"In America everybody is of the opinion that he has no social superiors, since all men are equal, but he does not admit that he has no social inferiors, for, from the time of Jefferson onward, the doctrine that all men are equal applies only upwards, not downwards" - Bertrand Russell
Regular readers of this blog will be all too aware of the laxity of the establishment media in its adversarial role in democratic society, not to mention its selective bias on many important issues. The UK's Guardian newspaper nevertheless remains an important mainstream source of information on most issues (despite its ludicrous and embarrassing bias against Wikileaks and its founder) and it often carries excellent articles on neglected human rights issues.
This week was no exception with two fine articles highlighting what inevitably happens when large private companies are given free rein with people's lives and livelihoods: the always excellent Zoe Williams here explains the scandalous implications of outsourcing of foster care and Felicity Lawrence here exposes how large food companies and agribusiness exploit immigrants as an ultra-cheap, 'on-tap' labor force.
From Zoe Williams' article:
We don't have a particularly strong tradition, in this media trajectory, of asking what happened to the money. You can be sure money is being spent – it costs between £200,000 and £300,000 a year for residential care for a child, and £30,000 to £60,000 for foster care. Why is it so expensive? (For comparison, it costs £30,000 to keep someone in a low-security prison for year, and £30,000 to send someone to Eton.) Who gets the money? It's a long story, but the answer emphatically isn't the carers or the foster family.
After 20 years of outsourcing, the bulk of children's homes are run by private companies, with money sucked upwards into one or two private equity companies, GI Partners or Bowmark Capital or Baird Capital. Two-thirds of fostering provision is controlled by the private sector. Only 11% of children's homes are run by charities; the third sector started off quite big in children's care, as you'd expect, meeting local-authority contracts by spending their own reserves. Eventually, though, the private sector underbid them, and they went bust or moved into other services.
Having whittled down the competition, the private sector became eye-poppingly expensive: £200,000 is actually a low estimate, based on overall spending of £1bn on 5,000 children in residential care homes in England. In 2009, it was leaked that CastleCare, which runs 40 homes in Northamptonshire, was charging £378,000 a year for a residential place. This would be money well spent if the care was brilliant, but it isn't. Only 2.5% of children's homes have an Ofsted rating of "outstanding".
At the end of this period in "care", then, why are kids and young adults moved miles away from their foster homes? Why are 44% of 16-year-olds who leave care still not in education, employment or training three years later? For the same old reasons – because housing is found wherever it's cheapest.
The cheapest house in the UK went on sale this week, for £750, in Stockton. That's also where a huge amount of asylum seekers' and post-care housing is – I know, wild coincidence! It's quite a saving, but mainly for the contractor rather than the government. Where housing is cheap, the local economy tends to be sluggish, and unemployment is generally high. Brilliant. Now you have a young person with no roots, no money and no realistic prospect of employment. I don't know why we don't just cut out the middle man and send them directly to jail.
It's reasonable to talk about the morality of having a profit motive in this sector at all. You shouldn't run a home for a profit. But before we start on any of that, we need to scotch the idea that private-sector involvement has made any of this any cheaper.
From Felicity Lawrence's article:
Why, when unemployment among the young and unskilled here is so high, do companies like Noble Foods need to turn to foreign workers supplied by gangmasters? The description of the life led by the Lithuanians who were liberated into the care of the UK Human Trafficking Centre earlier this month might offer a clue.
They told how they were shuttled, in mini-vans, the length and breadth of the country, often sleeping in the vehicles between working shifts of up to 17 hours on farms contracted to Noble. Much of this type of work happens at night, a few hours here and a back-to-back double shift there. The flexible workforce big business says it needs is one they like to be able to turn on and off as easily as a tap.
Few people other than recent migrants can tolerate conditions of this sort for long. They are incompatible with any sort of ordered, decent family life. The pay is rarely enough to live on. The Agricultural Wages Board set rural pay slightly higher than the minimum wage and made sure workers received basic sick pay and protection at work. The government wants to abolish it. More than 150,000 low-income workers will be directly affected, another 100,000 indirectly.
Small farmers don't want to see the board go. They hate having to conduct individual negotiations with seasonal workers, and want a level playing field on which everyone is obliged to pay properly. It is the larger producers and agribusiness that are lobbying to get rid of it. When pay is too low to live on, local people are forced out, leaving a gap to be filled by those who are more desperate from elsewhere. Immigration becomes the wages policy, with government actually promoting its increase.
Each year the government says it wants to close down schemes, such as the seasonal agricultural workers programme, that allow foreign workers to come into sectors that need low-skill labour, to curb immigration and help British workers. Each year industry argues that it needs them, and they are reopened.
The Conservative stance on Croatian accession to the EU next year is dog-whistle shrill. It wants restrictions to prevent access to the UK labour market by Croatian nationals. Few are likely to come, as they have much stronger ties with Germany. But why miss an opportunity to grandstand to your anti-immigration heartlands?
The more noise made about foreign workers, the easier it is to distract people from the fact that the best way to keep British jobs is to preserve employment protection and enforce the law.
Both articles demonstrate very clearly the dangers of allowing private corporations, aided by deregulation, to make their own rules. The theory when turning vital services over to the private sector is that by creating competition, the quality of the service or product will increase, but time has proven that this is not the case. Instead, one or a few huge companies end up monopolizing the entire field or industry, removing most of the competition by either buying them up or undercutting them out of business. These few companies then set their own standards, ones which invariably suit them and satisfy their single driving aim: profit.
In order to satisfy this aim, costs are cut across the board as far as is legally allowed, and if this means finding a bunch of miserable immigrants and putting them through hell, or making vulnerable kids like orphans even more vulnerable, you can be sure that is exactly what will happen. And even when human rights groups raise an outcry, the politicians who are desperate to keep big business on their side will do all they can to dilute any efforts toward regulation, as Felicity Lawrence writes in the same article:
In response to complaints from agribusiness it [the UK's coalition government] has instructed the [Gangmaster Licensing Authority] (GLA) to be "lighter in its touch" when it regulates and inspects. Providing gangs of vulnerable migrant workers you don't have to bother to pay properly to factories and farms has got easier. Life for those who want to operate legally, providing decent jobs, filled by the sort of workers who know their rights and are not so easy to exploit, has got harder.
Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
Sixty-four years after the declaration, signed at a time when the horrors and abuses of World War II were still fresh in the memory, we have allowed humanity to revert to its default state; namely one in which unscrupulous people with extensive power and influence get away with as much as they are permitted to by elected officials who possess the all-too-human capacity for greed, cronyism and corruption, officials who will agree to almost anything in order to receive funds for political campaigns and party coffers, and often a nice seat on a board when their political career comes to an end.
It is now popular orthodoxy that 'red tape' is a hindrance to business and therefore to economic growth, leading to direct inhibition of the livelihoods of ordinary citizens. This could be more accurately labelled a 'red herring', as strict regulations on powerful corporations and other bodies actually protect all citizens from the destructive practices described in this article.
This excellent set of graphics sets out the results of the deregulation of the financial industries forced by Reagan (and Thatcher) in the 1980s. It can be seen with crystal clarity that deregulation benefits the already wealth and only them, while the poor are left to stagnate and rot, yet another devastating consequence of relaxing the rules for the rich and powerful.
Felicity Lawrence's article is particularly shocking because what she describes is slavery by another name. The generally accepted definition of the word slavery is work done for no payment. This is inadequate. The only meaningful dividing line is that which separates those who have a wage that can enable them and their family to have an 'existence worthy of human dignity' and those who do not. Paying people peanuts after putting them through the conditions described in the article can only be regarded as a lesser form of slavery, yet slavery nonetheless.
Humans without power are generally good and kind with millions around the world engaged in charity or volunteer work and many many others willing to dig into their pockets for a good cause. Unfortunately, the people who rise to the very top of huge corporations or who reach the upper echelons of political power are often a different breed.
Treating fellow humans in the manner described in the two articles highlighted here dehumanizes us all. That this can happen among the members of a supposedly enlightened, civilized and intelligent species speaks eloquently of the fundamental flaws of our 'democracies' and cries out for a viable alternative system (described in my free book linked below) in which human rights and the rule of law reign supreme over material concerns.
'The 99.99998271% - Why the Time is Right for Direct Democracy' by Simon Wood is available for free download. In this 70-page book, the current state of human rights and democracy is discussed, and a simple method of implementing direct democracy is suggested.
Simon Wood on twitter (@simonwood11) and Facebook or at his blog. The Direct Democracy Alliance, a voluntary group dedicated to creating national/global direct democracy, is now also on twitter: (@DDA4586)
Author's note: For nine months I have been writing detailed articles on human rights and direct democracy, and have written a book on the topic which is freely available. However, despite some small successes, I am yet to make a scratch in any meaningful way that will bring about real change. For this to happen, I need to create an NPO or similar organization devoted to creating and promoting direct democracy. I therefore appeal to any reader who has significant resources, or who has connections to someone who has, to contact me with regard to making a philanthropic donation to bring about a transparent organization with paid, professional staff which can actually make a difference.