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

Worker Ownership in North Ayrshire

Joe Cullinane from North Ayrshire recently announced his plans to introduce a scheme to increase worker owned businesses in the area as part of a community wealth building strategy.  In this article we’ll take a look into what worker ownership means and why this could be good for North Ayrshire.

Worker ownership can mean a lot of different things; it can be a business where every employee gets a vote on decisions the enterprise makes, or it can be a business were the management is elected by employees to make these decisions. The structure is variable, but the basic principle is that every worker gets a say in how the business is run. This turns the workers into worker-owners.

The basic central idea is that people doing the job generally know the job the best- if given the chance to make choices in their work the people at the coal face will know the best course forward. We’ve all had managers that knew nothing about how the workplace actually runs, leaving you to try your best to cover for their (ahem) “hands-off” management style. Worker ownership avoids this awkward and annoying occurrence by making it so that management is more accountable to the workers, and not the other way around.

On top of this worker co-ops have a proven record of success; a taxi company in Texas was able to compete with and then drive out of Austin companies  like Uber and Lyft, at a time when taxi companies structured like more traditional businesses are struggling to keep their head’s above water. This isn’t a one off example either, a study by former professor of Economics at the University of Leeds Virginie Pérotin showed that worker co-ops were able to compete with traditional firms and that many are in fact more productive. This is largely because workers tend to be more motivated when they have a say in how their labour is used. Professor Richard Wolff, an american economist suggests that a combination of the fact that co-ops are more productive and its workers are more motivated is why these organisations stay in business at a far higher rate in their first year compared to more traditional business.

This system is not only beneficial for the businesses themselves. The Emilia Romagna region of Italy has taken the concept of worker run businesses to heart, with nearly two thirds of its population members of a co-op, producing about a third of the region’s GDP. The north of Italy has always been a very economically strong place and the fact that co-ops can and have taken such a large claim to the local economy speaks to the strengths of co-ops.

Italy has another interesting policy in support of co-ops, namely that instead of taking their regular unemployment benefit, people can choose to take a sum of money up front and use this as start up capital towards a co-op. So rather than being unemployed and on the dole, you and a few friends can come together and start your own business. This helps keep unemployment low and means that instead of layoffs leading to mass unemployment, it leads to the nurturing of enterprise.

At the time of writing we don’t know that much about Joe’s own plan to introduce worker co-ops to Ayrshire, but what we do know is that it would likely be a lot less radical than the policy in Italy. Joe specifically spoke out about introducing co-ops to Ayrshire at a meeting discussing family business succession. Family run businesses form a large part of the local economy, unfortunately these don’t tend to last forever- eventually someone in the family decides they want to do something different with their lives and this, along with other factors, leads to many of these businesses not surviving past the second generation. Joe’s plan would give the workers a chance at running these businesses and could prevent them losing their jobs. While the specific details are not available at the time of writing, the policy is being worked on by the Community Wealth Building commission in North Ayrshire.

It’s no secret that North Ayrshire and Ayrshire as a whole have a long running issue with unemployment and an economy that lags behind the rest of Scotland, plans like this to revitalise the area are more than welcome in my opinion, and I will be watching for the CWBC’s final draft of the policy keenly. Looking at studies by Professor Wolff and Pérotin, as well as a working example in Italy my only worry is that this policy may not be radical enough.

Photo by Guilherme Cunha on Unsplash

Universal Basic Income: Why It’s a Bad Idea

Recently there has been talk of trialing a Universal Basic Income programme in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife and, more importantly, North Ayrshire. I’m going to look into what UBI is, why people think it’s a good idea- and why it would be one of the worst economic disasters to happen to Scotland since the Darien venture.

Universal Basic income is actually an older argument than you might think, with similar ideas being suggested as far back as the 1500’s. UBI is the idea that to relieve the effects of poverty we should, instead of building complicated support structures and organisations aimed at helping the poorest, just give everyone a set allowance on top of any wages they get. Sounds smart enough, and- I say this without a hint of irony- one of the best cures for being poor is money. This would give people at the bottom of society a safety net to rely on, to build up from and make sure their needs are met. Everyone else would get a little extra cash in their pocket to make the world a better place, a chance to patch the 9 to 5 and do what you really want to do, maybe start a business or go back to school.

The important part would be that this money isn’t means tested, so Barry who works at the cafe 20 hours a week and Davey who runs an international business would get the exact same UBI at the end of the month, even if Davey is bringing home twenty times Barry’s wage. This is for two main reasons; if everyone is getting the same UBI, everyone has the same jumping off point. What you make of yourself after that would be, theoretically, up to you. Another more subtle reason everyone would get UBI is that unlike Job Seekers or Universal Credit, everyone would be invested in UBI. Whether you’re working 40 hours a week or 4 you are not going to argue against an extra 5K a year.

This all seems like a really radical idea to be discussing, a complete change in the way our society works and something that seems more Starfleet than Department of Work and Pensions. The fact that this is being discussed seriously or at all seems to many a sign of a dawning utopia. But what pressures are driving this conversation into the spotlight?

Basically put, the world is changing, and for working class people its not changing for the better. Automation is set to take more and more jobs, and not just manual work like manufacturing, there are AI’s currently on the market that can replace middle managers, design buildings and direct air traffic control. When people really start losing jobs over automation it’s not going to be just you and me in the breadline, it’s going to be architects and maybe even your gaffer.

Another reason that we might need UBI in the future is something that politicians are even more uncomfortable discussing than mass unemployment: wealth disparity. In the UK, the difference between the folk at the top and the folk at the bottom is astronomical, and set to keep growing. Unfortunately for the wealthy however, they need the folk at the bottom to have enough money to buy things, or at least pay rent. Without some money moving about, the economy will come to a stand still and everything collapses.

These are issues that certainly need addressing rapidly, but is UBI the answer, and who is making the case for its implementation?

Interestingly, it’s not easy to split proponents into left or right wing. While it was Labour councillor Matt Kerr that argued for UBI in Glasgow City Council and Labour Councillor Joe Cullinane that argued for it’s trial in our own North Ayrshire, it’s not just Labour that are pushing for it. People from across Scotland’s parties have shown an interest in the scheme. Even Nicola Sturgeon has in the past expressed support for UBI. While the Scottish Conservatives in parliament have criticised the SNP and Labour for supporting UBI, there has been support from individual Conservative Councillors.

Joe Cullinane, in a facebook post, stated that on top of applying to the Scottish Government for the £250000 grant to research the practicalities of UBI, North Ayrshire had raised an additional £200000 to support the study. Joe argued that “If we are not bold, and offer an alternative to Tory welfare policies such as their Tax Credit Rape Clause and disability cuts, then we will be letting down families and children”.

But it’s not only Joe Cullinane- who sees UBI as a means of reducing poverty-who is making the case, and this conversation is not confined to the UK alone. Andrew Yang, a contender for the Democrat presidential nomination, argues a system like UBI is the only way to make sure the average person can benefit from automation, and not be left behind as the economy continues to change the makeup of the economic workforce.

It seems clear then that Universal Basic Income is something of a solution to impending and irreversible societal change, and one with an increasingly broad appeal at that. But before we rush headlong into a brave new world where everyone gets free money, let’s stop for a moment to consider a few things.

Because UBI, when examined more closely, has some serious and glaring flaws. In almost every model, UBI would not be an addition to the safety net of the welfare state, it would be a replacement, effectively kicking the chair out from under millions of working class families who are likely to find themselves worse off. While some on the left argue that this would not be the case, that UBI would be a supplement the current system, those on the more moderate centre and right wing like Andrew Yang are blunt in the reasons behind their support of UBI. The welfare state is expensive, and from their point of view, it does not work.

Without a proper welfare state it would not just be Job Seekers and Universal Credit that would be confined to the history books; Child Benefit, Working Tax Credits, Housing Benefit  and maybe even the NHS would be for the scrapheap. Instead of a structure around us that’s there when we need support, we would get our monthly pocket money and be told to fend for ourselves. Governments would be more readily able to shirk their responsibilities to their citizens, and the most vulnerable among us would undoubtedly suffer the most.

I use the word ‘citizens’ deliberately since citizenship rights will likely be the foundation of UBI. this would definitionally exclude non-British workers and migrant communities, and if mass privatisation follows, services like the NHS and local councils would likely disappear, and these workers and communities would suffer more than most as a result.

If this wasn’t enough, UBI will lead to staggering levels of inflation. That £500 you get at the end of the month might not be worth £500 at the end of the year when every business realises everyone has a bit more spending money. Prices for food, utilities and luxuries would go up, and worse still, what would happen to your rent? Say you’re not lucky enough to live in a council or housing association home where there are checks and balances to stop rent going sky high, what’s gonna happen to your rent when the landlord knows for a fact you have exactly £500 more in your pocket a month? Rent prices are going to go up. After UBI replaces every other support system we have in place there won’t be much recourse, we’ll be left with expensive food, high rent and maybe not even healthcare, all for the low price of £500 a month.

While the benefits of UBI seem enticing on the face of it, before you just ask yourself, do you trust your landlord to not put up your rent?

Photo by Colin Watts on Unsplash