Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Flying the Flag

GORDON BROWN, our long-standing Chancellor of the Exchequer, whom some newspapers inform us will move next door, "inheriting" the Prime Minister's job when Tony Blair has had enough, recently flew a kite for British "idenitity" and patriotism. (Who said it was the last refuge?)

Mr.Brown told a Fabian Society gathering that the Left should "embrace the Union flag". Well, we will need to wrap ourselves in something when the chill winds of recession start blowing, as they could well soon.

Some of us remember when Margaret Thatcher berated British Airways for not "flying the flag" on their tailfins. I remarked at the time that I had not heard her admonishing shipping companies this way.

A hundred years ago almost half the world's merchant ships sailed under the "Red Duster", as Britain's ensign is colloqially known, and UK ships carried more than 90 percent of the British Empire's trade, according to the ships' officers' union NUMAST.
"However the 1970s and 1980s witnessed catastrophic decline of the UK merchant fleet. The number of UK owned and registered ships slumped from more than 1,600 ships of 50m deadweight tonnes in 1975 to just 627 ships a decade later and only 253 ships, of 3.3m dwt by 1995.
"Today, UK flagged tonnage amounts to 0.3 per cent of the world total, Bahamas-flagged tankes carry more of our coastal trade than red ensign ships and there are more Filipino seafarers working on ships in UK waters than there are British officers and ratings.
Although the recent introduction of the tonnage tax and training scheme has delivered a welcome increase in the amount of tonnage under the UK flag, NUMAST is concerned that there are still big problems to be addressed."

The problem used to be of companies flying "flags of conveniance", that is registering in whatever port and country would cost them least in tax, and ennable them to employ the cheapest crews, with lowest conditions. But now, the officers' union says, there is a "very real danger of the red ensign becoming a flag of convenience. Unfortunately, it appears there is a ‘hands-off’ approach to the terms and conditions of foreign seafarers working under the UK register and NUMAST has become increasingly concerned at the failure to enforce acceptable social conditions on some of the ships being flagged-in."

The Rail Maritime and Transport union, RMT, says it is campaigning with maritime unions across Europe to end 'social dumping' in which unionised ferry crews are replaced with super-exploited, unorganised overseas labour employed on rates often below minimum-wage levels and working dangerously long hours.

The recent dispute at Irish Ferries brought the issue to widespread attention when the company tried to sack hundreds of seafarers and replace them with Eastern European agency workers on less than £3 an hour. RMT and the International Transport Federation recently held a protest in Wales against similar appalling practices by Swansea Cork Ferries.


As for British Airways, though it has restored the red, white and blue to its aircraft, it contracted out catering to an American-owned company, Gate Gourmet, part of Texas Pacific. This firm has been sacking workers at Heathrow - mainly Asian workers belonging to the Transport and General Workers Union - so it could employ cheaper, non-union migrant workers from eastern Europe. It gets away with this thanks to Tory laws which Labour has kept, outlawing workers taking solidarity action. Airport trades unionists who walked out in solidarity with the Gate Gourmet workers are being victimised.

Some directors have moved easily between boardrooms at BA and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. Newspapers like Murdoch's Sun have always campaigned for people's right to fly the flag, along with supporting "Our Lads" (by sending them copies of the Sun) and denouncing "benefit scroungers", asylum-seekers and immigrants. About ten years ago, reporting how Israeli tax invesigators were pursuing a Murdoch-owned company, the Sunday Business noted that a Murdoch-owned firm near Heathrow which supplied TV controls to his BSkyB had paid no tax in the UK, since it reported a loss when selling its goods to the parent company.

Murdoch is a good example of capitalist internationalism. An Australian who became a US citizen so that he could acquire more US media interests, he has nevertheless found ways to keep his US tax bills down, while also making sure his media don't upset the Chinese authorities since he acquired interests in China. The Murdoch empire has more than 800 subsidiaries around the world, including 15 in the Cayman Islands and 14 in the British Virgin Islands.

In 1996 the Independent asked the Labour Party leadership, then in Opposition, what it planned to do about Murdoch's taxes, or lack of them. Gordon Brown, then Shadow Chancellor, had denounced 'fat cats' and promised they would be taxed 'fairly'. When asked about Murdoch's taxes, neither Brown nor any of his front-bench colleagues was available for comment. New Labour adviser Alistair Darling said it would be wrong to pick on an individual.

Old man Murdoch was on TV the other night, saying that though Britain remainsl too much a "Nanny State", and are taxes too high(as though he cares!) he still supports New Labour. Just as he once supported Margaret Thatcher.

Far from closing the doors on tax avoiders, the Inland Revenue has joined them. In 2002 it sold off 600 buildings to a company called Maperly, to which it pays rent. How much rent we can only guess, because contracts between government and private companies are confidential. Maperly in the UK claimed it made a loss, so didn't pay taxes. But the Inland Revenue's rent goes to Maperly Steps, in Bermuda. Meanwhile the Inland Revenue has been cutting jobs, and replacing permanent staff with short-term 'casuals'.

In the same week that Gordon Brown's call for more flags was exciting the chattering classes, the Blair government announced moves to force thousands of disabled people to look harder for jobs, or it will take away their benefits. BBC reports quoted a government figure of 2.7 million people claiming incapacity benfit (an exagerrated figure arrived at by adding all sorts of people on other benefits, such as those with terminal illnesses). A BBC social affairs correspondent Kim Catcheside said each person who stopped claiming the benefit saved the tax-payer £7,000.

Presumably so we can afford more bombs in Iraq. But the latest spin is that the government is trying to "help more people into work", and it is not about saving cash. Maybe not. A few years ago we had millions passed to the advertising industry for a campaign encouraging people to snoop and denounce their neighbours on benefit, as well as one telling us not to give money to beggars, who would spend it on drink and drugs (not unlike advertising company executives).

Now as well as cash incentives to doctors and local authorities to help take people off benefit, the government is reported to be inviting the "voluntary" sector and private firms to handle cases, deciding whether a claimant should lose their benfit for not going for an interview etc. It's an ill-wind that does not blow a nice earner for some. Obviously the private firms that move in are not in business for charity. Will they have financial incentives to reduce numbers on benefit?

One place some blind and disabled people have found work in the past has been on telephone switchboards, though the stress-making conditions in some call centres have produced other disabilities. But this work is increasingly being exported. Now a leaked document from the Department of Work and Pensions, obtained by the civil service union PCS, entitled "Offshoring Process", says:
"In line with the continuing need for government departments to reduce costs, proposals are being made by service providers to undertake work for or on behalf of the department overseas".

So the government which is so worried about "helping people into work" is planning to help thousands out of work by letting profit-making companies take the work wherever labour is cheapest. Job seekers, people on benefit, and those with child support problems will find themselves trying to explain themselves to an overworked and underpaid person on the other side of the world. It has already happened with some official data processing as well as commercial banks and services.

So, accepting that patriotism is strictly for us mugs on PAYE, we can watch our jobs and money go abroad, believe what the papers tell us and blame the immigrant workers for our problems, and wave more flags the less we have to wave them over. Or, we can take a leaf from the capitalists' book, and confront their free movement of capital with our own working class internationalism.


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