Deborah Orr: Think twice before you get angry at the striking workers at Heathrow

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British Airways, the company that these let-down customers bought their tickets from, is, of course, terribly sorry, while at pains to stress that the dispute, and therefore its solution, is not in their hands. Quite right. The reason why the contracting out of staff has become so very popular is precisely because companies like BA can distance themselves from the sort of machinations it takes to get a service at a pitifully low cost. The truth is that if Gate Gourmet, the company that has provoked the unofficial strike action, were as good at running a catering company as it is at union-busting, degrading workers and getting away with paying poverty wages, then everybody's holidays would be proceeding calmly.

Instead the US multinational has a virtual monopoly on supplying airline food in the US and Europe, yet still hasn't turned a profit since 2000. Why? Not because it's paying its workers too generously. The hundreds who were sacked yesterday were on salaries of between £12,000 and £14,000 a year. No. As events this week only too amply illustrate, it's because the company is so cynically and badly run.

Gate Gourmet told its workers some time ago that it had to "restructure" in order to avoid a £25m loss this year. Talks between the management and the Transport and General Workers' Union failed in June, because Gate Gourmet wanted its members to accept lower starting salaries and some redundancies, but refused to make similar concessions among management (who had their starting salaries raised by up to 30 per cent).

Matters carried on in a state of limbo until this week, with workers awaiting redundancy but unsure when or how it was going to come about, when suddenly on Wednesday, 130 temp workers were hired to deal with "seasonal demand". Quite reasonably concerned as to why the company was hiring people at the same time as it was considering redundancies, union reps asked for a meeting with management so that they could discuss this development. it was while TGWU members were waiting in the canteen to be told what was going on that they were fired.

Eyewitnesses report that a manager gave out an indistinct message he did not repeat using a megaphone. The message warned that if they were not back at their work stations in 20 minutes, they would be fired. Not only was a large workforce thereby got rid of at one fell swoop, thus saving Gate Gourmet even the small redundancy monies they would otherwise have been obliged to pay out. Miraculously, the temporary workers were already available to replace them. The operation was ruined only by the wildcat action by TGWU members who work closely with Gate Gourmet staff.

The TGWU is in talks at Acas with Gate Gourmet as I write, attempting to broker a solution to a problem it did not in any way create. While you'd have to be a moral pygmy to condemn the TGWU staff who supported their colleagues, the final irony is that the TGWU can be sued by British Airways if it cannot demonstrate that it strongly repudiates this illegal action by its members. This, of course, it does.

As for the members of the public who have had their holidays messed up, I think it's time for them to stop blaming the victims when these strikes happen. Airlines and their supporting companies are now choosing August to impose practices that their low-paid and highly unionised staff are likely to be troubled by. This way, the strikers are guaranteed unsympathetic coverage by a media industry that itself goes on holiday en masse in August. I should know. My family and I are due to jet off from Heathrow by British Airways on Tuesday. Maybe our holiday will be ruined as well. But I'd rather have a ruined holiday than stand aside while Machiavellian employers ruin livelihoods and lives.

* What do we want from our politicians? I don't think we know. Take Tony Blair. Many people have for a long time now been claiming that he must stop being a hypocrite. Then last week those same people started demanding that he should abandon his holiday and attend the funeral of Robin Cook. Sorry. Just talk me through that one again.

Just the man for our times

There are many people, not necessarily followers of Islam, who maintain that the West is decadent. But one Muslim who insists that this is not a constructive way of looking at things is Professor Tariq Ramadan.

Egyptian by birth, he lives in Switzerland where he lectures in philosophy at the University of Geneva. He was named last year in Time magazine as one of the most innovative thinkers of the 21st century, because he has dedicated his working life to the formulation of a modern Islam "whose interpretation of Islamic scripture provides a clear model for Muslims to live an authentically Islamic life and fully participate in European democracy".

To that end, he calls for and end to forced marriage, imported imams, anti-Semitism and preachers of hate being accommodated by Britain.

All this is laudable, especially when it is also agreed that the professor has the skills to get all this across in a powerful manner.

Which is why it is so very pathetic that whenever he comes on the telly, all I can think is: Phwoarrr!

Secret shame of the superhero

It was my youngest son's fourth birthday this week, and the theme he chose for his party was "superheroes". I'd like to say that it all went according to plan. But I can't. All of the children turned up in full regalia - a Power Ranger, a Spider-Man, three Supermen, one Batman, one Incredible Hulk, one astronaut, and one Obi-Wan Kenobi. So far so good.

Most of the parents, though, delivering their fabulously powerful, posing charges, paused, lowered their voices, raised their eyebrows and explained that the all-in-one outfit, sadly, had rendered their child functionally incontinent. A classic mismatch, I'm sure you'll agree, between fantasy and reality.

But that wasn't the only one. My elder son, falling in love with the English Heritage tunic given as a gift by one of the parents in question, decided that he would now have to wear it at all times.

So, as Muslim women are exhorted to stop wearing their headscarves as a precaution against race-hate crimes, one sympathetic atheist shows her solidarity by wandering round London attended constantly by a miniature reproduction of Richard the Lionheart.

My small consolation is that the bloody thing at least doesn't zip up the back.

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