously, a form of social contract was in place. Put simply: you pay
into the system when and if you can, and you are entitled to financial support
when needed. For example, if you are made redundant, become ill, or retire.
Some of this support would come in the form of cash which you were free to
choose how to spend. Of course, this social contract has been undermined by
cuts and freezes over a number of austere years – benefits only accounted for 50% of what was needed to ensure a
minimum standard of living for a lone parent in 2017. But the
emergence and embedding of food banks is quite different. Citizen’s
entitlements are being taken away and replaced with gifts. A gift of ‘surplus’ –
or waste – food, donated by big supermarkets and ordinary people, given to
those in need who are forced to accept whatever they receive with appreciation.
Beggars can’t be choosers, as they say.
This change has a profound psychological impact on those receiving
the new ‘gift’. Rightly or wrongly, we live in a society that says you should
earn what you get. A society that stigmatises those who are seen to ‘get something for nothing’. The
evidence is clear that this move from state entitlement to charitable gift is
associated with aid recipients’ heightened feelings of shame and stigma, a lack
of agency, and a reduced willingness to engage with the service. Being able to
exercise judgement and make our own choices helps us to feel in control. But
choices about what we eat are not only about preference. Allergies, illness and
wellbeing are key influences on our dietary choices – factors that charitable
provision cannot adequately account for. Any action that is
taken to address food poverty should not push people away from the help they
need, or into danger and ill health.
So, who benefits from this? Big supermarkets enjoy the good
publicity they get when they donate surplus or waste food. Government can point
to the commendable work done by charities and quietly retreat with no
challenging questions asked. Of course, those who access food banks benefit in
the immediate sense. I’ve spoken to people who have said that without help from
their local food bank, they wouldn’t have known what to do, that it was a vital
lifeline. The growing network of food banks across the country provides a much-needed
service when others, including Government, turn a blind eye. However, this
short-term fix could cost a long-term solution. The more food poverty is framed
as a matter for charity, the less space there is given to discuss the twin failures
of working incomes and state benefits, and the legitimate concerns for public
health that the situation poses. This is, fundamentally, a political issue of
who gets what, when and how.
Remembering the Past
I began by talking about challenges looming on the horizon,
but we would do well to remember the lessons of the past. In the 16th
century, Christian charity was the primary mechanism of poor relief throughout
Europe. Poverty was viewed as an inevitable truth that would persist across
time, with the poor and the wealthy imagined to exist in a state of divine
interdependence. The poor existed as a means for the wealthy to attain
salvation and be granted access to heaven through charitable giving. The poor
themselves could not follow the same path, as they had nothing to give. Instead
they were told that by enduring their situation and its hardships, they too
would earn their place.
The Renaissance and Reformation changed how impoverished people
were imagined in medieval Christian minds. Martin Luther’s influential
understanding of salvation no longer positioned the poor as instruments for the
wealthy to use to attain salvation; their plight was no longer a necessity.
Reformers set about improving systems of poor relief to overcome irregular and ineffective
charity. These methods were replaced with centralised systems of wealth
redistribution. In towns and cities across Europe, ‘community chests’ were
established and administered by city authorities, a kind of precursor to the
Unfortunately, the story of food banks in the UK today has
many similarities to this history, although events seem to be unfolding in the
opposite direction – our centralised secular system is being dismantled and
replaced with ad-hoc, often faith-based, charitable provision. Now it’s social
status, not godliness, that is bestowed on the giver and shame, rather than
salvation, hung on the receiver.
A Fresh Perspective
With this in mind, let’s take a refreshed look at the
present. Media depictions of food banks often present the growing phenomena as
an example of community spirit in action, of our incredible ability to make do
when times get tough. I agree. But this picture is often painted at the expense
of the wider context and the impact this has on those receiving food aid. We
need to recognise that food banks occupy a paradoxical position. They provide a
vitally needed service, but in doing so they obscure long term solutions to the
problem they try to address. If inadequate incomes and a failing social
security system are ignored in the framing of this issue, we won’t find a
Posing the problem as one to be solved by charity carries
the risk that we feel something is being done and that we can leave it at that.
It allows Government to point to hard working charities, pat them on the back
and abdicate responsibility. Conservative MP Claire Perry recently
posted a picture on Twitter, beaming with pride as they opened the latest
Trussell Trust food bank. I don’t think for a second that they acted with ill
intention, but we shouldn’t care for good intentions when they don’t help
families put food on the table in the long run. I care about impact. The
policies of Claire Perry’s party are a leading
cause of reliance on food banks and threaten to tear up our already fraught
Good intentions are clearly not enough and there is a much
bigger question at hand. How do we as a society want to answer “who gets what,
when, how”? Listening to those receiving food aid and remembering the
shortcomings of our feudal past, we see the current answer for what it is. The
vulnerable get gifted waste food, if their
neighbours are feeling generous, in a way that makes them feel ashamed. This
answer wasn’t good enough for the 16th century, and it’s insulting
now. As a nation we have more than enough food to make sure no one goes hungry,
but the current distribution of incomes mean that too much of it is sat on
supermarket shelves instead of in bare kitchen cupboards.
We clearly need better answers. They must be sustainable solutions,
not a stop-gap that prevents starvation today at the price of prosperity
tomorrow. They must re-examine the role and adequacy of our social security
system, and ensure that everybody’s basic needs are guaranteed. We should
remember that having enough to eat is a human right that our government
promised to meet with dignity. This promise cannot be delivered by smiling
faces cutting red ribbons at the opening ceremony of another food bank.
By Laurie Gerhardt
The Government of Myanmar calls them terrorists, Jihadists, Mujahideen, Bengalis – sometimes just ‘Muslims’. Anything, except the name they give themselves. To let them have their own name would be to acknowledge their right to exist, something that Myanmar simply refuses to do. For the Rohingya, a persecuted minority group living on the western coast of Myanmar, the right to exist has never been a given.
Though technically a stateless people, the Rohingya are a majority-Muslim ethnic group who have lived in rural villages across western Myanmar since at least the 8th century. Some sources indicate they may even have been there for millennia. Yet in the face of all historical evidence, and even their own prior records, Myanmar’s government claims that the Rohingya are recent migrants from Bangladesh.
In 2015, Myanmar went through what was widely regarded as a political revolution. For the first 50 years of its independence from colonial Britain, it was ruled by a series of military dictatorships. This appeared to change when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party swept to power with a shocking 86% of the vote, an election widely regarded to be the ‘dawn of democracy’ for Myanmar. It’s easy to see why: 50-year military dictatorships don’t end every day, and usually not through a peaceful transfer of power to a civilian government.
Aung San Suu Kyi was a widely idolised figure. She was the daughter of Major General Aung San, the revolutionary leader who fought to give Myanmar (then known as Burma) its independence from British colonial control. Most of her early life was spent fighting for democratic reforms, and as a result she was frequently detained, imprisoned and harassed by the state. By 2015, the time of her party’s groundbreaking victory, her popularity with Myanmar’s people – including the hundreds of different oppressed ethnic groups across the country – was unparalleled.
Soon after the election, international political leaders joined the people of Myanmar in singing Aung San Suu Kyi’s praises. David Cameron, Barack Obama and Francois Hollande sent their formal congratulations to her, and British Speaker of the Commons John Bercow called her ‘the conscience of a country and a heroine for humanity’. Economic sanctions on Myanmar were lifted. The American news network CNN questioned whether she might be ‘The Nelson Mandela of Myanmar’. Even the Rohingya, who were historically demonised by the state and had little reason to have faith in national politicians, believed in her:
“The Rohingya had been campaigning for Aung San Suu Kyi because we had great expectations of her. If she came to power, we thought she would look after our people.” – A representative of the British Rohingya Community
Those who didn’t share in this spirit of optimism cautioned that while Aung San Suu Kyi technically led the country, Myanmar’s constitution required that selected officers of the Tatmadaw – Burma’s military forces – must retain a minimum of 25% of the seats in both houses of the country’s parliament. This is not an insignificant amount of political influence, and their grip on political power remains clear.
In 2016, only one year after the National League for Democracy’s victory, rumours began to spread from the rural western region of Myanmar that the Tatmadaw were mass-executing Rohingya villagers. The world looked to Aung San Suu Kyi to condemn the violence. Surely, the great visionary of Burmese democracy would speak up for the rights of the oppressed minorities who had helped her gain power. They were met with a resounding silence. Months later, a government-appointed commission declared that they had investigated the rumours and concluded that in fact no such killings had ever occurred, and even if they had, the Tatmadaw could certainly not be responsible. Aung San Suu Kyi would later say that the Tatmadaw’s top generals were misunderstood, and were actually ‘rather sweet’.
One year later, over 700,000 Rohingya villagers fled across Myanmar’s border over a period of two months. Rowing on ramshackle makeshift boats out into the Bay of Bengal, walking through jungles packed with landmines that had been laid by the military in anticipation of their exodus, the majority of Myanmar’s entire Rohingya population fled their homes in Rakhine State, the only lands they had ever known, to cross the border into Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
The World’s Largest Refugee Camp
Once a trading post of Bengal administered by the British East India Company, Cox’s Bazar was named after its colonial-era Governor, Captain Hiram Cox. In 1798, Cox oversaw the resettlement of thousands of refugees from the Arakanese Kingdom (what is now Rakhine State) into southern Bengal. The British East India Company thought the area might bring in a tidy bit of tax if the refugees were allowed to establish fisheries along the coast, which is the longest natural sea beach in the world. Cox’s Bazar district has changed in many ways since this time – it’s now a popular tourist destination – but true to its colonial-era history, it also contains Kutupalong, the world’s largest refugee camp.
Today, approximately 1.3 million Rohingya refugees – a greater population than the city of Birmingham – live in Cox’s Bazar. Despite the prominence of having the world’s largest refugee camp located in their country, the Government of Bangladesh refuses to call the Rohingya encamped there ‘refugees’. They worry that to do so could lead to the Rohingya eventually being able to claim Bangladeshi citizenship. For their part, the Rohingya have stated very clearly that they don’t want to live in Bangladesh. They want to go home as soon as it’s safe – but the reality is, that’s unlikely to be anytime soon.
The mass exodus of 700,000 Rohingya people over two months began in response to a military-led program of systematic ethnic cleansing. But the Tatmadaw didn’t act alone. First, they rallied thousands of ethnic Rakhine people from villages across Rakhine State to join them. The Rakhine villagers were primed for involvement in the military operation after years of anti-Muslim government propaganda had instilled in them a visceral hatred of their Rohingya neighbours.
Tatmadaw soldiers marched through western Myanmar, supplying the Rakhine villagers with weapons and informing them they had free reign to take vengeance on the Rohingya, who they had been told were all evil terrorists, conspiring to kill them. Hand-in-hand, the military and villagers enacted a methodical operation of brutality across the state. Tens of thousands of Rohingya were murdered, though the true number is unlikely to ever be known, as mass burnings of bodies and evidence took place immediately following the massacres. Hundreds of villages and thousands of homes were burnt to the ground. Rape and brutal sexual violence were used as a strategy to dehumanise and demoralise tens of thousands of women, men and transgender people. At least 34,000 people were reportedly thrown into fires while alive, including children. Those who tried to flee were shot in the back as they ran. A video smuggled out of Myanmar by a survivor shows the aftermath in his village, where nothing but smoking, charred wood remains:
Those who survived but couldn’t make it out of the country were later interned in concentration camps across Rakhine State, where at least 130,000 of them live today, over 50% of whom are believed to be children. The United Nations and the International Criminal Court have said the event was a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ and has ‘the hallmarks of genocide’.
But genocide isn’t usually a single event; it’s a process. In the case of the Rohingya, it was a process undertaken over decades to systematically weaken the population, stripping them of their rights and isolating them until they could be more easily erased. In 1982 their citizenship was formally revoked. Later they were prohibited from worship and marriage, and each family was restricted to a maximum of two children. Eventually they were barred from entering certain spaces, subject to random detention, and their freedom of movement was tightly controlled by military police. Ultimately, their homes were burnt to the ground and they were forced to flee.
A report by the Southeast Asian human rights organisation Fortify Rights found evidence that preparations had been made for the 2017 massacres for nearly a year. One element had been the construction of a mass propaganda campaign of fake names and social media accounts which had over 1.3 million followers in Myanmar, run by a military unit named ‘True News’. Through publishing incendiary posts accusing the Rohingya of being Islamic Jihadists who were raping and killing ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, the Tatmadaw had successfully rallied thousands of free conscripts to take up arms and kill their neighbours.
Just as they had done before, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government claimed that the August 2017 massacres had never occurred and that the Rohingya villages were still standing.
Beyond witness testimony, there was initially little evidence to show the scale of what had happened in Rakhine State. Yet with the help of open source satellite imagery, various outlets have shown irrefutable proof of the erasure of the Rohingya’s homes. Anyone who wants to can check this for themselves using some pretty simple open source investigation skills and Google Earth.
The following four Google Earth images show the Rohingya forest village of Kan Kya as it existed before the attacks; the burning of the village and forest around it; the clearance of the burnt forest; and finally, the construction of a new development project believed to be a base for Myanmar’s regional security services. In other cases, evidence has shown that the government has built concentration camps for the Rohingya on the very land they had been forced to leave.
January 2017: Rohingya village rooftops visible poking out through the forest canopy
September 2017: The village and forest destroyed, scorched red earth remains
December 2017: All remnants of the village and forest visibly cleared
December 2018: New roads and buildings erected, believed to be a military base
After satellite imagery revealed the scale of the destruction to the world, the government’s story changed. They decided that while the villages had indeed been burned, the Tatmadaw had no part in what had occurred, and actually it was the Rohingya themselves – who they called ‘Jihadi terrorists’ and ‘religious extremists’ – who had burned down their own villages. Aung San Suu Kyi published a Facebook post to her followers warning that ‘the terrorists’ were spreading fake news to the world. While the worst of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing operations occurred in the latter part of 2017, the erasure of the Rohingya people is far from over. Approximately 400 of their remaining villages were burnt down in the first half of 2019.
The Spectre of Terrorism
It’s clear that Aung San Suu Kyi was not the reformer the world imagined her to be. Her denial of reality, reliance on protestations of ‘fake news’, and use of War on Terror rhetoric aligns her more closely with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin than it does Nelson Mandela. It’s also evident from her actions that the rhetoric of the War on Terror is still seen as an effective way to justify military policies. By stripping Muslim populations of their individuality and transforming them into an abstract mass of extremists to be feared, a state can unite their people against a common enemy and, in many cases, use popular anger to justify seizing control of land from that enemy. It should come as no surprise that Rakhine State, where the Tatmadaw have been eradicating the Rohingya, is extremely resource-rich.
While the language of the War on Terror had its popular origin after 9/11, when it was used to unite Americans around the need for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq (and subsequently Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen) its use is clearly no longer limited to the western world. The Russian government recently discovered its relevance to their war in Syria, where the global fear of extremism was used to project the message that the hundreds of different rebel groups (and first responders) fighting the Assad regime were all simply terrorists, thereby legitimizing the indiscriminate bombing of the civilian areas they operated in. China is now following suit, raising the spectre of terrorism to justify the internment of between 1-3 million Uyghur Muslims in “re-education camps” in Xinjiang province. George W. Bush’s legacy certainly lives on in the most unexpected of places.
International Accountability and Assistance
The Rohingya genocide stands as one of the most egregious violations of international human rights law today, at a time when the constraints of those laws are regularly tested by states. One of the few states showing solidarity with the Rohingya is Gambia, who recently declared their intention to bring Myanmar to the International Court of Justice. And yet for the most part, instead of facing international justice for their crimes against humanity, Myanmar’s military has received international assistance. The Australian government currently provides military training to the Tatmadaw; the Russian, Chinese, Indian and Israeli governments supply them with weapons, and while the UK hasn’t authorised arms export licenses to Myanmar, an Aberdeen-based tech company supplies them with ‘sophisticated navigation technology’. Ultranationalists don’t always bear a swastika or an iron cross on their flag, and War on Terror fanatics aren’t always draped in the star-spangled banner. As Myanmar demonstrates, nationalism, Islamophobia and authoritarianism can find a home anywhere in the world. Tragically, the same cannot be said for the Rohingya.
By Sebastian Delamothe
The issue of food production is permeating mass consciousness. Climate-conscious veganism, demand for ethically sourced produce and awareness of biodiversity are all on the rise, and this is changing the way food is produced and consumed. In only a few decades, a lucrative market for organic and sustainable products has emerged. With these changes at hand, Food: Bigger than the Plate has come at an important time. The V&A exhibition takes the viewer through four stages of our food system: composting, farming, trading and eating.
To represent the complexities of the global food system in four rooms is a huge undertaking. The exhibition focuses mainly on the responses to or “fixes” for acute problems within the food system, featuring contributions by artists, designers and businesses. It announces a desire “for a food system that is more sustainable, fair and delicious” and offers us a sense of empowerment, declaring that “the future of food is in our hands. Nothing is off the table”. Sounds good to me…
Most of the exhibits that captivated me highlighted the negative outputs of the global food system. For instance, the Totomoxtle (Fernanado Laposse) project, which is about reintroducing heirloom corn varieties back into Tonahuixtla, a small village in Mexico. The project uses the by-product (colourful corn husks) as a vaneer material, which increases the value of the corn. It was only necessary because agribusiness firms had sold locals the dream of genetically modified, high-yielding corn hybrids. These more expensive, less hardy plants need particular pesticides to grow, and over time the cost of pesticides have increased. They have also wreaked havoc on the land. By reintroducing native corn varieties that grow without pesticides, the project has not only increased biodiversity (and therefore food security) but also boosted the local economy.
Our Daily Bread (Nikolaus Geyrhalter and Wolfgang Widerhofer), a video piece, documents the faces, tools, factories, animals and landscapes of EU food production. Without the use of narration, it paints a dystopian picture; the faces of the workers reminded me of paintings of peasants from the 17th century, the tools look like they belong on building sites, the factories are overwhelming, the animals hang motionless from hooked conveyor belts and the landscapes are vast, hedgeless, monoculture fields. These indelible images cannot help but make you question your values. The mystery is why they are shocking or alien – we eat this food three times a day.
Supernatural (Uli Westphal) is another clever piece, a highly stylised triptych of rural imagery collaged onto three light boxes. Images normally seen on supermarket products are meshed together to give the sense of nature. It highlights how branding and marketing detach the consumer from the grim reality of mass-produced food with idealised “natural” images.
“The future of food is in our hands. Nothing is off the table”
The 1894 avant-garde poster Lait pur stérilisé de la Vingeanne by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen advertised the scientific breakthrough of pasteurisation. As this new process improved the shelf life of milk, the railways improved access to market and milk became a commodity that could be traded further than a few miles from the dairy. It sits in the same room as a raw-milk vending machine from Fen Farm Dairy, based in Suffolk. Current UK law states that raw milk can only be sold at the dairy of origin, hence this invention, which informs the farmer by SMS to refill the vat when it is running out of milk. These two pieces simultaneously represent progress and regression, harking back to a pre-industrialised food era.
It is hard not to look back for inspiration when thinking about our food system and how it can be sustainable in an uncertain future. However, while the exhibition draws attention to the failures of the current food system by exhibiting clever workarounds and offering contrasts to the past, something is missing. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 80% of agricultural land is committed to producing livestock, yet only produces 18% of the world’s calories. Big Food and Big Agricultural companies hardly get a mention here, and become the elephant in the room. Many of these companies are the biggest in the world by market capitalisation; only a few thousand firms are the conduit between millions of food producers and billions of consumers. These firms hold nearly all the power; many are monopolistic, multinational corporations who evade proper scrutiny and pay little tax. Why don’t we hear more about them? By hardly acknowledging their existence, the exhibition’s organisers have allowed the often murky dealings of this industry to go unchecked once again.
At best, the exhibition politely asks you to be more conscious of the food system. It does not suggest an alternative, nor does it question or explain how the current system has come about. The exhibition highlights some of the conscious resistances to the status quo, but these are non-confrontational conversations with power. Our Daily Bread touches upon how “current methods of intensive agriculture are affecting climate change, depleting natural resources and reducing biodiversity”. But all the other pieces circumvent these big issues around our food system. At this important time, by not highlighting concentration of power amongst distributors and retailers, the V&A has missed an opportunity to educate the public about the commercial food system which we all engage with every day. For now, the future of our food remains off the table.
It seems common sense that anyone should be able to sell their labour at a price that affords them an acceptable standard of living. But even with recent increases in the minimum wage, it is still short of providing an income that would guarantee what the public define as the lowest acceptable standard of living. The rate is currently 18% below what it takes to achieve this for a single person working full-time and 37% below for a lone parent working full-time. Common sense appears to be an increasingly rare commodity these days. In fact, I would even wager that brokers are shorting shares of ‘CmnSns’ on the international commodities market as I write this. Ok, so we’re a little way off materialising common sense, but the assertion that workers should be paid for their time, be treated with dignity, respect and be protected from unfair practices is more than common sense. It’s the law. Surely we can rely on the good old British legal system, far above silly ‘common sense’ and extolled worldwide, to provide workers with the legal protections they deserve? Sadly, that is the cheap rhetorical question it appears to be. The answer is no, no we can’t.
Everyone working in the UK is legally entitled to a set of rights: the minimum wage, currently set at £8.70 for those over 25; paid holiday; a meagre and time-limited income provided by the state if you fall ill, £94.25 a week for the first 28 weeks of illness; protections against being unfairly fired; and, protections against discrimination at work because of who you are or what you look like.
But if we are to learn anything from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it’s this: a bunch of powerful people signing a piece of paper does not automatically result in change in the material world. There is a big difference between a rhetorical commitment to something, in our case workers’ rights, and the enforcement activity required on the ground to ensure those words and signatures materialise as fair working conditions. (Read Laurie’s article in this issue for another example of this in the form of human rights abuses currently being committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar.)
Currently, work on the ground to protect workers’ rights is thinner than the paper on which the signatures are inked. It should be no surprise that in austerity Britain, where business interests have been continually prioritised over concerns for workers, labour market enforcement is woefully under resourced. An employer can expect to be visited by HMRC minimum wage inspectors once every 250 years. And that is the low end of the range of estimates. The 2018/19 annual report by the Director of Labour Market Enforcement, Sir David Metcalf, puts this figure at once every 500 years. The Migration Advisory Committee expressed similar concerns in 2014, calculating that UK firms are prosecuted, on average, once every million years.
To put this into perspective: the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are currently enacting a dystopian surveillance campaign on an alarming scale, which, alongside their 4,000 strong team dedicated to dealing with benefit fraud, is costing the public purse a pretty penny. People claiming disability benefits currently fear being investigated for fraud as a result of merely exercising their democratic right to peacefully protest about issues that directly affect their lives. Gym memberships, Sainsbury’s shopping lists, social media posts and CCTV footage are a few of the sources that officials draw on to proactively compile cases against claimants. In contrast, the 412 HMRC inspectors tasked with enforcing employment law merely respond to complaints made by the public, sending out ‘nudge’ letters to employers in the first instance which politely ask them to change their practices and report back once they have done so.
DWP itself estimates that benefit fraud amounted to £2.3bn in 2018/19, 1.2% of the total amount spent on welfare in that tax year. Nick Clark, research fellow at Middlesex University, put unpaid holiday pay alone at £1.8 billion in 2016 and for the financial year 2017/18, HMRC identified £15.6 million in national minimum wage arrears.
Measuring labour market violations is incredibly difficult because, well, it’s illegal and employers are not going to say their doing it. Employer surveys won’t provide reliable answers, and tax returns will only capture cases of non-intentional non-compliance. Relying on official figures is problematic, they are a product of the effectiveness and scale of current enforcement efforts, only those ‘caught’ appear in the £15.6m figure. The Low Pay Commission estimates that official complaints make up just 2% of actual violations, putting the real figure closer to £1bn. And this is merely the tip of the iceberg that threatens to tear apart the ‘work pays’ ship. Thousands more will be denied wages outright or illegally dismissed from work altogether.
Compared to the benefit fraud team at DWP headquarters, there is a measly squad of HMRC enforcement officers just a tenth of their number charged with tackling an issue of a far greater magnitude.
This is where our priorities currently lie, creating a hostile environment for the most vulnerable in society, while allowing (through concerted inaction) the most powerful to take huge sums out of their pockets, denying society tax revenue in the process. Orwell said in 1934 that colonialism amounted to officials holding down the native while the businessman went through their pockets. Today, the poor experience a similar fate. Given that people from BAME communities are disproportionately represented amongst those denied their rights at work, we might be bold enough to ask how much things have changed.
So why is this happening? The short answer is this: because workers are perceived to be vulnerable and in modern capitalism, the pursuit of profit is ultimate. Holiday pay accounts for around 12% of a business’ wage bill and in low capital industries where employers are merely creaming a percentage of workers’ wages – security, cleaning, temporary labour agencies – this is where target-driven managers are going to look to maximize returns to shareholders.
The longer answer is more complex. Four main issues have functioned to swing the balance of power away from employees and towards employers, making workers vulnerable to exploitation. Firstly, the decline in unions. Trade union membership now averages at 22% across England, having steadily decreased year on year to 2016 from a record high in 1979. This is the intended result of the ‘reforms’ passed under Thatcher.
Secondly, a lack of awareness and lowering of expectations. Where do you hear about employment rights, or wage theft these days? Well, one place is through union representatives that fewer and fewer have access to. School leavers are getting packed off from school into insecure work that offers them little in the way of wages and where society affords them even less in the way of dignity and respect. They are told, through ‘employability’ lessons in school and the normalisation of unpaid internships, that their labour is almost worthless and to graciously accept whatever working conditions they find themselves in. That’s how it is in the ‘real world’.
Thirdly, rapid changes in the world of work. The rise of zero hours contracts and ‘one-sided flexibility’ means many are locked in to working arrangements that give managers the ability to demand the world of their employees while providing little in return. This equips employers with an arsenal of tools to discipline those who do not tow the increasingly weighty company line, slung onerously around the necks of vulnerable workers. Speak out or stand up for yourself and you get ‘zeroed-down’, your hours given to a colleague who sat down when told – and who could blame them? This is not the kind of environment in which collective solutions organically grow, it’s the kind of environment where potential allies are pitted against each other to the detriment of everyone working for the minimum wage, and to the benefit of anyone underpaying it.
Marx spoke about the concept of a reserve army of labour, the undifferentiated mass of the ‘unemployed’, used to break the spirit of rebellious workers demanding more. “If you won’t work for this wage, there is a long line of hungry people who will, so make your choice”. Nowadays, with employment at record highs, it seems the concept no longer needs a physical embodiment to be effective.
And fourthly, an almost absent national enforcement system and inaccessible legal support. Employers know they can get away with it and those who experience violations are increasingly barred from accessing legal advice. Legal reforms passed in 2012, ostensibly to prevent frivolous litigation, mean that even those living below the official poverty line do not qualify for legal aid.
With a seemingly bottomless well of injustice, it’s incredibly easy to be defeatist. But there are shafts of light penetrating the cave of despair that we’ve built, they just don’t make it to the front page. The IWGB union are a deep source of hope; UNISON won a court case in 2016 that led to the abolition of employment tribunal fees (yes, workers denied wages were for a time required to pay to bring their case to court); and the ‘workers centre’ model, flourishing in the US, provides inspiration on how collectivist solutions can be forged in the context of an absent state.
And some progress is being made by the government, albeit in a mostly rhetorical sense, through the newly published Good Work Plan. The latest spending review announced £28 million for HMRC to delivery enforcement activities which, after accounting for inflation, is around a 4% increase on last year’s budget. We could be up to 500 inspectors by next year. But there is an incredible amount still to be done. Real, sustained improvements will require lower barriers to accessing legal support, increasing union membership, changing workplace culture, and raising awareness of rights issues across the board. You need to be aware that something is not right in the first place before you can do anything about it.
And just as signs of movement in the right direction are starting to appear, it could all be taken away with one blonde blur of movement, leaving a residual “phwaooar!” hanging in the air. One of the biggest fears about Brexit, and Johnson seemingly behind the wheel – whether it is actually attached to a working rudder or just a toy imitation is another story – is the likely erosion of an already fragile employment rights framework.