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Issue #1554      4 July 2012

Culture & Life

Forced labour

Under New Labour, Australia was often used (unofficially) by British authorities as a testing ground for various new political or administrative tactics. And vice versa. The governments of both countries found that it allowed them to ascertain the potential reaction of workers without antagonising their local unions too much. The system worked so well that the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition that runs Britain today still uses it. And I have no doubt that the Gillard government here also looks to developments in Britain as pointers for future policies to be introduced into Australia. So it behoves us to keep a close eye on what they do in Blighty because we will probably see the same policies before long in Australia.

Right at the moment, the Cameron government in Britain is attempting to trial the privatisation of the police service. Some readers will remember the short-lived Workers’ Party that advertising smartypants John Singleton launched in Australia when Robin Askin was NSW Premier. One of Singleton’s planks was the privatisation of all government services including the police, a proposal which even Askin, a Liberal, baulked at. Singo wanted to hand the police service over to private enterprise in one fell swoop, which was probably tactless of him. By contrast, the latest British proposals are much more tentative – but still insidious and dangerous.

Under a program with the innocuous-sounding name “Business Partnering for Police”, private companies have been invited to bid for the provision of such core police functions as the answering of emergency (in Britain 999) calls, handling prisoner transfers and forensics. The police union is part of the giant union Unite and its members are opposed to the handover of these services to private companies operating for profit.

There are 43 police forces in England and Wales, and the privatisation program is being trialled in just one of them, West Midlands. Unite reports that among the companies bidding to take over the police services are several involved in strike breaking, another accused of being engaged in tax avoidance, one with no experience in police work, and one which closed its workers’ final salary pension scheme while paying executive directors up to £400,000 in pensions alone.

Unite national officer Peter Allenson said: “The people of the West Midlands have a right to know more about the unsavoury record of some of the organisations bidding to profit from our police service. From organisations involved in human rights abuses to tax avoiders, many of the bidders have unsavoury records and we believe there is no place for these organisations in running our police service.”

Such is the extent of the combined union and public concern and alarm over the proposals that the West Midlands Police Authority has taken fright and decided to delay voting on the privatisation program. But it has only been delayed and is certain to be raised again, either in Britain or Australia.

Because there is profit to be made from taking over the provision of police services. After all, we already have private prisons. In the USA 10 percent of Americans are in jail, producing on what amounts to slave wages (and under slave conditions) everything from military uniforms to domestic appliances. Most of those incarcerated are Black or Hispanic. Let’s hear it for the return of slavery to the USA!

But being made to work for nothing is not confined to the USA. Britain and Australia both have schemes where the unemployed are forced to work for an employer for no wages or lose their unemployment benefits. In Australia it’s called “Work For The Dole”, which sounds so much more reasonable than “forced labour”, doesn’t it? But whatever it’s called, employers still get workers they can exploit without any risk whatsoever while paying them nothing at all – a boss’s wet dream!

Governments that use this “forced labour or no dole” scheme or one like it, justify the practice by claiming that it inculcates a “work habit” in those caught in its clutches. This reflects their cosy belief that the unemployed are not people for whom there is no work but instead are merely people who don’t want to work. They have developed the “bad habit” of depending on welfare and must be weaned off welfare and taught how to work so they will be of use to employers. Then all will be well.

And, of course, if there is still no actual paid work for them (as there won’t be because the jobs just don’t exist thanks to capitalism’s mismanagement of the economy) then at least the government and its tame media can say: “Don’t blame us – after all, we tried.”

But of more interest to capitalist governments than trying to create jobs – something they have learned to ignore – is the matter of trying to create bigger profits. Success in this will get them tangible rewards from grateful businesses. So they collude with corporations sending entire industries off shore in search of cheap labour, they collude in the de-industrialisation of entire countries in return for some scraps from the beneficiaries’ table.

There are long-term unemployed in Australia and Britain (and the USA) who have never had a job and whose parents have never had a job. There are whole towns, once thriving industrial centres, where no one has a job.

That is not the result of a poorly-developed work ethic, but of a collapsing economy. What unemployed people – of any age – want is a satisfying job, where they can feel proud of the work they do and not feel exploited by an employer who could not do the job they do.

Above all, they want a job where they can feel that the work they do contributes to the common good, to making life better for everyone. Capitalism has a hard job providing that sort of satisfaction, but it is the essence of capitalism’s competitor, socialism. Capitalist propaganda used to refer to socialism as a system of slave labour, but it is increasingly evident which system really uses slave labour, isn’t it?  

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