Corruption bleeding out from the East

Russia’s number one enemy – Bill Browder – tweeted this piece this morning in which reports that president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has threatened to kill two dissidents now residing in the UK. The threat: “We will definitely find you…and we will hang you, side-by-side.”

The dissidents: Natalia Kaliada and husband Nicolai Khalezin. Kaliada was a former diplomat and her husband was a journalist but both now focus their time and efforts on the Belarus Free Theatre which promotes plays with anti-regime messages.

Should these threats be taken seriously? In short, yes. Alexander Lukashenko has not only backed political assassinations in Germany but is also reported to have a slush fund which is kept aside specifically to finance said assassinations.What is worse, Belarus has already sanctioned political assassinations in Germany. Lukashenko seems to be taking hints and tips from Vladimir Putin’s operational handbook which shouldn’t come as a surprise as it is no secret that the men are supporters of one another’s regimes.

Vladimir Putin himself sanctioned overseas murders for those he believed had committed treason or would offer classified information. This, as we all well know, let to the poisonings of Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Those are only two assassinations that have been popularized. Other assassinations have been reported by Buzzfeed News in their breakthrough article: From Russia with Blood (now extended into a book).

For now, it is best to highlight the issue of the death threats and make it as widespread as possible in the hope that the spotlight deters Belarus from carrying through with their threat.

Enjoying your local area during the second lockdown

Frozen plant-life, Worth Park, Crawley

With Covid infection rates rising, the UK has been forced into lockdown once again. Travel has been restricted and, what is worse is that the UK has become the sick entity of Europe. I mean, hell, we even bred our own strain.

That being said, the last lockdown provided many of us the opportunity to expand our knowledge of our local areas. This lockdown should be no different! In fact, having explored our local areas during the spring time, we can now look at our local areas afresh in the cold grasps of winter.

My partner and I are situated in Crawley, West Sussex. It is an industry-heavy area but that has made the finding and exploring of green spaces all that more valuable. For instance, our local walk is around Ifield Mill Pond (more a lake than a pond) which is surrounded by houses on three sides and a railway on the remaining side. Despite being so close to human habitation we get a wide variety of bird species (Herons and Cormorants have been frequenting the place) and it’s a great place to take kids and dogs.

Yesterday, we went to Worth Park, Crawley. It is a lovely set of gardens with a fountain and a very picturesque pond. They have recently put a coffee hut at the entrance which is nice if people continue to bin their cups. I think that we can all agree that human trash ruins a good nature walk!

Anyway, that being said, yesterday’s walk was lovely. Our dog (recently neutered) enjoyed the slow pace and my partner and I couldn’t help but stop every few seconds to take photos of something or another. It is when forced to explore your local area that you really start to appreciate just what you find and you really start to appreciate the community in which you live.

If, like me, you are a photographer or budding photographer, these places can become playgrounds as you start looking at the from different angles. The two photos included in this piece were taken just by turning round every now and then and trying to find a new angle on those things which I looked at every day.

Exploring your local area can be fun. It can be exciting and most importantly during this awful time, it gets you out of your home and into the local area. That doesn’t mean that you have to break Covid rules. You don’t have to rub shoulders with people. You can talk across space. You can grab a coffee. Take out a book. Sit in the sun or simply enjoy the stroll for what it is.

Do you know Carole Cadwalladr?

I ask because Pulitzer Prize nominee and Guardian journalist, Carole Cadwalladr, is going through a pretty strange time right now and it amazes me that the story isn’t more widespread. Especially considering just how intrinsically it ties into our modern political structure, and just where this little island of ours is heading.

But what makes me bring up Carole Cadlwalladr? Well, Cadwalladr’s house may very well be repossessed. And why? Because she is currently in court against Brexit-barking-bulldog cum “entrepreneur” of questionable (perhaps illegal) background – Aaron Banks.

The charge? Banks is claiming that Cadwalladr made libellous and defamatory remarks about Banks’s actions throughout as part of the Leave campaign during the 2016 Brexit referendum. The remarks claimed that Banks had been part of a conspiracy using questionable money to fund a Cambridge Analytica scheme which aimed to win votes for Brexit. They did this by plying people with tailor-made advertisements to Leave the European Union.

Cambridge Analytica has long since shut down but, in its prime, the company boasted that it could sway the average voter by using targeted advertisements. Do you want to sing God Save the Queen? Europe want to ban the UK’s national anthems. You like guns? The Democrats want to take your guns away. Vote Trump. It was that kind of targeted campaigning that made the difference in votes both within the Brexit referendum and within the US presidential election of the same year.

Cambridge Analytica gained access to social media user data through Facebook who, as we now know in large part thanks to Carole Cadwalladr’s reporting, sells data to third parties. (Interesting aside – the selling of data generated more income last year than the sale of fossil fuels. This is the first time that this has ever happened.) With the data provided by Facebook, Cambridge Analytica claimed that they could sway voters by studying the 5,000 data points that they had on each social media user.

Where does Aaron Banks fit into this? Well, Carole claimed that Banks was, in fact, breaking campaign spending rules in order to promote the Leave vote. The wider implications mean that the decision to leave the European Union was, in fact, illegal. This claim besmirched Aaron Banks’s reputation. Unlike the United States, where libel laws are far more relaxed, Cadwalladr is being taken to court and could potentially lose her house as a result of hefty litigation fines.

Libel lawyers are rife in London and it is the work of these firms that stop the publication the names of those people believed to be harbouring offshore bank accounts. Aaron Banks is utilising these services to make Cadwalladr suffer, despite that she was only doing her job and duty as a journalist in making sure that those people who work in shadowy ways are exposed and that the courts are able to properly administer justice.

A tweet from Carole Cadwalladr (22/10/2020)

Cadwalladr has made a world of difference when it comes to investigating Facebook and their profiteering from the selling of user data. As far as we can tell, Cambridge Analytica tried, and perhaps succeeded, in manipulating voters to sway them a certain way. With that in mind, are we seeing justice provided in the Banks V Cadwalladr (not the real name) case, or are we seeing a man’s wealth succeed in blurring the lines of the truth and potentially ruining a journalist’s life?

Mental health and work during Covid-19

Covid-19 hit Gatwick Airport (and the rest of the civil aviation sector) pretty damn hard. Travel across borders, and even internal flights, ground to a halt as the country went into lock-down. The last I heard, 44,000 people were at risk of losing their jobs or being negatively effected by the pandemic (reduced hours, changed contracts etc).

I personally lost my job working at Gatwick Airport. The company I worked for jumped the gun when it came to redundancies in the face of Covid-19. Instead of allowing us all to stay employed and on furlough whilst the government figured out how to take the country forward, the company instantly initiated redundancy procedures.

Not long after (though entirely unrelated) I ended up having a breakdown and I ended up in the local mental health hospital. The company had the good graces to keep me employed whilst I was in hospital but a few weeks after I was released, I was given the boot along with everyone else.

I started applications almost instantly and I spent my days scrolling through job boards, rapid-tapping out cover letters and tweaking my curriculum vitae to suit the needs of the job advert.

I applied for a Train Dispatcher role based at my local train station and I was shocked when, a few days later, the company got in touch with me and I was hurled through into training within the week. I took the tests, I passed and I looked forward to a well-paying job on the railway network.

And then I had a medical. A private medical company performed all the necessary tests but stopped short when they saw I was on medication. They asked what it was for and, seeing no reason to lie, told them it was for depression. They needed more information before they could sign me off to perform safety critical roles. They give me a form to hand to my GP and send me on my way. As soon as I get home, I head to the doctor’s and hand in the form.

And this is where it all starts unravelling.

I get contacted by the GP the next week and they want £100. Apparently that is how much it costs to get the form filled out with all the necessary information, signed, and sent off. At first I decline and try to get my soon-to-be-employer to cough up the money. They refuse. I shouldn’t be surprised since they wouldn’t even pay for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). That’s agency for you.

So, I cough up the £100 and find out a week later that I have been told that I cannot perform safety critical roles. It turns out, no one wants to put me next to a train track for fear that I would throw myself in front of a train. Either that or they somehow think that my medication makes me despondent (it doesn’t).

The whole thing has left me pretty fucking bitter. First of all, I cannot work in a sector for which I have a great amount of enthusiasm for. That is the main crux of this entire affair. Secondly, I am furious that I have been denied work because of my history with mental health issues.

Just like everyone else, I need to work. But it is not just work. It is everything else that comes with it. I want to get life insurance so that, if anything happens to me, my partner will be looked after. (I am not allowed life insurance because I am technically a suicide risk. I was told recently that I had to wait at least five years since my last incident until I was eligible for life insurance. That has since been pushed back. When I talk to insurers now, they all seem to get extremely vague on the issue and tell me that nothing is available in the foreseeable future…fantastic.)

The £100 is another thorn in my pride. At a time when I do not have work, I can’t afford to be paying that kind of money. Another thought nags at me. It might be wrong but it keeps coming back time and again: is this discrimination? Am I being pigeonholed because of my medical history?

Answer – YES.

I don’t say that because I am feeling sorry for myself or because I want to be seen as some kind of victim (I would hate either of those things) but because I have experienced mental health setbacks for the last four years and I have suffered the consequences of those setbacks within the world of work.

Although there have been major motions to try and make mental health as treatable as physical health, there is still a lot left to be desired when it comes to employer mentality. In 2018, I had better luck. After being admitted to hospital, I got a technician role within an airport and I worked the best job I have ever had. I was allowed to stand in areas in which Boeing 747’s taxied and not once did I throw myself into the engines propellers. Quite the opposite – that role pulled me from a dark place and rebuilt my confidence.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 rendered me redundant and I am now without a job. I had an opportunity to perform a role that would have made me extremely happy, would have provided some kind of structure that I could see toward developing a career. However, as mentioned, I failed the medical and therefore the job was taken away from me. I guess I understand. After all, they don’t want to hire someone who they think might become track meat.

But with such restrictions in place, is there any wonder that there is stigma around mental health? I have openly declared my mental health issues and the response is to be sidelined. Is it any wonder that people with mental health issues shutter themselves away? My partner raised this point to me as I was skulking one evening and I couldn’t fault her logic. People want to stay in jobs. People want to be treated the same as everyone else.

I felt confident that by speaking about my issues and being open, as I was in 2018, I would be given the all-clear and allowed to go into work. Instead, the very opposite happened.

I’ll finish with an excerpt from an article I read the other day. It is a summary of the effects of Covid-19 on mental health. It is this:

“Studies indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic is associated with distress, anxiety, fear of contagion, depression and insomnia in the general population and among healthcare professionals. Social isolation, anxiety, fear of contagion, uncertainty, chronic stress and economic difficulties may lead to the development or exacerbation of depressive, anxiety, substance use and other psychiatric disorders in vulnerable populations including individuals with pre-existing psychiatric disorders and people who reside in high COVID-19 prevalence areas.”

It is going to be a depressing winter.

Hiring processes are all wrong

I am still jobless. Still in that lovely rut where you are thrown unceremoniously into the lurch of redundancy and before any role has provide real promise.

Update over.

I have already mentioned in a previous post, is the cruel question that employers ask: What kind of salary are you expecting.

Today I will be talking about another thing that cripples so many would-be-workers and potential could-be-workers. That is the demand for people to have “relevant experience”. If someone was applying for a managerial role, then of course experience in a certain field would be entirely necessary. But middle-tier jobs or start-of-your-career jobs? To ask for experience in these levels of jobs could be seen as criminal.

An example? Well, I just saw job posted for a very well known broadcasting company who are looking for a logistics professional to join their team. The setback is that said individual must have experience within the broadcasting sector. The broadcasting company have therefore limited themselves from hiring from a wide range of capable people to hiring from a very limited section of job hunters.

Not only is the broadcast company not allowing for fresh blood to come into their midst, they are also failing to put in the necessary training. It all then becomes part of that Catch-22 situation.

How am I going to get experience, if I can’t get the job? And how am I meant to get a job, if I don’t have the experience?

It is high time that companies start investing in their workforce.

Equal Opportunities?

As a jobless piece of shit, pumping out ten or more applications a day, I can honestly say that (despite asking the mandatory equal opportunities questions) not every employer is concerned with following the equal opportunities ethic of which they boast.

I completed an application just now for a very well known budget airline and I was met with a question that is very frequently asked, but which poses real danger for the prospective applicant.

The question: What are your salary expectations?

This is a double-edged sword question, designed for one reason: saving the company money. For example, let us say that an administration job has been promoted online but there is no wage attached. The applicant is left to guess at how much they could earn. One person applies has a history of administration and they have usually been paid £16,000. Another person has a similar history in administration but they have previously been paid £25,000.

Both people apply for the job. When asked What are your salary expectations? the first person responds with £16,000, the second responds with £25,000. The employer can therefore look at both applications and choose the person who expects the lowest amount. But let us say that the first person is unemployed, on their last paycheck and desperate. They therefore want to look more employable so, in a bid to get the job, they sell themselves short and say that they expect £15,000.

The company may have had a budget of £25,000 to spend on someone to fill the role, but they have potentially succeeded in saving the company £9,000 – £10,000. Maybe we are all equal in poverty as companies drive down average wages in an attempt to save money.

I dunno. Just thinking out loud.

What are we thinking?

Why our economic plan is rubbish.

Capitalism in an odd bird. It is more or less wholly responsible for the increase in living standards and global stability. The latter point is arguable but think of it this way: do you think that we would have less or more war if people were more devoted to nationalism than to capitalism? After all, transnational trade breaks down barriers and, with the simple threat of imposing sanctions, we can maintain some semblance of order.

That being said, capitalism is failing and is in drastic need of an overhaul.

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, is the bible of modern economics and it states, as put best by Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: “people become rich not by despoiling their neighbours, but by increasing the overall size of the pie. And when the pie grows, everyone benefits. The rich are accordingly the most useful and benevolent people in society, because they turn the wheels of growth for everyone’s advantage.” This is the most common theme in arguments claiming that capitalism benefits everyone through “trickledown economics”.

I don’t know if this has ever really been the case. And, despite being part of what we claim is a liberal democracy, even today we cannot claim that the trickle economic model is really working as it should be.

Using the most commonly reported case, let’s start with Amazon. Amazon is a giant unlike anything this world has ever seen. An online marketplace that sells pretty much anything and that doesn’t have to cover the usual retail overheads. Jeff Bezos is the modern day success story. But it is because of a shoddy work ethic and malpractice that Amazon has been a so-called “success.” There are reports that the factory workers whose job it is to pick and pack the items we choose, are made to wear headsets that bleep in the employee’s ear every time they miss a quota. People have been fired for going on bathroom breaks. Workers have not wanted to have time off for childbirth for fear that they will lose their jobs and some workers are even said to have urinated in bottles because to go to the toilet might result in them losing their jobs.

In the world of trickle-down economics in which the wealth is meant to be spread among the workers and they can therefore pay taxes and perhaps even purchase the wares from their benevolent employer. Along with shoddy work conditions, employee pay is around £9.00 to £10.00 per hour.

One common argument we find ourselves constantly faced with is that it is better to have an employer in town than to have no employer in town. But you might as well tell all those people experiencing despicable mistreatment to “suck it up” and “be thankful”. The truth of the matter is that just because a company is the only employer in town, that people should simply settle for mistreatment and be thankful that they even have a job. We are not living in an age where employers should be able to get away with such activities. Having a job is one thing. Being treated with respect is something else entirely.

Capitalism is meant to fund economies. Again, Yuval Noah Harari captures it best when he says:

“Capital consists of money, goods and resources that are invested in production. Wealth, on the other hand, is buried in the ground or wasted on unproductive activities. A pharaoh who pours resources into a non-productive pyramid is not a capitalist.”

The same can be said for so many of the rich and powerful. Houses, cars, private jets, yachts. These things are some of the hallmarks of the wealthy but there is also another realm into which the rich funnel money which would be better spent either paying employees a decent wage or perhaps funding new start-up operations. The world is that of the offshore tax-haven. Not only are companies shirting their duties of paying adequate tax within the countries where they operate, they are also squirreling away profits for their own economic gain.

It is all very well boasting that you are employer and that you are doing x,y and z in aiding the economy and keeping people within jobs, but the boasting stops when their capitalist idea hits the real world. Money and power corrupt. Look at capitalism’s nemesis; communism. What may look like an understandable and worthwhile pursuit for equality consistently breeds dictators, as history proves time and again. Capitalism does the same. Entrepreneurs turn from imaginative and successful capital generators to wealth hoarders.

Covid-19 and the benefits to the private sector

There is no doubt that big change generates big potential. During the crash of 2007/2008, individuals capitalised by betting against the market, a process known as “shorting”. The fact that individuals can make such wealth whilst the majority of people are so adversely effected by changes in the market is a hard one to swallow. But wealth buys serious advantages.

Covid is a catastrophe. In the face of the global pandemic we are seeing a recession much like of 07/08 private sector companies are benefiting from the struggle. First of all, track and trace (a scheme squelching through a quagmire of controversy) was awarded to a firm that has close links with the Conservative Party. The job was not put out for tender but was instead rushed through by the standing government. The Guardian rightly highlighted this topic in their “Covid-19 investigations” piece: “Firms given &1bn of state contracts without tender in Covid-19 crisis” (15/05/2020).

“Official data analysed by the Guardian shows state bodies have awarded at least 177 contracts worth £1.1bn to commercial firms in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Of those, 115 contracts – with a total value of just over £1bn – were awarded under the fast-track rules bypassing competitive tenders. They include two contracts worth more than £200m, both awarded by Whitehall departments.”

War is lucrative and so is any catastrophe. Among the companies given tender were Deloitte, Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Deloitte has been under the intense scrutiny of publication Private Eye for some time. Deloitte has overseen the procurement of 50m unusable masks despite Deloitte’s role throughout the Covid-19 crisis being: “supplier monitoring, analysis and due diligence”. Due diligence is definitely not a strength for this organisation considering the firm was “fined for failing to spot fraud” and it has also been found guilty of ‘”serious and serial failures”‘ in its work at IT company Autonomy.

Another problem that has been highlighted regarding the government’s fast-tracking of contracts to private parties is the grabbing of information. The grabbing of information happens when companies take user data from mobile phones and devices and sells that information to 3rd party interests. Last year data mining was more lucrative that the oil industry. The money to be made from advertisers trying to peddle products and services straight onto our feeds and through our apps is staggering and Covid-19 has given data-mining free reign over information that we once wanted to keep private.

Private firms have always been circling the public sector like vultures waiting for an accident or a hiccup. What is so troubling is that the chumminess of Conservative MPs with so many higher-ups in the private sector has blurred. David Cameron’s contemporary, Dido Harding (previously chair of TalkTalk) has been ushered in to run the track and trace initiative. Her husband is Tory MP and Tory Minister John Penrose. In a Huffpost exclusive, Dido Harding’s suitability for the role is questioned.

“Critics point to her record at TalkTalk where the company suffered a major data breach and was given a record £400,000 fine for failing to protect customers details from a hack attack.”

“Shadow health minister Alex Norris said: “Nurses on the frontline using food banks or families denied the opportunity to see grandparents because of local lockdowns will be appalled at revelations this Tory peer has pocketed thousands of pounds worth of taxpayers cash.”

The Huffpost emphasises the close link between Tories and the interests of their friends and donors. People not fit for purpose are afforded the helm of projects and yet, despite questionable results (i.e. Dido Harding’s recent failure on Track and Trace which sent some people up to a hundred miles from their homes to get treatment). Surely such an important task should be handed to a group already working within the public sector who better know the health services available?

Another lackluster speech by Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson’s speech yesterday was hardly the breath of fresh air that most people thought it would, and should, have been. Construction and manufacturing businesses were told that they could continue doing business (not that the construction business ever stopped) but that these businesses must suddenly implement measures to ensure that the two metre social distancing measures.

This is the “shape of the plan” as Boris Johnson tries “reopening society”. The Plan has fallen under heavy criticism as people from all professions have pointed out a waterfall of issues. For instance, that reception, years 1 and 6 would try to be back in school before the summer break period. Many teachers and school staff believe that this would be a huge mistake given that children would find it hard to distance themselves from one another and any social distancing tactics that teachers might try to practice around children would only end up scaring them. I imagine it would be hard to teach a child whilst wearing a face mask and gloves though, hopefully, measures will not be so drastic.

Manufacturing businesses, on the other hand, have to make the decision as to whether or not they can reopen and if or how they can put in place safeguards for their employees. It is only early days and the Prime Minister made clear that more information would follow later today (Monday) but given the smoky information that has come out of Downing Street since Covid-19 touched down on UK shores, clarity might be hard to find.

Another confusing statement came from Boris Johnson that he has “consulted across the political spectrum” and that his plan is in-line with other UK leaders. Before Boris Johnson’s speech, and in answer to the Sunday newspapers headlines, Nicola Sturgeon took to Twitter with the following statement:

There is very little trust among those reading the papers that Boris Johnson is in-sync with other leaders and his actions are instead speculated as those being taken by someone who wants the economy up and running and is taking timid and untimely steps toward achieving that aim. The primary problem is that, much like Boris Johnson’s vague comments stepping into the Covid-19 emergency – when he was still calling for Britain to “stay open for business” – he is still expressing that same vague quality about getting back to business.

The UK needs clarity. The UK needs leadership. Unfortunately, Boris Johnson’s career in journalism might give him the gift of spin, but he has very little substance.