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6 December, 2003

Change of fate & the fate of change

Corner shops, newsagents, tobacconists, convenience stores.  I don't use them.  Apparently they're a dying aspect of British culture, and must be saved.  Why?  Their day has passed, and society has moved on.  If the market doesn't support their existence, the obvious result shouldn't be postponed.

I don't smoke, I don't read newspapers (except the local free weekly which comes through the door), I don't buy individual pints of milk; a local newsagent has nothing to offer me. An individual corner shop doesn't have the purchasing power and supply network of a national a supermarket chain, so the stock is overpriced and less fresh - why buy it? There's a convenience store 3-4 streets away from me at present, 5 mins away on foot, but a whole supermarket is about a mile away, five minutes by bike. I don't see much of a competition.

There's an argument that those who can support their local shop should do so, to secure the livelihood of the shopkeepers. I disagree. If a business is going through a difficult period, such as livestock farmers during the crisis periods of BSE and FMD, I do support them, but where an economic model is obsolete, sustaining it is retrograde.

In such matters, my politics might seem classically Conservative (big 'C', aka Tory), even Thatcherite. At the time of the UK miners' strike in 1984, I was too young to fully appreciate the issues, but the fundamental points I remember are that Britain no longer needed a large-scale coal industry; there were cheaper, cleaner alternatives, so collieries were closing and thousands of people were losing their jobs. It would have been possible for the government to heavily subsidise the use of coal, sustaining an industry that the country no longer needed, to the economic detriment of the UK, but the government declined to do that. The subsequent handling of the matter was very poor, particularly the police's treatment of strikers, but I supported, and still do, the government's overall strategy, or at least my perception of it. Britain didn't need a coal industry of that scale, so it had to be reduced.
What about the unemployed miners? Words like 'regretable' or 'tragic' are inadequate when applied to real peoples' lives, but I genuinely can't think of a viable alternative. The mines could have been kept open, at huge cost, just to give people jobs, but there simply wasn't sufficient market for coal; the UK steel industry had declined, international shipping no longer relied on coal, and power stations had similarly switched to oil. Government regulations, subsidies and management of the nationalised industries could indeed have artificially sustained demand, at huge, and unnecessary, cost. The national economy and population of 56 million (then) would have been at a disadvantage to maintain an ultimately unproductive 'make-work' programme for, say, 1% of the population. At some point, it has to stop. To draw a parallel, in the age of cars (automobiles), the nation doesn't need an industry manufacturing horse-drawn carts.
Is the welfare of the miners more important that the welfare of the country? To the miners, yes. To a web designer in a part of the country that has never had a coal industry, and to those charged with managing the national economy to benefit the nation as a whole in the long term (and I'm fully aware of how naïve that sounds!), I'm truly sorry, but no.
To sacrifice a minority in the short-term to sustain the welfare of a majority in the long-term is a somewhat Marxist concept; somehow I'm more comfortable with that.

This week, one of the biggest insurance companies in the UK transferred its telephone-based operations (customer support, etc.) to India, which directly affected 2,500 jobs in the UK. Fundamentally, I don't have a problem with that. If Indian staff can provide the same level of service as British staff, cheaper (I mean wages commensurate with the cost of living in India, not minimum-wage exploitation), then the company is quite right to outsource.

It's perhaps worth mentioning that I'm speaking of situations where society has moved on, and the new order is objectively more advantageous than the old. Where mere fashion has favoured one alternative over another which is still equally valid, that might be different. An example would be doorstep delivery of milk. When I was younger, milk was delivered to each house every morning (if 04:00 is really 'morning'!), in glass bottles. I missed the point of transition, but nowadays that's the exception; milk is still delivered to some, but there's been an overwhelming switch to people buying milk in plastic cartons as part of the weekly supermarket shopping. That doesn't mean the doorstep delivery system is justifiably dead, indeed it still has many advantages, using reusable and eventually recyclable containers, supporting local dairies, and reducing fuel usage from customers going to supermarkets for milk (since they go anyway for their other shopping, that point is a bit weak). It may be too late, but perhaps milk deliveries could, and should, be saved, unlike corner shops, whose decline is justifiable, in my opinion.


The problem with the outsourcing to India is that the people over there actually manning the call centres are generally working in two jobs to make ends meet. There are reports of increases in serious psychological problems of people working in these centres due to the stress.

Such staff do not have the same employment safeguards as we do in this country.

If fact I rarely find that companies that outsource overseas have little regard for their staff, wherever they may be based. They are purely in the game for profit, mind I learned that lesson many years ago, and treat my employers merely as a source of money to meet my needs. They will never ever be my life, which is something that they (the corporate they) can never understand.

Posted by coffdrop at December 11, 2003 02:28 PM

Thanks; I wasn't aware of that.

My rather idealistic point is that if two sources (of groceries, fuel or staff) compete on the same terms, nostalgia is a bad reason to use the less competitive or outdated one.

If competitiveness is achieved by exploiting people, I certainly wouldn't support it.

Posted by NRT at December 12, 2003 10:06 AM

Don't worry I could see where you were coming from, but thaere is always more to outsourcing than meets the eye.

I have been part of an outsourcing deal in a previous job as a Civil Servant, in the short term the deal saved the tax payer some money about 1 pounds per year. The company that took over our jobs (we switched) was booted out at the end of the contract and the contract was awarded to someone else. Now the charges are so high the department I worked for cannot afford to finance new initiatives, they can only manage to pay for support of old systems. I left 5 years ago to go into the private sector and just feel that my former employers are getting their just deserts for not taking a long term view of their actions.

It was Thatcher that started the privatisation line. Believe me when I say pricvate industry cannot really do things cheaper than in-house staff. That is an illusion created by politicians with vested interests, and playing the staff numbers game.

We are rapidly heading down a path that the US took, ie. bugger the population and their welfare, we're in it for the money.

Posted by coffdrop at December 12, 2003 10:22 AM
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