Workfare: Stupid or Evil?

There’s a saying in which I believe and attempt to live my life by: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

With that in mind, let’s run a little thought experiment.

You are the manager of a company, and your objective is to maximise the profit for the company.

You employ two people. Let’s call them shelf-stackers. For each hour that one of these shelf-stackers works, you earn £9.

You pay each of your shelf-stackers £8 per hour. You therefore earn £2 per hour profit.

Sadly, one of them dies in a tragic accident involving a sewing machine and the collected works of L Ron Hubbard, and you now require a replacement.

Many people apply for this role as there is a shortage of jobs in the current economy, and so there are many applicants for each job. However, there is a new government scheme: For the first five weeks of hiring a new employee who has been unemployed for more than 13 weeks, you can pay them nothing. You may then, if they’re suitable, take them on.

Your profit for those five weeks now increases from £80 to £400. That’s, ooh, a 500% increase in profit for helping get people off benefits? You win, the person on benefits gets valuable work experience which may help them in the future. What’s not to love?

So, assuming your aim is to maximise profit:

If someone dies or leaves and you pay their replacement minimum wage instead of taking a workfare replacement, you are an idiot.

And this is why workfare is evil. Because it makes forcing people to work for you and paying them nothing the sensible thing to do.

You used to have two paid jobs. Now you have one paid, and the other unpaid. The work still gets done, but you aren’t actually paying someone to do it any more. Instead, you’re taking the money that you would have paid someone with and using it to line your own pockets.

Worse yet: if you are the unscrupulous sort, there’s nothing to stop you saying that they weren’t suitable for the job, and then taking someone else on under the same scheme. Repeat as necessary.

And it doesn’t even work for the country. Instead of two people paying taxes for 52 weeks of the year, the scheme has resulted in the loss of five weeks worth of tax revenue. More, if the turnover in these jobs is high or the management unscrupulous.

So as far as I can see, the introduction of this scheme by the government requires both malice and stupidity.

It doesn’t solve the problem of unemployment; it loses the government money; and businesses have an incentive to use it rather than hiring people at a reasonable wage.

The Boycott Workfare site has more information about the companies involved.

Gender Equality and the Nuclear Option

So, Paul Cornell has done an interesting thing.

A little bit of background: I’ve met Paul at several conventions, and we’ve been on several panels together. That men and women are and should be treated as equal, and that in today’s society (both in general and in the particular subculture of SF Fandom) they are not yet always treated as such, is not anything that we disagree on.

So in brief, here’s what Paul has said:

If he finds himself on a convention panel which does not have a 50/50 balance of men and women (rounding is fine in the case of odd-numbered panels), he will immediately step down from that panel and invite a qualified (ie knowledgeable about the subject) female volunteer from the floor to take his place.

If no qualified female volunteers are available on the floor, he will replace himself with an unqualified female volunteer.

My basic problem with this approach isn’t Paul stepping down from a panel. Each of us has things up with which we will not put. Those points of ethics and morality are different for each of us. Withdrawal of labour when all other options have failed has a long and glorious history and is an action which I fully support.

My problem with this strategy is not in Paul stepping down from a panel, which he is perfectly justified in doing; rather it’s in his intention to replace himself on the panel.

I don’t believe that he has the right to make that call.

If I’ve shown up as an audience member to a panel, I know (pending sickness or other unforeseeable circumstances) who will be on that panel. I know, hopefully, why they will bring something useful to the panel, or at the least am confident that the convention committee (oft abbreviated to concom, language fans!) have filled that panel with people who will have something interesting to say about the subject.

Now, if I’ve gone to a panel with this in mind, and instead of the person I’ve come to see speak I get someone that they have unilaterally imposed on the panel, and then especially if that replacement does not have anything useful or interesting to say, I would take this amiss. If they actually bring the quality of the panel down, I’d be even more annoyed.

And if I was on the panel myself, I’d be livid.

If the replacement has been OKd by the panel, or the moderator thereof, then I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. But the current option on the table is a unilateral I-will-replace-myself. Which I feel is unacceptable, and I rather suspect many other people will too.

And were I a panellist on a panel where such a thing happened, I think it likely that I would have to withdraw from the panel myself in protest. Especially if it was a panel in which Paul was more competent than I to speak.

While I feel that Paul, as does anyone, has the right to withdraw from a panel for whatever reason he chooses, I do not feel he has the right to choose his replacement.

So. Given that he plans to do just this, effectively what we have here is a nuclear option with a defined trigger point. You do this, and I’ll do this. Your move.

Now, we’ve had nuclear weapons for, what, 65-odd years now, and they’ve only been used twice. So it’s perfectly possible to come to an arrangement with someone with a nuclear capability without anyone blowing anyone into a cloud of radioactive dust.

What is likely to happen here is that concoms ensure that either Paul’s panels are gender-balanced, or he isn’t on them. Because every concom will want to avoid the nightmare that I expect to happen if he does go ahead and invite people from the audience to replace him.

So if I know that I’m going to be on a panel with Paul again at any convention in the future, then I’m going to have to ensure it’s gender-balanced. Given that I know what he’ll do if it isn’t, and then what I’ll do if he does that, and then there’s a whole smoking mess to clear up, which is what exactly none of us want.

And I’m sure many other people will do the same. And this process will result in more gender-balanced panels. Which I think is a good thing.

But I have a problem with the means.

Rocket Science (Fiction)

Well, if you haven’t seen me for the last four or five months, it wasn’t because I don’t love you any more. It’s because I’ve been working on a magazine called “Spaceships of Science Fiction”.

My copies arrived on Thursday.

(Technically speaking it’s a bookazine, yes. Hush there at the back.)

It costs £7.95, is published by Ian Allan and is available in shops exclusively at WHSmith in the UK. It’s also going to be on sale in the United States soon, but I don’t yet know exactly when.

Since my copies have arrived, I think we can safely say it’s in the distribution chain now, so should be showing up at some point in the next few weeks on shelves in a bookstore near you.

So: Yay! Spaceships!

Happy Birthday, Chuck

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens.

Now I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Charles. As well as being an absolutely brilliant writer, he helped me to get my start in the business.

The first theatre play I wrote that was professionally performed was an adaptation of A Christmas Carol at the Lion & Unicorn theatre in Kentish Town, directed by the wonderful Mr Ray Shell.

It did well. Lots of lovely reviews, including a four-star in Time Out. So. Not too shabby then.

The year after, I adapted Oliver Twist, which Ray also directed. (And while I’m on the subject of Oliver Twist: Nancy is not a prostitute.) Again, great reviews, an extended run.

And one or the other of them has been performed in London every year since I started writing professionally.

So anyhow, I got to thinking. And what I thought was this:

It’s the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth this year. A centenary, no less. Some of you out there might want to do something to celebrate that and not have the wherewithal to pay for a script, or know anyone local who wants to write one.

Mr Dickens has done well for me over the last few years. I’d like to return the favour. So firstly, here are the scripts.

Oliver Twist
A Christmas Carol

Have a read.

If you like them, and you’d like to put them on in the centenary year, then I’ll waive my fees. So any performances in 2012 will be completely free, no matter how large or small the production. (Well, apart from the cost of putting on the show. But that’s your own problem, and one that I’m certain that you’ll be able to cope with magnificently.)

You’ll still need to obtain a licence to perform the play (email me for more details about this) but if you put one of these two plays on in 2012 there’ll be no writer’s fee.

And I’d love the chance to see it if I can.