Community Ownership On The Isle of Eigg

The ownership of Land in Scotland has been a contentious topic over the decades. For many years Scotland still had a Feudal Tenure system; private landlords could buy large pieces of land or islands, becoming that lands “Laird”, essentially controlling everything that happened on that land, including housing, jobs and infrastructure. Nowhere were the failings of this system as readily apparent than on the Isle of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the Eigg saw a massive decline in population due to the difficulties of island life and serial mismanagement by the various owners. As a result of this string of bad landlords, the people of this small west coast island banded together to create the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, the vehicle by which they would raise the money necessary to buy the Island and later to “govern” it democratically.

Possibly the most notorious of the Lairds to control Eigg was Keith Schellenberg, a former Olympic bobsleigher and businessman from Yorkshire. He bought the Island on the 1st of April 1975 and would keep control of it for the next 20 years. By all accounts Schellenberg treated the Island as his own personal holiday retreat, having his toff friends visit in the summer where he would drive them around the island in his 1927 Rolls-Royce.

In spite of this the islanders were pleased at first when Schellenberg took over ownership of the island; he promised to bring tourism to the island and re-opened the community hall so that the islanders could take part in some indoor sports during the winter and ceilidhs in the summer. He had buildings renovated into holiday homes and sent out adverts for jobs around the island, bringing the population back up and renewing interest in the small island.

By the 1980’s the island had established many tourist attractions but struggled to keep them staffed. The people that were hired for these positions were housed in poor conditions so turnover was high. Outside of this Schellenberg himself had divorced from his 2nd wife so found himself in a more precarious financial situation with an island to look after. The Farm manager quit and tractors that ran out of diesel were not being refuelled. Buildings- especially the older islander homes- were becoming more and more dilapidated and the only way Schellenberg could keep money for anything was through specific government tax breaks, one of which requiring that he introduce environmentally harmful plantations of non-native trees to the island habitat.

A lot of the people Schellenberg hired and then fired did not leave the island. They had fallen in love with the community so decided to stay and eke out a living any way they could, usually on small self-sustaining crofts. A sense of solidarity grew out of this between the older islanders and the newcomers. Schellenberg started to claim that Eigg had a growing population of no good hippies, characterising the people that he had let down as wasters that could not handle the real world so had come to his island. He was not doing a particularly good job of coping with island life himself and was taken to court by his ex-wife over his mismanagement of the island. It was around this time, in 1991, that the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust was founded, and an appeal was started to raise the millions of pounds needed to buy the island. The following year Schellenberg was forced to put the island up for sale but simply bought it back himself. He had planned a victory lap of the island in his Rolls-Royce when it was roadworthy again but only a couple of years later the sheds on the pier where he was keeping the car burned down with the car inside. When later interviewed by the American TV program ’60 Minutes’ and asked about this event local woman and administrator of the Heritage Trust Maggie Fyffe simply replied, “a mysterious fire, spontaneous combustion, who knows.” The culprits were never found.

Determined not to let the islanders claim ownership, Schellenberg sold the island to a German artist that went by the name Maruma. In one last act of selfishness, Schellenberg went back to the island to take an 1805 map of the island from the craft shop. Hearing of his imminent arrival, the islanders parked an old community bus across the doors to the shop to stop him from entering. He left again by boat shouting “you never understood me!” and did not return to the island.

Again, at first, Maruma seemed to want to do great things with the island; he promised to implement a renewable energy grid and remove old rusty cars; he was to build a swimming pool and improve opportunities for the local residents- none of which came to pass. Even outside of the fact that he only spent a total of 4 days on the island (He remained resident in Stuttgart), it turned out that he was not who he said he was and had used Eigg as security on a £300,000 loan.

The Trust restarted its efforts to raise the money to buy the island, this time gaining a lot of attention. They had captured the imagination of many as a modern-day David & Goliath story, a whopping £900,000 was donated from one wealthy woman from England whose only condition was that she remained anonymous.

The islanders victory eventually came on the 4th of April 1997; after Maruma had defaulted on his loan, his creditor went through the Scottish courts to force him to put the island back up for sale and his solicitors accepted the islanders offer of £1.5 million. The chairman of the trust is quoted as saying at the time –

‘a triumph for all that is good in humanity and certainly one in the eye for everything that is mean spirited and self-seeking.’

Eigg has been owned by the community now for over 20 years and since it has been freed of the greedy objectives of private landlords it has flourished in many ways. The Trust operates its own housing association which provides housing with much cheaper rent, about half the level of affordable housing in the rest of Scotland. They also have a self-sufficient energy grid that is mostly renewable that provides electricity for the community all year round.

There is a lot to be learned from the community ownership on Eigg. Partly due to the success on the island there has been a push for land reform in which local communities get first dibs on the land that they call home, a big change from the previous feudal system. This, along with the push towards workers ownership of businesses is an exciting positive step for the future of Scotland. Unsurprisingly, it seems that once any enterprise is freed from the grip of private, profit driven individuals and given back to the community that cares for it we tend to see a dramatic increase in life satisfaction and positive environmental outcomes.

Crazy right?

Pandemic Perspective: Community Response in Vietnam

As the coronavirus pandemic affects nations across the globe, we should continue to consider the circumstances which have helped or hindered countries in handling the situation. With this in mind, friend of the ACU Ian sheds light on Vietnam’s response measures.

Ask anyone what comes to mind when you mention Vietnam and they will probably respond with one of two words: war, or communism. Vietnam’s civil war began in 1955 between the communist led North Vietnam, officially the Democratic Republic of Vietnam(DRV) and South Vietnam, officially the Republic of Vietnam. The USA provided support to the South Vietnamese from the beginning. This was part of US efforts to curb the spread of communism worldwide, efforts that would eventually lead to a ground invasion of Vietnam in March 1963, which didn’t end until 1973 when all US personnel were withdrawn from the country. 2 years after this withdrawal the North Vietnamese and their southern Việt Minh allies captured Sai Gon in the south, bringing an end to the 20 year conflict known in Vietnamese as Kháng chiến chống Mỹ cứu nước (“Anti-American Resistance War for National Salvation”).

North and South Vietnamese governments finally united in 1976 forming the modern Socialist Republic of Vietnam and this new united government was immediately faced with the task of rebuilding the country after a devastating war in which an estimated 1,353,000 Vietnamese were killed. The war itself was over, but with countless people wounded or suffering from the effects of America’s use of poisonous chemicals such as Agent Orange, the aftershock would be felt for many years afterwards. Other damage from the war included villages and arable land being littered with mines and unexploded bombs, an economy in ruins and the destruction of critical infrastructure. Rebuilding efforts were made even more difficult by a trade embargo imposed on Vietnam by the USA in an attempt to economically isolate the fledgling nation that had so valiantly fought for its independence. This embargo lasted for 19 years.

Despite all of the challenges the nation has faced, Vietnam has persevered and in recent years has become one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Since 2010, Vietnam’s GDP growth has been at least 5% per year, and in 2017 it peaked at 6.8%. With such rapid economic growth, the country grew from one of the poorest countries to a comfortably middle-income one. Whereas its GDP per capita was barely $230 in 1985, it was more than ten times that in 2017 ($2,343).

Vietnam has experienced almost miraculous success in the face of adversity, and this article will address another situation in which the country has been incredibly successful – the 2020 world coronavirus pandemic.

We’ve all seen by now that with few exceptions, the coronavirus pandemic has expanded at an alarming rate, particularly among western countries. The U.S government, much like the UK, has been strongly criticised for its lack of coherent nationwide response measures, with many commenting that eventual implementation of response measures have been too little, too late. As a result of the Trump administration’s dysfunctional handling of the pandemic, federal scientists have predicted that the U.S is likely to see millions of people infected, with a sobering prediction of over 100,000 deaths.

By contrast, the number of COVID-19 cases in Vietnam, according to the government’s figures, is staggeringly low.

So far the South East Asian nation has reported just 245 cases of the disease, with 95 recoveries and, almost unbelievably, zero recorded deaths. They have only 2.99% of the number of cases it’s neighbour China has, and 0.072% of the cases of the nation with the highest recorded cases (the USA). The mortality rate of 0% is incredible compared to countries (Spain and the U.K) which are experiencing rates of over 10% and in addition to this, on April 4th Vietnam reported no new cases of the virus for the first time in over a month.

Vietnam’s first case was recorded on January 23rd when a Chinese national from Wuhan who had travelled to Ha Noi to visit his son tested positive for COVID-19. Since then Vietnam has averaged only 3.6 new cases per day – in complete contrast with the USA’s 4,432. I have no doubt that by now you must be wondering how it’s possible that Vietnam, a country which shares such strong ideological ties, a 1444km land border, and counts China as its largest trading partner, can possibly have been so successful in controlling the spread of the coronavirus pandemic despite being so closely associated country from which the virus emanated.

How exactly has Vietnam managed to keep its numbers so low?

On January 24th, one day after the first confirmed case of COVID-19, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and acting Minister of Health Vũ Đức Đam held an emergency meeting with the World Health Organisation and the Steering Committee for Emerging Disease Prevention. At this meeting the Deputy Prime minister ordered the activation of the Covid-19 Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. He also declared that the government had many measures prepared to prevent the proliferation of the new coronavirus threat. The government made good on these declarations and wasted no time implementing these emergency measures.

Authorities immediately started to pursue a strategy of identification, isolation and testing. Anyone who had come into direct contact with infected individuals were found, quarantined, and tested for COVID-19, with those testing negative being released. These measures were originally considered to be drastic by WHO recommendations, however they proved to be extremely successful, with the WHO praising Vietnam for “doing a good job in monitoring and quarantining those suspected of contracting the virus and in treating infected patients, ever since the nation detected the first infection cases”.

On January 24th the Civil Aviation Authority announced a ban on flights both to and from Wuhan, China. A week later this ban was extended to include all flights to and from China. Vietnam also stopped issuing tourist visas to Chinese nationals from epidemic stricken areas in order to reduce the chance of other outbreaks.

In the first week of February and just over two weeks after the first recorded Covid-19 case educational authorities throughout the country announced the closure of schools and universities. On February 14th these closures were extended until February 23rd. This has been extended until the present and at present a date for them to re-open has yet to be announced.

On Thursday 13th of February, provincial authorities in Vinh Phuc Province quarantined Son Loi Commune after seven people tested positive for the virus, including a 3 month old child. A total of 311 people were quarantined, with a total of 10 eventually testing positive for COVID-19. Provincial authorities established disease checkpoints, distributed free face masks, established mobile food shops and provided a daily monetary food allowance for those in quarantine.

As of Tuesday 25th of February there had been 16 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Vietnam, and just over a month after the first case the Deputy Prime Minister announced in an online meeting that “With all modesty and eagerness to learn, Vietnam has so far controlled the Covid-19 epidemic well”. Vietnam went through a period of 20 days without seeing any new infections until March 6th, when an Englishman returning to the country tested positive. This was the start of a second wave of infections, which Vietnam had hoped to prevent with its use of targeted travel bans. By this point however the epidemic was turning into a pandemic, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to prevent new arrivals carrying the illness coming into the nation as the virus has already spread over most of the globe.

On the 18th of March Vietnam stopped issuing visas to foreigners trying to enter the country. Those with visa exemption status were required to submit documentation proving they had tested negative for COVID-19. People arriving from the U.S., European countries, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were also required to stay in quarantine camps for 14 days. These precautions again proved justified when it was found that of the 68 new COVID-19 patients, 59 had returned from abroad.

By March 27th, the number of cases increased to 163. In response to this the Prime Minister rolled out new measures to strengthen COVID-19 prevention and control. These measures include: cancellation of events attended by more than 20 people, and the banning of gatherings of more than 10 people in public places. Religious ceremonies and cultural, sporting and entertainment events were suspended. All non-essential businesses and services were also ordered to close. Four days later on March 31st the government announced yet further measures to limit the spread of the virus. They demanded the implementation of social distancing throughout the entire country. Public gatherings of more than 2 people are banned, with citizens being required to keep a minimum distance of 2 metres in social interactions. Everyone is requested to stay at home and only go out when absolutely necessary, such as trips for food, medicine, emergency care or for working at essential businesses, factories, and services that have been allowed to continue operating.

“Households are advised to keep a distance from households, villages from villages, communes from communes, districts from districts, and provinces from provinces,” according to the directive.

In addition to these measures, the Ministry of Health (Bộ Y tế) has been sending regular texts to everyone in the country with updates on the situation, advice on how to prevent the spread of the disease and with messages of encouragement to help fight the pandemic. To give you an idea of the content, here is the first message, sent on February 4th.

For those of us not fluent in Vietnamese, Google Translate provides this:

Another Ministry of Health text(translated using Google), also sent on February 4th, reads:

In Vietnam we see a national government treating the virus seriously from the very first case, coordinating with the WHO and designing a quarantine that would provide support, both financial and material, to those affected.

Although an extensive array of measures have been employed, Vietnam’s success in fighting coronavirus lies not only in the government’s response, but in the communist nation’s culture. Simply put, Vietnam is a collectivistic society which manifests in a close long-term commitment to the “member” group, such as a family, extended family or extended relationships. Loyalty in a collectivist culture is paramount and informs most other societal rules and norms. Such a society fosters strong relationships, where everyone takes responsibility for fellow members of their group, whether it’s your family or your neighbourhood. The coronavirus crisis seems to have reignited the collectivism that still exists at the heart of Vietnamese society, which seemed to be diminishing as a result of Westernisation and the rise of Neoliberal individualism that follows on the coattails of Westernisation. Vietnamese citizens from all walks of life have united and are determined to beat the disease. Put simply, Vietnamese people have a greater tendency to care not only about their own health, but the health of the wider community.

In addition to being collectivist, Vietnamese society also prides itself on its pragmatism. In pragmatic societies, people believe that truth depends very much on situation, context and time. They show an ability to adapt traditions easily to changed conditions and a strong propensity to persevere to achieve desired results. Vietnam’s measures to control the spread of COVID-19 have been criticised by several Western media outlets as being “aggressive” or even “authoritarian” but despite this criticism, the pragmatism of Vietnamese society has contributed to Vietnam’s citizens ability to adapt their behaviour and lifestyles so swiftly to cooperate with the governments’ directives, and has certainly been a major factor in what has been an incredible effort from government employees and officials, healthcare workers and ordinary citizens in combating a potentially devastating pandemic.

I would like to end the article by sharing a personal anecdote which I believe reflects the pride that the Vietnamese people feel for their nations’ collective effort in inhibiting the spread of COVID-19. At the end of my online class on April 4th, one of my students, 12 year old Justin (his chosen name), asked me not to leave the class yet- he had some good news he wanted to share with me. He then told me that various media outlets had reported that Vietnam had recorded zero new cases of coronavirus. I said that was incredible news and I asked how he felt about this. He said, “I’m very happy for everyone in Vietnam that we can stop coronavirus together”. I believe his attitude is reflective of the majority of vietnamese in this difficult time, and is one of many factors which has led to Vietnam being so triumphant in its approach to the fight against the disease which is currently ravaging nations across the globe. Vietnam is a nation where people take pride in their community, a nation born from a long 20 year struggle, and despite the onslaught of westernisation and neoliberal individualism, has managed to preserve and stoke the communal fire in this time of crisis.

Connecting Communities: Syria to North Ayrshire

As first reported in the Ardrossan Herald, it looks like North Ayrshire is set to welcome 30 more refugees from Syria. Council leader Joe Cullinane tweeted the Herald article stating:

My cabinet will agree our extended commitment this coming Tuesday meaning we will have resettled 230 Syrians by March 2021. Thank you to the North Ayrshire communities who have welcomed them with love, care and kindness!

This means that 6 more families will be settled here in North Ayrshire as part of a nationwide programme that is open to refugees that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) determines to be in the most immediate need for resettlement because of their vulnerability.

In the article, Mr Cullinane also thanks the teams that have worked to support these families in their transition to life here in Scotland and praises the people of Ayrshire after receiving feedback that the communities the refugees have moved in to have, by in large, accepted their new neighbours and made them feel welcome.

Of course we don’t live in a perfect world and he goes on the address the inevitable naysayers:

I said last August, and I repeat today, that I know there will be a vocal minority on social media who oppose our humanitarian efforts but I also know that the majority will welcome our new families with love, care and kindness over the coming months and for that I am eternally grateful.

It’s heartening to hear that these people who have lived through horrors most of us have the privilege of avoiding are being welcomed and cared for in their new home.

The civil war in Syria has been going on now for almost 9 years and since December last year, 800,000 civilians have been forced to flee their homes to the province of Idlib. The people of this region have suffered greatly with regular Russian bombardment and the rule of extremists who have claimed the province since the start of the war. Regime forces are pushing in to the region and with the Turkish government not wanting to take in any more refugees, the people are stuck between the two forces.

Some of the most tragic news to come from the region in recent weeks has been from the Atmeh refugee camp. The temperatures in the area have been dipping as low as -7 degrees and without fuel or fire children have started to freeze to death. After living in a damp and cold tent for weeks after fleeing their home due to shelling by regime forces, mother of 4 Samia Mahmoud al-Sattouf woke up on Tuesday morning to find that her 7 month old son Abdul Wahab had frozen to death during the night as the family slept.

This is only one of many similar stories to come from the region. It is a terrible humanitarian crisis and these people deserve all the help that can be provided to them. To read of the horrors that these innocent people face while knowing that many of them face prejudice when they make it to other countries in search for safety and stability is deeply saddening.

Everyone here at ACU wishes nothing but the best to the all the families that find themselves resident in our wee community, and long may they feel welcome here, as all refugees are.

If you want to find out how you can help and support resettlement efforts in Scotland visit https://www.scottishactionforrefugees.org

Not Another Christmas Hot Take

It’s that time of year again. A time for family, for good will to all, for shopping centres and supermarkets and, for Unilever executives everywhere, diving Scrooge McDuck style into massive money piles as Lynx shower sets fly off the shelves.

It’s telling how much we, as a society, lie to ourselves about Christmas when you really examine the small talk that gets passed around at this time of year.

 “Are you all set?”, “Are you ready?” or “The big day is only X days away now!” All of these Christmas staples- delivered by family, friends and colleagues with wide, bloodshot eyes and fixed grins- suggest a sort of holiday of anxiety. Like having to prepare for some kind of exam we all take at the end of the year, in which how much you love your friends and family is measured in how good a present you bought them.

This can be a very stressful time of year for many. For those who struggle all year round, the added pressure of providing enough gifts and loads of food can be overwhelming.

Understandably, people want to provide the perfect Christmas for their loved ones- but is the perfect Christmas one filled with culturally mandated expense? It hasn’t always been the case that this means buying lots of things for everyone. As far back as the 1800’s people have been complaining about the consumerism that has wormed its way in to every aspect of the holiday. In an edition of Ladies Home Journal in 1890 it was noted that:

“the Christmas of our youth is degenerating into a festival of the storekeepers.”

This rings true when thinking of the Christmas of today. As economies have become more and more global there has been a trend towards a more Americanised holiday period. Black Friday, once only an American consumerist tradition on the first Friday after Thanksgiving, has made its way to the UK and has extended to a whole week. The idea being that with people already in that festive mood they will be more willing to spend a bit more.

Is this really a good thing though? It’s estimated that if everyone in the world consumed on the same level as the average US citizen, we would need 4 whole planet Earths just to provide the resources. We also currently have around 12 million tons of plastic entering the oceans every year, forming giant patches of plastic waste that eventually breaks down into micro plastic, one of the biggest polluters on our planet.

A study conducted by Northwestern University in Illinois found that anyone placing great value on wealth, status or material possessions is more likely to suffer from depression and anti-social tendencies.

On average families in the UK spend around £500 more in December than in any other month. For many this is simply too much socially commanded expense and they turn to predatory loans companies, which they then spend most of the next year paying off, if they don’t simply fall into more debt. It’s widely accepted that debt is one of the major causes of mental health decline in the developed world. 

“So what? Christmas is cancelled then?”

This isn’t to suggest, of course, that we stop celebrating the holiday season. However, maybe we all should have a rethink about what really is important at this time of year. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the relentless pace of consumption overdrive that Christmas has come to represent and be burnt out as a result. What’s more, so all-consuming are our efforts to attain holiday excellence, as we are encouraged to “postcard-perfect” our lives and experiences, that we can often forget those around us who may be suffering this time of year.

 Luckily for many, there are and always will be people that reach out to support others around this time of year.

 Some people would have you believe that human beings are inherently selfish and although there are definitely people that are (looking at you Jeff Bezos/Mark Zuckerberg/ Sports Direct guy), as a species we have only flourished through mutual aid. In todays society this is usually more prevalent in the working classes- it’s happening around you all the time. In a recent post in a Facebook group for Kilmarnock, a father (we won’t be naming anyone) posted asking if anyone knew of any money lenders. He had been struggling financially, and just wanted his kids to be able to open something on Christmas morning like everyone else. A few people made recommendations, but for the most part the comments were filled with generous people offering to provide gifts for his kids or help out in any way that they could. Increasingly, this is not an uncommon sight as many people decide to try and provide some comfort to those more in need around the festive season.

As we seem to be facing a difficult future perhaps we should reconsider our relationship with pointless goods and stop allowing businesses to commodify happiness. This becomes more difficult as relentless marketing co-opts the language of community and sharing that the holiday is founded on to sell you more and more things, but truly nothing is more important than the friends and family that accompany us through life and maybe if we are a little kinder to each other and to the planet that sustains us, we can get to a place where we don’t rely on “stuff” to make us happy and can spread a little joy over the holidays.

With our “Bah Humbug!” moment out of the way, we’d like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! I hope it’s a good one.

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Connecting Communities: Ayrshire to Vietnam

by James McLean

Over the next few months the ACU plans on highlighting some of the people that are a part of Ayrshire that have made the big decision to leave everything behind and move to a different place. Whether that is someone that has moved here to join our community in search of a better life or as is the case with the subject of this weeks article, someone who has grown up in Ayrshire but decided to move elsewhere in the world for various reasons.

So why, you might ask, would someone want to move to Vietnam of all places?

Well Vietnam is really one of the most dynamic emerging countries in East Asia. The economy in Vietnam is growing and strengthening, this is supported by a robust domestic demand and export-oriented manufacturing. The world bank predicts that this growth will continue into the future with poverty in the country declining further as the labour market conditions continue to be favourable.

To find out why an Ayrshire boy would decide to move to the other side of the world we decided to interview Ian Lamont. Ian grew up on a farm in Ayrshire but has lived in Vietnam for the past two years teaching English. The following is a transcript of our interview.

J – So, first off just a bit of background for the readers, how long did you live in Ayrshire and what was the last thing to were doing before you left?

I – I’ve lived in Ayrshire almost my entire life – for about 24 years. I moved to Glasgow for Uni for a bit but most of my life was spent here. Before I moved, I was working as a bartender at a couple of hotels/ Restaurants.

J – Great, so what was it that made you want to move to another country?

I – Really, I moved away because I wanted to experience somewhere completely different and I wanted a bit of adventure.

J – What would you say is a difficulty of living in Ayrshire that you don’t have living in Vietnam?

I – A problem I had living in Ayrshire was that it was very difficult to find a relatively well-paying job. It’s much easier to find good work in Vietnam.

J – Is there anything that would make you want to move back to Ayrshire or are you planning on staying in Vietnam for the foreseeable future?

I – If the job market improved, I’d definitely be tempted. Also, most of my friends and family live in Ayrshire so I would probably move back to be closer to them.

J – And finally, is there anything you’d like to say to others that might be considering a big change similar to yours?

I – To others I would say, save up some money and go for it – don’t hesitate. You can always move back if it’s not enjoyable.

I’d like to thank Ian for his time and please do leave a comment on our Facebook page if you think you’d like to emigrate and try something completely different!

Next in the Connecting Communities series we will be taking a look at the Polish community in Ayrshire and specifically why one woman decided to move here in the first place.

photo courtesy of Ian Lamont

Interview: Better Than Zero

by Alex Osborne

A few weeks ago I wrote an article on the Gig Economy in Glasgow, and talked about the spreading practice of treating employees as independent contractors to avoid giving workers their rights. Another practice that is part of the Gig Economy that I did not explore in depth to explore is the increasing amount of workers that are being kept on zero hour contracts. Employees on these contracts can be treated incredibly poorly by employers, and can be dismissed with little to no warning. These contracts also compound the effects of other forms of maltreatment by bosses, like wage deductions and management taking a portion of tips from service workers, putting workers into an even more precarious position where they are not guaranteed a job tomorrow and not guaranteed a proper wage today.

One group that is working to fight against this type of precarious work is Better Than Zero. They do this by helping to educate workers on their rights as well as more direct means of protest targeted at employers that abuse their employees. I was lucky enough to interview Sarah Collins, one of the founding members of Better Than Zero to get a bit more information on the group.

How did Better Than Zero first get started?

Better than Zero was launched in 2015 in an attempt to address the decreasing youth membership across unions and increasing precarity in the workplace and lives of young workers.  It was inspired by the Fight for $15 campaign, resourced by the SEIU union in the USA which employed grassroots greenfield social movement organising tactics.  With the aim of eradicating zero hours contracts (ZHCs) in the workplace in order to stabilise young workers’ livelihoods and lives, including by ensuring young workers know their rights in work and how to enforce them, the campaign’s overall objective is to increase union membership in under-30s, create workplace leaders, and encourage union activity  within precarious non-unionised workplaces. The campaign uses stunts and flash mobs to highlight the use of ZHCs, and other problems at work, including deductions in wages, safety at work and other discriminatory practices.

Better than Zero is a solidarity network that builds union action in non-unionised sectors including hospitality, fast food, and customer services in Scotland. It has a solid core of activists and a fluid community of 14,000 Facebook followers, who help to compose a real-time chronicle of day-to-day working life by sending accounts of exploitation every day.

What have been some of the biggest hurdles the group faced in its earlier days?

BtZ began by challenging Scotland’s biggest hospitality employer, G1, through the use of creative stunts and direct actions, due to them not paying the minimum wage (after uniform costs etc).

A lot of employers think they are too big to be challenged; but we met with HR director of G1 who said their staff turnover was 161% in the past year so they had to change! We worked with him to stop zero hours contract but then he left the company.  Big employers aren’t scared of being taken to tribunal, but when they are they face bad publicity – https://glasgowguardian.co.uk/2015/09/05/g1-employees-stage-protest-on-ashton-lane-against-alleged-exploitation-2/

 – and we can win anyway! https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/16595240.scots-workers-win-unfair-dismissal-cases-against-g1-in-landmark-case/

What made you, yourself, invested in the fight against zero hour contacts?

I was involved initially as one of two Better than Zero organisers in 2015. I was already a member of Unite the Union and had previously had experience of working in hospitality where I organised against a big employer in Ayrshire to stop them from taking our tips over Christmas time. Zero hours contracts, for me, was just a further method of exploitation that had to be challenged.

The campaign grew from a few activists organising their own challenges to having hundreds of messages coming in every few months requesting help or advice with their employer. More people were directed to join a trade union, with Unite setting up a hospitality branch, cinema workers joining Bectu and fast food workers joining the Bakers’ Union.

What achievements are you, personally most proud of?

I’m a member of staff for the union so the thing I’m most proud of is that it’s been 8 years since I was working in hospitality, and at that point I couldn’t see any way for unions to take hospitality organising seriously. But through us starting BTZ we have ensured that hundreds of hospitality staff know their rights, have collectivised and joined a union, organised walk outs – https://www.reddit.com/r/glasgow/comments/7p5t1i/the_evening_times_on_twitter_boss_of_dows_bar_at/

and protests – https://www.facebook.com/UniteHospitality/posts/611056332627356 (Ayr) all over the country.

There’s still a lot of work to be done for precarious workers but at least their voices are beginning to be heard again.

Better than Zero has launched a new campaign – cat calling it out – against sexual harassment.

Zero hour contracts are becoming more and more common, with over 1.8 million contacts of this type being in use across the UK in 2017, and having grown since. What are some of the actions workers could take to turn the tide?

Whilst zero hours contracts are not eradicated, and we have seen new forms of precarious working across lots of sectors, including a small growth in the gig economy in Scotland, more precarious workers now know where to turn for advice. However, more importantly, Better than Zero also trains workers through “take control” courses about their rights, and about how to stand up for themselves and others in the workplace.

In 2015 the Scottish Government railed against “unfair” use of these contracts and more recently in 2018 again called to end exploitative work, do you think enough is being done?

The Scottish government would not have announced a fair work first approach to procurement (including that contract bidders shouldn’t use zero hours) if it wasn’t for the work of better than zero and trade unions. However, enforcement always lies with the worker which is why it is so important that all workers  – regardless of where they work or length of service – join a trade union.

If an employee feels they are being mistreated under a zero hour contract what is the best way for them to contact Better Than Zero?

Better than zero on facebook @bebetterthanzero – message to contact us

A big thank you to Sarah for taking the time to answer our questions, for more information on Better Than Zero, take a look at their site here http://www.betterthanzero.scot/

Ayrshire Institutions: The Number 11 Bus

by James McLean

In most working-class areas, it would be safe to assume that there’s that one bus route that has a bit of a reputation. The one that you’d avoid except for the fact that you need it to get to work or it happens to be the cheapest way to get to where you need to go. As a Kilwinning native that bus for me is the double decker number 11 that travels between Kilmarnock and Ardrossan. Probably the most used bus in North Ayrshire the number 11 is regular, fairly priced, and even has free Wi-Fi these days! The drama really isn’t with the buses themselves; they are well looked after and a brand-new fleet was even commissioned at the start of 2018, which of course was very exciting. The thing is that everyone that has been on the number 11 at one point or another comes away from it with some kind of story about a crazy event involving some of the strangest characters you are likely to meet.

Such stories are usually equal parts shocking and entertaining so this week we have collected a few of these stories to share as we take a look at a bona fide Ayrshire institution.

Let’s begin with the top of the bus. In personal experience it can be a bit of a gamble going upstairs on the bus. Don’t get me wrong most of the time everyone just keeps to themselves and lets the journey go by, carefully avoiding awkward eye-contact with other passengers, but there is always the chance of something odd happening. To start with, from my own personal experience, myself and a friend were on our way to Ardrossan at some point in the evening. We sat upstairs. Other than us there was one other passenger who was occupying the back seats and looked as if he was asleep. Five minutes into this journey we heard a noise that sounded like a water tap being turned on. This was soon followed by the distinctive aroma of pish and a thin stream trickling it’s way towards the seats where we sat in increasing horror. Our fellow passenger obviously couldn’t hold it and relieved himself where he sat. We bolted downstairs before the frankly impressive flood could wet our shoes.

Another interesting story I’ve heard from the top of the 11 was told to me by a young woman who, at the time, was visiting her boyfriend. Everything seemed normal until the bus stopped in the Pennyburn scheme in Kilwinning. Suddenly two men wearing balaclavas sprinted upstairs. They quickly surveyed the passengers before shouting “He’s no here!” and running back off, seemingly to wait another ten minutes for the next bus to check that one instead.

The number 11 is no stranger to violent altercations. This next story comes from fellow ACU contributor Alex. Once while on the bus, two men came onboard and, through overhearing their conversation, it became obvious that they were attending their mums funeral while also wearing track suit trousers. This fact seemed to amuse a drunk passenger who was sitting behind Alex. The drunk started to make fun of their choice of wardrobe causing the two men to start attacking him, at which point our friend Alex stepped in to try and split them up. The two attackers commended Alex for looking after a stranger like that, while STILL trying to punch him. Meanwhile the drunk man insisted they would just have a “Rolly polly” for a bit and be best pals afterwards. The two men clearly didn’t share in the drunks resilient optimism, so Alex convinced him to get off and wait for the next bus.

It can be pretty easy to fall sleep on the bus, especially after a shift at work or a few down the pub. Sometimes you can even run the risk of missing your stop which would be annoying for anyone. The guy in this story definitely thought so. Another journey underway and as the bus passes Greenwood Academy he wakes up, realises he’s missed his stop, and starts screaming at the driver, wanting to know why he wasn’t woken up! He starts attacking the safety glass between himself and the driver, who swiftly chucks him off. Not satisfied with this outcome the guy attacks the bus in a tantrum, all the while screaming about how he missed his stop. After exhausting his attempt on the buses life, he decides to take on a more manageable opponent in the nearby bus shelter. The bus left him there, hammering hopelessly away at the shelter, likely until his arms grew limp.

This story in particular brings up an important thing to consider when talking about these buses: the men and women who’s job it is to safely transport everyone up and down this route really are unsung working-class heroes. They don’t get nearly as much credit as they deserve. They make sure you get to where you need to go, and a lot of the time take a ton of abuse for doing it. I personally have witnessed bus drivers being shouted at and attacked on numerous occasions and nobody deserves to be subject to that while at their work. Your bus driver deserves respect so the next time you need to make use of the many bus services, remember and thank your bus driver.

These are just a few stories and we’d love to hear of any of your wild stories of bus travel! Let us know on out Facebook page and we can see who’s got the best one!