Friday, April 01, 2011

Praise Japan - Up To A Point

Katharine Birbalsingh in the Telegraph lauds those Japanese executives with whom the buck stops.

"These Japanese men have a code of honour that tells them that they are responsible simply because they were in charge. These days, that way of thinking is so alien to us in the West. We used to think like that once upon a time, long before I was even born. When the terrible events in Japan first happened, I looked on with admiration at their ordered and sensible behaviour. Now I look at two men and wish not only that my kids could know their sense of honour and duty, but that I might have the privilege of being like them too."

Well, up to a point - or maybe several points. One is that a sense of honour and duty can be associated with very unpleasant behaviour. The Japanese sense of honour and duty - bushido - led their soldiers to fight unto death in WWII. At Iwo Jima "of the 22,785 Japanese soldiers entrenched on the island, 21,569 died either from fighting or by ritual suicide. Only 216 were captured during the battle.". The flip side of this was that Japanese troops despised those Allied soldiers who did surrender - and this attitude enabled the dreadful treatment of Allied prisoners, among other war crimes.

Another point relates to the sense of personal, corporate or national responsibility. Twenty five years back, a younger Laban was impressed by the reported response of Japan Airlines executives to the JAL123 crash, where one of their planes lost all control and flew into a mountain, killing more than 500 people in what remains the world's worst single-plane disaster. According to press reports at the time, JAL executives accompanied relatives of the dead on the difficult climb to the crash site - and they carried or supported frail or elderly relatives up the mountain as a token of contrition. The JAL president resigned and a maintenance manager committed suicide, as did the engineer who supervised the repair which failed and was the cause of the crash.

All very noble, and accepting of responsibility. But ...

"United States Air Force controllers at Yokota Air Force base situated near the flight path of Flight 123 had been monitoring the distressed aircraft's calls for help. They maintained contact throughout the ordeal with Japanese flight control officials and made their landing strip available to the airplane. After losing track on radar, a U.S. Air Force C-130 from the 345 TAS was asked to search for the missing plane. The C-130 crew was the first to spot the crash site 20 minutes after impact, while it was still daylight. The crew radioed Yokota Air Base to alert them and directed an USAF Huey helicopter from Yokota to the crash site. Rescue teams were assembled in preparation to lower Marines down for rescues by helicopter tow line."

Now we see the other side of "accepting responsibility".

"The offers by American forces of help to guide Japanese forces immediately to the crash site and of rescue assistance were rejected by Japanese officials. Instead, Japanese government representatives ordered the U.S. crew to keep away from the crash site and return to Yokota Air Base, stating the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) were going to handle the entire rescue alone."

But by now darkness was approaching. The JSDF helicopter didn't get to the site before dark and couldn't land. It could see no signs of life, and so rescuers didn't start out to the site until the following morning.

"Medical staff later found a number of passengers' bodies whose injuries indicated that they had survived the crash only to die from shock or exposure overnight in the mountains while awaiting rescue. One doctor said "If the discovery had come ten hours earlier, we could have found more survivors."

Yumi Ochiai, one of the four survivors out of 524 passengers and crew, recounted from her hospital bed that she recalled bright lights and the sound of helicopter rotors shortly after she awoke amid the wreckage, and while she could hear screaming and moaning from other survivors, these sounds gradually died away during the night."

Those people died because the Japanese authorities did not want to lose face by making the rescue an American one, despite the fact that the Americans could have had medics on site within an hour of impact. Responsibility also meant that the responsibility for the rescue must be Japanese. I can't but feel there's a parallel here with the behaviour of TEPCO (and, to some extent, the Japanese government, with whom the buck finally stops) in the first week after the tsunami hit the Fukushima nuclear reactors. It was only after two major explosions, a series of fires, and efforts which revealed to the world that they were running out of ideas, that outside help was brought in.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Radical New 'Welfare-To-Work' Scheme

People often knock the travelling community. I've done it myself. But I've never said they were stupid people.

If the allegations in this report are correct, the Government need to consider whether handing out welfare-to-work contracts to Serco or Vertex really provides bang for the taxpayer buck, compared with the innovative strategies allegedly pioneered at Beggars Roost Caravan site by the Connors family.

"'The allegation is that the defendants offered accommodation and work to vulnerable homeless individuals then moved them into virtually uninhabitable caravans. They then required them to do manual work for excessive hours for payments of no more than £20 a day and in some cases no payment at all.They were given minimal amounts of food. Movements are restricted, mobile phones are not allowed and victims are kept in fear of reprisals if they attempt to leave. Identity and benefit documents are removed from them for so called safe keeping. We say they were retained by Breda Connors in particular.'

Men would be forced to work for up to 14 hours a day and moved from location to location around the country, he said. 'Many of the victims are homeless alcoholics, the most vulnerable persons in society.'

Mr Dono said police observed 22 alleged slaves living at Beggar's Roost caravan site. They were sent to work in Worcestershire and the West Midlands tarmacking and block paving driveways.

'It is clear from police videos that the slaves have minimal clothing, they are always dirty and disheveled, they look extremely unhappy and there is evidence of members of the Connors family at the locations in charge of the workers.'

On March 22nd, said Mr Dono, police raided Beggar's Roost with a search warrant and arrested William and Breda Connors. A travellers site in Enderby, Leicestershire, was also raided and Miles Connors was arrested there while eight alleged vicitms were found. A site in Common Lane, Pleasley, Derby, was raided at the same time and John Connors was arrested and seven victims discovered. An address in Stanway road, Coney Hill, Gloucester, was searched by police and documentary evidence was seized. Mr Dono said it was alleged that the caravans in which victims were kept had no running water, minimal heating, haphazard and dangerous cooking facilities, and no proper washing facilities. Victims who had tried to leave sites had been tracked down and returned by members of the Connors family, he alleged.

'These victims are extremely vulnerable and are now in a safe house. We say some of them have been indoctrinated for as much as 20 years working in this way, They are people who are clearly fearful. Twenty victims have so far been recovered from the Connors family but inquiries are at an early stage and it is expected there will be more. Some of them have allegedly been exploited and beaten for years and they have described their living conditions as appalling.'"

Now obviously I can't comment on some of the wilder allegations being made here, and which are anyway sub judice. But it seems clear that, given the right incentives and tightly defined business requirements, even homeless alcoholics, a client group which ATOS Origin or EDS would run a mile from, can potentially play a useful role (for up to 14 hours a day) in the important block paving sector. If Mr and Mrs Connors are acquitted, their undoubted management and motivational skills could surely find a place in the consultancy world. Accenture are always on the lookout for talent - and the Connors sound like partnership material.

UPDATE - the legendary Johnson family, stars of their own BBC series, had a chap who lived on their site, described as a 'drifter', who died mysteriously. And Julia has a story of travellers who cared for a man with learning disabilities, and were big-hearted enough to build him a house.

Monday, March 28, 2011

And It Begins ...

18th March :

23:44:Libyan state television cites a senior security source as saying that Libya has decided to "absolve itself from taking responsibility for stemming illegal immigration to Europe"
Gaddafi, until recent events, was paid by Italy (I don't know what's happened to those payments) to police his Med coast - something he seems to have done effectively.

Now :

By Associated Press, Sunday, March 27, 11:32 AM

ROME — Boatloads of illegal African migrants have resumed setting sail from Libya for Italy, authorities said, overwhelming tiny islands and towns in southern Italy already struggling to host thousands fleeing unrest in Tunisia. Before dawn Sunday, Italian coast guard vessels escorted a boat crowded with 284 Somalis, Eritreans and Ethiopians to shore, the first boat to resume the long-established routes of smugglers’ boats toward Italy from Libya’s long coastline.

Since Lampedusa, a tiny island off Sicily, is already straining from sheltering the thousands of Tunisians, who have taken to sleeping on docks and fields after housing space ran out, the boat from Libya was diverted to Linosa, an even tinier island in the Pelagie archipelago south of Sicily.

Authorities said at least two other boats coming from Libya with hundreds of migrants aboard were spotted by fishing boats or coast guard air and sea patrolling the southern Mediterranean Sunday.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Few Orchids From The Curate's Wood

Fascinating (though some dissent in the comments, both from outsiders and insiders) Telegraph article on the ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews of North London, who are to Judaism what the Jehovah's Witnesses are to Christianity. I think these are the same people (she calls them Hasidim, which is IIRC a subset of Haredi Orthodoxy) who the Indie's Christina Patterson hasn't a great deal of time for (a view returned by non-Orthodox writers with interest). What I'm certain of is that the Hasidim/Haredim will be the people driving the Orthodox population boom.

"It is a deeply conservative community that venerates religious learning above all else and in which Yiddish is the primary language. Following the Biblical commandment to 'be fruitful and multiply’, families of seven or eight children are common; relations between the sexes are stringently policed, and arranged marriages are the norm. It is a community where a lack of secular education means that economic hardship is rife, and dependence on benefits is high. A community where television, secular newspapers and visits to the cinema are forbidden, where the internet is frowned upon, and where outsiders are treated guardedly."

I guess one man's 'guardedly' is Ms Patterson's 'damn rude'. I can see the point of not wanting to engage with the secular world more than can be helped - a problem that all religious people face in our modern Babylon, be one Christian, Jew or Muslim. But good manners cost nowt. I wonder if the problem is that unlike Muslims and Christians, the Orthodox show little interest in converting the heathen ? I digress. Here's Rabbi Pinter of the (state-funded) Yesodey Hatorah school on sex education :

When the school became voluntary aided, Rabbi Pinter told me, there had been some parental concern about having to follow certain aspects of the national curriculum.

'For example, the law is that you have to provide sex education. But parents can choose to opt out. 100 per cent of our parents opt out. Sex education is something we deal with on our own terms through the Jewish curriculum, based on very strong family values.’

At my child's Catholic primary, the sex education policy used to be that there was no sex education. Alas, not so at secondary level. But surely, with no sex education, the school must be riddled with teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections picked up by the poor ignorant girls. After all, you can't stop them, can you ?

'A question I’m asked is, “How many teenage pregnancies do you have in the community?” To which I reply, “Are you talking about inside or outside marriage? Outside marriage, none.”’

Most odd. Haredim, like Pakistanis and Indians, seem to defy the conventional wisdom that only lashings of sex education can save us from the negative consequences of lashings of sex.

Another community who keep themselves to themselves - the Afrikaners of Orania (who like their Voortrekker forebears set off into the wilderness in search of a place of their own) mourn the death of their founder, Carel Boshoff III.

In the early 1990s, Boshoff, a genteel theologian who favored delicate spectacles and a George Washington-esque ruffled coiffure, abandoned the intellectual life in Pretoria and led a troupe of his fellow Afrikaners to a ghost town in a blasted desert that scarcely supports animals, forget about libraries or concert orchestras. Boshoff thought the soon-to-be black government would rule in a manner so hostile and alien to South Africa's European descendants that retreating en masse into the wilderness -- he predicted the exodus would swell to 2 million, half of South Africa's Afrikaner population -- was the only way to survive.
As it turned out, while there's been a steady bleeding of Afrikaners, murdered on their farms, since Mandela took over, it's not been as apocalyptic as feared :

But instead South Africa's irrepressibly genial black leaders kept following him out there. And so Orania became an accidental symbol not of racial reconciliation's unfeasibility, but of its robustness. Nelson Mandela traveled to Orania in 1995 to drink tea with the smiling widow of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the infamous "architect of apartheid." A decade later, President Jacob Zuma toured a dormitory for poor white laborers and commended Boshoff's ethnic awareness, comparing it to his own pride in being Zulu.
The problem for his community and vision is a simple one - whites in South Africa have always employed other, non-white people to work for them - to really and truly do the jobs they don't want to do :

Whites in South Africa remain a privileged class dependent on black labor, said Boshoff, and this position is untenable. To defend themselves against rising discontent among the other half (actually, the other four-fifths) they rely on "good fences and good dogs."

He wasn't totally wrong. The best part of Boshoff's vision of a self-sufficient white community was always the self-sufficiency part. In Orania, white Afrikaners have to do all the work, even the service jobs. Unfortunately for Boshoff, however, this requirement also cut directly against his ideal of preserving Afrikaner traditions. Construction, fruit-picking, janitorial work is not a traditional part of white South African culture. When they realized they would have to do the manual labor blacks do in the rest of the country, some Orania settlers left -- and this was undoubtedly a reason many more whites never came.

And via Capitalists at Work, a little insight from the London Review of Books into the working world of Russian business - in this case TV production :

To get to our office you had to walk down an unlit concrete corridor and turn sharp right up two flights of narrow stairs at the top of which you were confronted by another black, unmarked metal door. There you rang the bell and an unfriendly voice would come through the intercom: ‘Who are you?’ The question was ridiculous: the guard on the other side of the door could see you on his monitor – he saw you every day. But still he asked and still you answered, waving your passport at where you guessed the spy camera to be. Then came the beep-beep-beep of the door being opened and you were inside Potemkin Productions.

Suddenly you were back in a Western office with Ikea furniture and lots of twentysomethings in jeans and bright T-shirts running around with coffees, cameras and props. It could have been any television production office anywhere in the world. But there was a difference. Going past the reception desk, the conference room, coffee bar and casting department, you reached a closed white door. Many would turn back at this point, thinking they’d seen the whole office. But tap in a code and you entered a much larger set of rooms: here the producers and their assistants sat and argued, here the accountants glided around with spreadsheets and solemnity, and here were the loggers – rows of young girls staring at screens as their hyperactive fingers typed out interviews and dialogue from rushes. At the end of this office was another door. Tap in another code and you entered the editing suites: little cells where directors and video editors sweated and swore at one another. And beyond that was the final, most important and least conspicuous of all the inconspicuous doors, with a code that few people knew: it led to the office of Tim and Ivan, and the room where the real accounts were kept. This whole elaborate set-up was intended to foil the tax police. That’s who it was the guards’ job to keep out, or keep out long enough for the back office to be cleared and the hidden back entrance put to good use.

I asked Ivan whether all this was necessary. Couldn’t he just pay his taxes? He laughed. If he did that, he said, there would be no profit at all. No entrepreneur paid their taxes in full: it wouldn’t occur to them. Taxes, he said, were just a way for bureaucrats to buy themselves holidays in Thailand. As for the tax police, they were much happier taking bribes than going to the trouble of stealing money that had been paid in the orthodox fashion. In any case, Ivan’s profits were already squeezed by the broadcasters. Around 15 per cent of any budget went to the guy at the channel who commissioned the programme: in Russian these kick-backs are known as otkat, ‘backwash’. A British producer who refused to pay the ‘backwash’ was out of the country within a year.


For my Russian colleagues the tax police raids were a reason to celebrate: the rest of the day was invariably a holiday (deadlines be damned) as Ivan haggled with them to keep down the size of the pay-off. ‘Only a dozen people work here,’ he would say with a wink as they looked around at the many dozens of desks, chairs and computers still warm from use. Then Ivan would bring out the fake accounts from the front office to support his case and they would sit down to negotiate, with tea and biscuits, as if this were the most normal of business deals. And in Russia it was. The word ‘bribe’ was never used. The officials would look at the fake books, which they knew perfectly well to be fake, and extract fines in line with legislation they knew Ivan did not need to comply with. So everything would be settled, and every role, pose, and line of dialogue would reproduce the ritual of legality. It was a ritual played out every day in every medium-sized business, every furniture company, restaurant, modelling agency and PR firm across the country.

So far, so crooked - we're in William Browder territory where everyone conspires to rip off the State. But the cultural rot is much deeper, embedded in the consciousness of ordinary people.

The fundamental premise for most Western reality shows is what people in the industry call ‘aspirational’: someone works hard and is rewarded with a wonderful new life. The shows celebrate the outstanding individual, the bright extrovert. For the Russian version of The Apprentice, Vladimir Potanin, a metals oligarch worth more than $10 billion, was recruited to be the boss choosing between the candidates competing for the dream job. Potanin goaded, teased and tortured the candidates as they went through increasingly difficult challenges. The show looked great, the stories and dramas all worked, but there was a problem: no one in Russia believed in the rules. The usual way to get a job in Russia is not by impressing at an interview, but by what is known as blat – ‘connections’. Russian society isn’t much interested in the hard-working, brilliant young business mind. Everyone knows where that type ends up: in jail like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or in exile like the mobile phone billionaire Yevgeny Chichvarkin. Today’s Russia rewards the man who operates from the shadows, the grey apparatchik, the master of the politique de couloir – the man like Putin. Promotion in such a system comes from knowing how to debase yourself, how to suck up and serve your master, how to be what the Russians call a holop, a ‘toady’. Bright and extrovert and aspirational? Not if you want success. The shows that did work were based on a quite different set of principles. By far the biggest success was Posledny Geroi (‘The Last Hero’), a version of Survivor, a show based on humiliation and hardship. This chimed in Russia – a country where being bullied by the authorities is the norm.