Monday, October 31, 2011

Striking the union

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has won. He played hardball with the unions and a flaccid Labor government was not there for the workers. The $5 million-a-year Irishman can now move forward and "modernise" the country's one-time flagship airline with cheap crew and service from Asia.

This is profoundly sad and negative for Australia - and the sort of compromised dividend one may expect of privatisation and outsourcing.

But I fear an even sadder prognosis long-term for the breaking of the unions which have been effectively vilified by the endlessly indignant dominance of the corporate powers. They bellow at how hard done-by they are when a union stands up for workers' rights or pay entitlements. Just as they up the bizarrely huge salaries of their executives. What is the CEO of crumbling Coles getting now? $15 million a year? With a staff dominated by students on casual hours?

The worker is being systematically devalued.
The idea is that the worker also must be de-powered.

Solidarity has been all the workers have had. The company of peers and the organisation of the working force of the union has been their stability, ensuring that they are able to have planned lives. Workers actually pay for this. Union dues are not cheap. But the union goes in to bat. The union defends workers against exploitation, standing up for their rights, achieving for them things like sick leave entitlements, holidays and wages which have some accord with cost of living increases. They have done this through strength of numbers and, sometimes, some very harrowing conflict. But they have never tried to destroy business - obviously, since they also wish to protect the source of their employment. Doh.

But companies always cry foul and other countries with bigger, stronger, ruthless corporate interests have broken the backs of unions. The word "union" is almost a dirty word in America. And it is becoming so here in Australia. Unions have been merging and fighting for their own existence.

Young, new workers, have not heard of unions and hence have no idea that their fair work conditions were negotiated for them by unions.

The contracts they sign these days have to reflect these rights, long ago fought for by the unions. But contracts remove that old thing, security of employment. Less and less does one see "permanent full-time employment". It is an option companies would rather not offer.

Gradually they have moved on to fairly inviting contracts which may pay more but will call upon certain added commitments to the company - unpaid overtime, perhaps. They present and couch the contracts in such a way that the new employee will feel special.
But that is a well-wrought illusion. The contracts don't have to be renewed, if the company so wishes. This keeps workers on their toes.

Without proper contracts, they can end up as casuals.
And casual work is the direction in which the workplace is headed. It is the dream workplace for the Alan Joyces of this world.
It is the perfect arrangement for big business. It is cheaper to have three casuals than one full-time permanent staffer.
A casual workforce is the corporate ideal. Cheap, cheap, cheap.
They may be paid more by the hour, but they don't know what hours they will get.

And, of course, looking at things like aircraft maintenance, outsourced casual workforce with low pay expectations, are much better for the bottom line.

Casuals only work when they are invited to work.
They may work one day a week or five, depending on demand. Maybe none.

They have no entitlements.
If casuals are sick, they are not working and hence not paid.
The company calls up another casual.
If a casual wants a holiday, a casual may take a holiday. Their time is their own. The company is not committed to them, so there is no holiday pay. Just another casual to fill the gap.

The phenomenon of the casual worker has been growing prodigiously - but quietly. Twentysix per cent of the workforce and rising.
Who is going to speak out for them? There is no organisation for them of which I know.

So, if you don't have a regular or predicable income, how do you get a loan, take out a mortgage, buy a home?

You don't.
Forget health insurance.

But looking ahead, as outsourcing takes over to ensure the company profits required for shareholder affluence and millionaire CEOs, we see a new generation of workers in this insecure condition. A new, growing underclass.

And, unless there is a big change in the way the financial world functions, these young people will not be buying their own homes. Indeed, they may have to have incomes subsidised by pensions to lift them off the poverty line. How would that work? They'd be better off on the dole.

The future looks messy.

I look at the babies of this new baby boom and wonder about what they will face as the workforce of tomorrow.

Renting properties rather than buying, being unable to forward plan their own lives for fear of losing casual shifts...

A culture of increasing socio-economic disparity is emerging - along with it a population growth of amotivated and unfulfilled people.

It is a bit scary.
But maybe, just maybe, some of tomorrow's workers will stand up for each other - and maybe even invent something called a union.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Facebook and the face of history

So Zuckerberg, Facebook supremo, proposes that his 750 million users use their Facebook pages as lifetime scrapbooks - posting childhood pictures and records of rites of passage and family moments. If I understand this rightly, as detailed in Mashable's
report on Facebook Evolution, Facebook says it will place these things into timelines so our lives are recorded and displayed chronologically. And, of course, stored in perpetuity.

I have some problems with this - mainly choice. I would like to be able to arrange things my way. I am not keen on Auntie FB taking over for me. I feel I have lost choices in the new face of FB and realise that I am going to have to invest time I really don't have in reorganising my world and who is who and who sees what and how much I want to see.

However, ever since email and the Internet became a primary form of communication, there has been a concern about the history record. The loss of letters was a blow to libraries and historians as people turned to email. The very nature of communications was truncated by the easy ping of email and, of course, people quickly lost their records of emails sent and received as their old PCs crashed or they moved from one generation of computer to the next, often leaving old content behind or being unable to transfer it.

How much can one store and how can one navigate through it, especially in these frenetic years of multitasking information overload.

And do not scoff at these cliches. They are the way it is.

So where does it leave historians and academics researching exchanges with people - the sorts of content which was once made of paper and stored in boxes at libraries? Don't tell me everyone prints out copies of their emails and files them for posterity! They don't and can't.

All that data is cached in electronic caves which may or may not be buried under the landslides of subsequent data. I think the archiving abilities of computers has improved significantly in the last decade and the forensics of seeking destroyed data with it. So it is possible there is just the mid-nineties to mid-naughties which may be the black hole of record. But, I do believe there is a gap in the history of correspondence.

And that the status quo of correspondence as a form of record is changed.
We shall see if books such as that which I now am reading, the letters of artist Nora Heysen with her famous artist father Sir Hans Heysen, will be replaced by "the emails of..." Perchance there are some prescient emailers out there. But on the whole, and definitely in work environments where email volume outstrips storage capacity every day, emails are biting the virtual dust by the billion.

We don't do all our correspondence on FB, but we do quite a bit. And there is a bit of spam and unwanted promotion there, too.

We have to realise that nothing is private if we have published it online. Nothing. FB messages are ostensibly private insofar as other FB contacts are not seeing them but they are still in the massive FB data pool. So they are on the record. They are stored for history. Historians may well find themselves supplicant to FB for access to its massive store of human interest.

Just as one's employer has access to a record not just of what you have said and produced and seen on their computer systems but even of how many keystrokes you have made. We just have to understand and live with it.
It is the way it is.
Privacy is not ours if we are using someone else's technology.
We can't expect otherwise. We can only be prudent about what we share.
And we can be positive about history and the public record.

It is vastly different from those wonderful old letters which crossed the world on ships with exotic stamps. It is vastly different to those long and detailed reports in the newspapers of yore. But, add to it blogs and Twitter and the ensuing modes of communication and connectivity, and it is all a wonderful resource.
To which we may add these scrapbooks as suggested by FB.

How many people do I hear moaning and groaning about digital photos and what they can or can't do with them and will they be lost because they have not stored them outside their computers.

Posting on FB and Flickr and other sites is a way of storing for posterity. And let's not get too fretful about it all. We take too many photos now we can take them so easily. If we are wise, we post the best of them just as we used to print the best of the photos we took with film cameras. The rest were culled out and discarded.

All the photos everyone ever took are not around. Thank heavens.
We would be shuffling about knee deep in them.

So things are not as bad as we think.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Now here's a sad thing

Would it not be great if one could take this as one of those correspondence-exchanged issues reminiscent of the late, great Henry Root? How funny was he!
How not funny is this.
This is the story of a sincere sucker being time-wasted because she was too busy to read too closely. And she was under the impression that she was working with something which seemed to identify itself as "The Society of Professional Journalists".
You can see the cause of this exchange on the right=hand nav bar of this blog.

Dear WebRing,

I have kept your email open on my desktop for a long time, periodically returning to the blogspot address I have inhabited these nigh 12 years and trying to work out why your promotion corrupts my columns.
The bad news is that I don't know.
I am not a web designer or a coder, albeit I was inaugural online editor of my metro daily newspaper and have mastered quite a few evolving print media programs, the latest being the paywall version of Fatwire.

I have managed to keep everything neat and tidy on my wee blog over the years - until now.

Suddenly the penny dropped.

I cannot make your ID conform to the blogspot column sizes because I need to "upgrade" to WebRing Premium.
And then I will get my own FREE blog?

Good grief.
Now, with the "luxury" of a (sick) day off my work on a busy metro daily, I have a moment to solve a problem. And the problem is not me and my blog, but Internet bottom-feeders looking for my dollar.


The Internet was a better place before your sort came to parasite it.


On 17/07/2011, at 12:18 AM, wrote:

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Don't keep these awesome pic's to yourself. Share them.

I've been tolerant. The Dalai Lama could not have been more so. About the forwards which go round and round and round the net.
I've thought, "oh, these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed ingenuous folk who have found such freedom of expression online".
I've thought, "oh, they mean well."
I've abided by the old online protocol of not putting people down when they do forwards. Of not sending back the "seen it" snub.
That is the soul of discourtesy. Bad netiquette from way back.
But, of course, mostly I've seen it over and over and over. The same National Geographic Best of the Year pictures have been the best for a decade. It's okay. They are classics.
But, here's the rub.
They still come as if originating from the same goody two-shoes American moron.
They still come with:
Don't keep these awesome pic's to yourself. Share them.

Who the hell does this person think she is (and it is undoubtedly a she) to be adding these patronising instructions?
I will make on own decision on if and how I share things, thankyou.
I sure as hell won't be sending out something that exhorts my friends to share it. My friends, also, have powers of discernment.

Oh, and there's the personalised bit.
"The one with the zebras is an incredible photo."
They are all incredible photos. Isn't that the point?
Oh. Or should I say photo's?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Indian call centres teach racism

Indian call centre workers are being trained to speak slowly and appreciate the fact that Australians are ill-educated racist drunks who are touchy about their pets.
They are being trained to have a superior, racist attitude towards their customers.

This revelation comes from an astonishing report doing the rounds of the Australian papers via Andrew Marantz, a Mother Jones reporter who infiltrated the ranks on an Indian call centre training course.

Well, it just happens that I have been having a lot to do with Indian call centre workers lately - and I am not too impressed with their training. Perhaps the sort of crass cultural misinformation they are receiving is why communications with these workers has been so frustrating.

I started out feeling sympathetic towards the call centre workers, even those who cold call with a sales pitch when I am really busy.
I know that most of the interactions they experience are negative. People don't want telemarketing calls and, if the call centres are for help lines, the calls they get are from people who have problems and are not happy with something.

It is not exactly a dream job. Then again, it is a paying job which has been expediently outsourced and someone in Australia is without that job. So my feelings are mixed.

Even now, after many utterly exhausting calls to and from Indian cell centres.

I've been having a Vodafone crisis, you see.
I joined Vodafone more than a decade ago because it was the Telco which offered me good roaming services in the US at a time when it was hard to come by. Voda was wonderful. The moment I reached the US or changed states in my travels, a new provider would pop up and welcome me to the region and I was able to stay in touch with my invalid mother in Australia. For this, I loved Vodafone and was a loudly loyal customer.

This year, Vodafone plummeted from grace.

This has been the year of dead air. I was for months unpredictably in and out of connectivity - unable to make or receive calls, to SMS or Tweetl. I was not in the US. I was at my desk in a metropolitan newspaper office.
Or else, I was out in the city (right) moving around. I was down on the coast. Dead phone. Deadphone.
No mobile reception. Zip. Dead.
Important calls did not get to me. I could not report in. My working life was hobbled. When I most needed it, I did not have it. I could not liaise with a photographer on a job. I could not return call a contact. My aged mother could not reach me with her needs. You name it. For months. On and off, off and on.

I looked up the website to see where the phone tower issues were.
I Twittered about it from my computer.

I called Voda.
And into call centre hell I fell.

Ringing call centres is the most insulting waste of time.

Of course this is part of the Telco strategy. It is as efficient a deterrent as spraying a cat with a water pistol.

Firstly, one has to go through an extended horror of pressing keys on the phone to get to the help line. One has to do it from a land line, of course, because the mobile is not working.
When one finally gets through, one has to give a distant stranger information which allows them into one's private data.
And then the waiting begins, the wait and wait and wait.

The day stops.

The classic line is "just bear with me a minute".
And the line goes dead. And one waits.

The call centre workers have to do a lot of checking. Or is it that they just have to make you wait?

Every simply inquiry is met with some sort of unctuous incredulity.
A smarmy facade of politeness.
And a request to "wait a moment please".
And wait some more.

What are they doing?
Why are these calls endlessly stop-start?
With whom are they checking?

They have the information in front of them once they have keyed in all your personal details.
Where are they going in those silences?

They have access to a disturbing amount of information. All our phone and bill paying activity. Our home addresses and credit card details. They are all there. And they can tell us when we have called them or they us. They have everything logged and they can quote it all. Which is really not at all helpful. I already know that this is my fifth call.

I can get apologies for lack of service but no recompense. That is what I finally learned. It did me no good to vent frustration.

I have tried and tried to speak to someone who works for Voda in Australia.
I sent a number of emails through the website.
A day or two later, I would get an email acknowledgement.

Then, when I expected it least, usually at the hectic tail end of the working day, I'd get a call from some hapless call centre person.
And it would be the same thing all over again. Getting my details and then asking me to wait. The line going dead. "Please wait a minute", "bear with me"...
And I'd be stuck on the phone.
Oftentimes, I could not understand the caller. Their accents were sometimes quite strong. But, mainly, it was the lousy link.

How come a professional phone services specialises in really bad connections?

So the calls stop and start. The Voda call centre person is on line and off line. They are checking something with someone in that mysterious obfuscatory otherworld.

I have tried befriending them. Kevin, Najib, Mary... I am sympathetic towards them. But how they exasperate me.

I am paying for this service.
It is insulting.

And throughout my Vodafone blackouts, the months of incessant lack of connectivity, the mystery of it, the rebooting of my iPhone to see if it was somehow something to do with me or my appliance.
It wasn't.
It was Vodafone. It was service failure.

Vodafone's did not suggest any compensation for its lack of service. Just insincere apologies from Indians service representatives who, now I learn, had been told that I belong to some lower incarnation of boorish, boozy, unschooled, techno retard peasants...

Funnily enough, my opinion of them is no higher than theirs of mine.
I am not with them any more.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Closures! An opening to madness!

The food industry has lost the plot.
If it was not bad enough to have taste-free tomatoes genetically modified so they will not wet the bread in a sandwich, bananas deceptively skin-ripened by gas but hard and green inside, peaches picked rock hard for travelling but which shrivel before they ripen, beans which are sprayed for a glossy appearance and then go slimy after a day in a plastic bag....
That is all simply vile. It is all a profiteering scam which exploits hapless shoppers - but can be sidestepped if one has access to a farmer's market.

But now it is openings.
The market has gone to work on openings, making things so secure, sterile and tamper-proof that - forget tampering, one simply can't get into them.
My rage at closures has been rising for some time.
For years as a supporting mum, I surmounted difficulties of opening the odd seemingly impenetrable container with determined techniques. And I won.
Now with all that self-sufficiency under my belt, I am older, wiser, more adept and experienced - and utterly unable to get into containers.
My favourite curd cheese requires one to bruise fingers and break nails to dislodge the security flap on the rim of the container.
Delicious dips require one to resort to teeth to get purchase on the wicked pull-tab which needs to be peeled off before the lid can be removed. Oftentimes, the tabs simply tear off, leaving one prising with sharp knives and generally endangering oneself trying to get to the contents.
Then there are the jams and sauces in today's uber-secure jars.
All the tapping on the rims, banging on a flat surface, knocking at the centre...reliable techniques of yore, are fruitless. Calling in the forces of the men is simply to have angry and frustrated men struggling with teatowels and muscle, looking for that pop of release. It is belittling. The other week my super-strong male hero simply gave up and threw the whole jar in the bin. He was too  furious even to go and get his money back.

In itself, that is a hassle which should not be so often required of consumers - keeping the receipt, lugging the product back, going to the inquiry desk, waiting around for attention, then the calling of the superior, the issue of replacement or credit. Do we want another impenetrable jar of the thing we want to eat or do we just want money back and deny ourselves the product we needed or wanted? Do we have to unseal the product at the checkout to ensure that we can open it when we get home?
It gets worse and worse.

One needs a PhD to get into many products.
Most recently, it was just a plastic bottle of canola oil. First I took off the tight clear plastic casing on the lid. Then I looked for the usual tear strip to wrench off before removing the top. Oh, don't say the tag bit is broken? No? It is molded into the strip? No? Maybe it screws? No. After much intense scrutiny I perceived a slight indentation into which I could force a fingernail and, hey-presto, I  flipped off the top. And there inside was a whole new puzzle of plastic pull tags which uncoiled to reveal a finger-pull. I slipped my finger in and carefully tugged. The plastic stretched and stretched and became cloudy. I was very careful, steady. I've experienced these plastic ring-pulls before. And, of course, the plastic was not strong enough to open the plastic. And there I was with a piece of plastic in my hand and the bottle of oil still firmly sealed. I had to get a sharp knife and stab it open. Bad for the knife and dangerous for me. Insane. Impractical. Where do these manufacturers get off? Who is being paid to invent closures that will only close but never open?

It is an accumulative thing. It has been steadily growing worse as our consumer market is more oppressed by regulations doubtless incurred by people who have sued because they have bought things badly sealed. Well, I'm going to sue, too. I'm going to sue the lot of them.
I'm gaining closure psychosis - a fear of opening anything.
I recoil in apprehension as I load the supermarket trolley. How will I get all this stuff open?
The final straw was the bottle of Vitamin B tablets. I've been buying them for years.
But now, suddenly, they are so well enclosed in their little brown bottles that - well, hell...
I removed the plastic cover, and, oh, bliss, the lid opened with ease. But wait. There's a liner sealing the pills inside. No worries, I'll prod it open. And so began another closures trauma. That internal seal simply would not budge or break.
I poked and pierced and stabbed and prodded, I probed gently, looking for for some new open-sesame trick.
I was suddenly overcome by realisation of the amount of time one spends these days struggling to open things. Those damned stupid milk cartons which I think are downright unhygienic. Ziplock grain bags with the cut-here lines. Candy bars and cheeses with a "tear here" which will not tear. Cartons, jars, bottles....
An increasing chunk of our lives is being consumed by closures.

And I gave up on Vitamin B and grabbed a beautiful bottle of screw-topped wine. At last something I could open. Aaah.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

News of the World - a quiet antipodean bleat

For any career journalist, this crisis in the Murdoch empire is nothing less than heartbreaking. It is not what we are about. Should not be. It hurts us all. Our union has a strong code of ethics and we, as a collective, hold this close to our hearts and work practices. 

We are tarred by association - especially those of us who work on tabloids. "Tabloid" does not just mean gossip rag. So many people do not realise that it also means size and shape. Where once I worked on a traditional broadsheet paper, I now work for the same paper which converted to a small-format, that which is known as "tabloid". This has no reference to content which remains mainstream and informative rather than salacious. 

The News of the World was technically a broadsheet newspaper -  but it featured "tabloid" content which always tawdry and spoke to the lower common denominator of readership. There are a lot of them out there. Throughout history, people have just loved a bit of scandal.  Show me a parish pump and I'll show you a gossipy, bitching session.
NOTW had a massive readership, albeit not massive profits, a phenomenon we may perhaps attribute to the money we now hear that it was spending on seeking information.

The US has a tabloid which is different yet again. Its Weekly World News is very small format, sold at supermarket checkouts and is wonderful. Its content takes scandal to new heights and lows. It is right out there.  I long have had fantasies of working for the paper, making up fanciful tales of half-crocodile/half-boy swamp creatures, of intergalactic aliens running your local coffee shop, women giving birth to litters of goats, Elvis being found living in a trailer park, dogs who secretly write crime fiction...
These stories all based on information from "science sources" and "informants". No one expects them to be true. They are a genre of their own.

Britain's News of the World is believed to be true. Indeed, it sought to and succeeded in breaking stories.  It was the newspaper of the human underbelly - the worst of the worst. Infidelity, squalid morals, cheats, crooks, vanity, weakness...scandal. It fed the great  beast called schadenfreude - the human pleasure of the failings of others. 

What changed and pushed it to unethical extremes in finding scandal? Phone hacking and bribery?
My theory is that it found itself competing with a ubiquity of scandal and gossip.  An epidemic. All the newspapers have been adding gossip and celebrity pap to their content in an effort to get a cut of the lucrative lowbrow market.  Many papers are dumbing down. There is so much vapid celebrity trivia and scandal out there and a big machine pushing it into the media.  Heaven forbid, there are whole TV channels devoted to nothing else. "Tabloid" TV? 
Really, it is just content for fairly immature and ignorant people with a stunted world view. However, if their interest are shallow, they also are rapacious . They have generated a big dollar market which, in turn, has spawned a plethora of journalists paid to pursue the minutiae of celebrity gossip. This in the everyday papers. Papers like mine. Straight, conservative, mainstream newspapers.  I was gossip writer for eight years. It was wonderful glittering fun and a lot of champagne was involved. But gossip predominantly was locally-oriented in my era. It was a different animal.

Now there is an international celebrity industry as well as local interest to be covered. These days we have two journalists on the gossip round - and the rest of us pitch in when we get the chance. We have two pages of mostly light and amusing goss a day. 

But as the gossip industry expands,  those reporting for specialist publications such as NOTW clearly have felt that they have had to go further and further afield to keep the paper outstanding in the sensationalist market. It's a business. A market. A job. A career.

There are journalists who actually thrive on reporting that form of information and former NOTW features editor Paul McMullan has bravely spoken out on their behalf - and the lengths to which they went.

Then there is the rest of us - jobbing journalists who believe our role is one of keeping the record.  And keeping the record straight. 

We are confronted with a lot of obfuscation and secrecy from governments and corporations and we try to find the truth. There are constant power games played with us and there is an ever-growing world of publicists, marketers, PR people and spin doctors trying to manipulate information. In itself, this is a massive industry. Its operators are more highly paid than most journalists. 

The same people who are harassing us for publicity often also are  lying to us and putting barriers in our way if the stories are not in their favour. And we have to tiptoe through very strict laws of defamation as well as our own code of ethical information-gathering. 
There is such a thing is "the public interest". There are such a things as truth and accuracy. 
Most of us are committed to that pursuit. 
There are wonderful, talented young journalists coming up through the ranks and I am pretty sure that they see this imbroglio as a precedent never to be followed.
I put my faith in them.