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Giving stuff away on Freecycle is more trouble than tossing it in a landfill.

Taking it to an op shop isn’t trouble-free either.

I’m not happy chucking out usable hardware and other items with plenty of life left in them. In my case this is a mixture of greenery, plain old-fashioned protestant hatred of waste and memories of hard times.

One alternative is to list unwanted items on TradeMe with a $1 reserve – for overseas readers TradeMe is New Zealand’s home-grown eBay.

Free listing on Trademe

Listing items on TradeMe is free. If they sell, there’s a 6.9 percent commission fee. So if the item sells for $1, I’m 7 cents out-of-pocket. Or, more accurately, I’m 93 cents richer as it is something I’m ready to give away. These numbers are so small they are negligible. In effect, there’s no cost difference  between selling on TradeMe and giving things away on Freecycle.

Yet the cash element involved seems to oil away some of the friction associated with Freecycle.

As mentioned in an earlier look at the free trading site, Freecycle transactions don’t always go smoothly. In my experience more than half fall through.

Freecycle pain

While many are  fine, some Freecycle people are a pain to deal with.

On the other hand, when someone pays for an item on TradeMe, no matter how small the price, the nature of the deal is different. People turn up as promised.

I suspect the reason for this is people don’t put a value on things they get free, so they don’t value my time and effort at the other end of a Freecycle transaction and feel comfortable stuffing me around. When they pay, the transaction has a value to them and they act accordingly.

Thanks to Parsley72 who pre-empted this post in a comment on Frustrating Freecycle.

Your view may differ.

Benefits of TradeMe over Freecycle:

  • Money oils away transaction friction
  • Feedback scores show good people to deal with
  • There’s a legitimacy with TradeMe
  • Questions and answers get dealt with in a single, visible place
  • Efficient, no need to deal with tons of emails after items are taken
  • Less email aggravation, less rudeness for disappointed recipients
  • TradeMe has wider reach

The idea behind Freecycle is sound. It is an online forum where you give away unwanted items and not dump them in a landfill site. There are local Freecycles around the world. I tried the one in Auckland, New Zealand.

In my case, I listed items I no longer need. People who want the items email their interest, arrange a meet up and deal with the item. There’s an alternative approach where people who need things can ask for them.

It sounds simple enough and I’ve used it to unclutter my garage before a house move, but I’ve run into problems with Freecycle, which make me question its value.

Freecycle problems

Problem 1: Can’t be bothered. I’ve offered a number of items on Freecycle, had them requested and the person at the other end of the deal fails to pick up the item. I guess because an item is free, it has little perceived value by the recipient. Maybe there are other reasons. Either way, my first three forays into Freecycle resulted in receivers not picking up the items they requested.

Problem 2: Slackness. This is closely related to problem 1. Receivers make appointments to pick up items, I wait at home for them, they don’t turn up. Then they make more broken appointments etc. While  rescheduling is fine, we’re talking about people who constantly shuffle appointments.

Problem 3: Greed. I’ve noticed some of the receivers turning up to pick up items ask for more. In one case the picker-up wandered into my open garage asking if he could take items than were clearly not for recycling. This makes me uneasy with the process. I also don’t like it when I offer item X, and get tons of emails asking if I’ll also be giving away a loosely related item Y.

Problem 4: Inefficiency. When someone requests an item, I post a taken message on Freecycle. The matter should end there, but emails pour in for days and weeks after, asking if the item is still available. Not taking notice of “Taken” posts is just plain rude.

Problem 5: Venality. Some of the stuff I’ve distributed via Freecycle has turned up for sale on TradeMe (if you’re outside New Zealand this is the local equivalent of eBay). On one level I don’t care when happens to the items I’ve given away. Once they’ve gone, they’ve gone. On the other hand, I suspect some Freecycle users are professional scavengers – which disturbs me. Apart from anything else this undermines the idealism of the project.

Have you run into problems with Freecycle? Or are you happy with it? I’d love to hear your opinion.

Last night many of my neighbours switched off their electricity for Earth Hour. It wasn’t an unusual event.

That’s because there have been at least four major power cuts in my North Shore suburb since I moved there at the end of 2004.

In the last five years, the power would have been off for roughly one day in every year. I’ve also seen two disruptive power cuts while working in Auckland’s central business district. In at least one of those cases, the city, and my newspaper, lost an entire day’s production.

Earlier this year the upmarket suburbs of Newmarket and Parnell suffered two more power cuts. The New Zealand Herald covered the story on February 19 in Power restored to Auckland suburbs saying shopkeepers’ confidence in Vector (the local power company) was at an all-time low.

As we shall see, that is saying something.

Not good enough

To be frank, it just isn’t good enough. Admittedly things in Auckland aren’t as bad as, say, Manila or Jakarta, but for a first world country like New Zealand, frequent power cuts are not a good look.

Ten years ago when US President Bill Clinton visited Auckland for the APEC meeting he brought a portable electricity generator. It parked outside his chic city centre hotel on the back of a large, dark, unmarked truck that some locals dubbed the ‘stealth generator’.

In any other major western city, Clinton’s precaution might have seemed a little over the top. It would have insulted his hosts.

But Auckland is different. A year and a half before the leader of the free world flew into New Zealand’s largest city, the locals were checking their shopping change by candlelight when the Auckland’s lights went out and stayed out for almost six weeks.

Wikipedia entry on 1998 Auckland power crisis.

Even now, more than ten years after that blackout, many Auckland residents fear their city’s power supply is still not secure. With good reason because at 8:30 on 12th June 2006 the power went off again. Half of Auckland including the entire CBD was without power for over four hours. Some parts of the city suffered a longer outage.

Wikipedia entry on 2006 Auckland power cut

The problems are partly a result of overzealous free-market reforms. The greed and arrogance of power company managers are also a reason.

There’s an obvious parallel here with the global financial crisis.

And then there are New Zealand’s ridiculous planning laws. These mean generators have built no new power stations to meet booming demand. Thankfully this looks set to change with the new Kaipara gas-fired power station finally getting the green light. But that’s only the start. We need more.

Electricity hampered by bureaucracy

The robust networks needed to move power from where it is generated into the city are still often held up by endless bureaucracy and over the top planning processes.

At the time of earlier crises, Auckland’s power supply depended on four cables: two gas-filled cables and two oil-filled cables. On 22 January 1998, one of the gas-filled cables failed. Power wasn’t disrupted as the remaining three cables took up the load.

On 9 February, the second gas-filled cable was cut. The power went off and Mercury Energy Limited, which operated the cables, asked its customer to voluntarily cut power consumption by 10 percent.

On 19 February, the emergency started in earnest when a fault in one of the oil-filled cables caused both remaining cables to shut down, cutting off all power to the city.

Mercury repaired one of the cables quickly, but it could only supply a reduced load. Power rationing was introduced to the city centre, which saw rolling two-hour power cuts.

At 5.30pm on Friday 20 February, the last cable failed. Mercury issued a statement that it “could no longer supply the Central Business District with electricity”. A limited standby cable managed to provide power to the district’s two hospitals and other emergency services.

For more than five weeks the nation’s largest city was plunged into chaos. Many businesses had little choice but to close down temporarily. Others relocated staff to other New Zealand cities or even flew them to Australia.

50,000 workers affected

At least 50,000 workers and 8,500 businesses were affected. Estimate costs were around $NZ400 million, though that figure does not include tourism, international trade and financial services. In a small nation like New Zealand, the shut-down was serious enough to tip an already fragile economy into recession.

Who knows how much investment hasn’t happened because of the flaky infrastructure?

At the time of the blackout, Jim Macaulay, chairman of Mercury Energy, the company that supplied Auckland’s electricity, told the media it was “the most incredible, freakish bad luck you could ever imagine.” However, the government inquiry into the blackout found that there were many warnings that such an event could occur.

Well, it could happen again. Earth Hour should have acted as a reminder to people living in a city where electricity and light can’t entirely be taken for granted.

Money
Cloud computing, all about counting those pennies?

Employers in knowledge industries rarely talk about pay. They prefer remuneration.

Perhaps the idea comes from the early 20th century when Britain’s upper classes thought discussing money was vulgar.

Another explanation is employers live in a pretentious management-speak world where they use sesquipedalian – if you want to use that one at a dinner party make sure there’s no food in your mouth – words in the vain hope of impressing or intimidating the plebs.

Some recruiters belong to a generation who read the Reader’s Digest. They soaked up the fancy words from “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power” while waiting to have their teeth fixed.

The real reason they use long words is they aim to flatter and distract us.

Remuneration sounds posher than wages or pay.

There’s an implication that once you’ve progressed to the lofty heights of remuneration you no longer worry about petty things like checking to see if you’re paid a fair wage or going home before midnight.

To be fair, pay is just about money, while remuneration can mean a package of money and benefits. Mind you, some employers used to call this ‘a package’.

Nevertheless, the only way you can measure the real worth of remuneration is by converting everything back into cold hard cash.

In the good old days most Australian and New Zealand workers belonged to unions. Pay rises were negotiated centrally. Employers paid a fixed hourly rate for the job, higher rates for overtime and that was that. Each year the union representatives and the management would lock themselves in a smoke-filled room. They would order rounds of take-away sandwiches and hammer out an agreed pay rise.

Of course the process could get nasty. Strikes, lockouts, mass-sackings and even riots were not unknown. Pay bargaining was even tougher in America where negotiation sometimes involved guns. Generally negotiations would settle with an agreement that saw every worker in the organization getting the same percentage pay rise.

The managers negotiating with the unions  often got the same pay rises as union members. In those days merit pay and bonuses were relatively rare. As a young manager in the UK, I was once put in this position myself. Guess how hard I was with the union negotiators during that pay round?

Negotiate benchmarks

Non-union workers, or workers belonging to less powerful unions often got pay rises close to the rates negotiated by the stronger groups. A powerful group would establish the ‘norm’ and then everyone else would use this the benchmark when starting their negotiations.

In countries like Australia, Britain and New Zealand individual pay bargaining gave way to centralised pay negotiations in the 1970s. Union leaders still trooped into smoke-filled rooms, instead of facing local company management they would talk to government and industry heads.

The economic reforms that swept the English-speaking world in the 1980s and early 1990s saw centralised bargaining give way to a system where individuals increasingly had to negotiate their own terms. New Zealanders went on to individual contracts. Many Australian workers – particularly those further down the pecking order were still reliant on centralised negotiations until relatively recently but most white-collar workers and polo shirt-collared knowledge workers have to handle their own negotiations.

Status quo

Employers prefer the new status quo because it allows them to reward valued employees more than people who contribute little to the bottom line. On the whole this is a good thing that few knowledge workers will argue with – during the boom years we all did well out of this system. Some of us did spectacularly well.

However, from our point of view the down side of individual salary negotiation is that it puts a lot of power in the hands of the employers. That’s because of the asymmetric information flow inherent in one-on-one salary negotiations. Information is central to any negotiation – if one side has better or more complete information that the other party, it is at a distinct advantage.

Companies usually have a policy of ensuring staff don’t talk to each other about their salary packages. In some companies, including places where I’ve worked, disclosing details of your remuneration with other staff is regarded as a serious offence. Of course employers have access too their company pay data so they can compare your package with other employees – they often also have access to pay information from other companies in their sector. Sometimes this is informal, though there are organizations that collect and sell salary data on an industry-by-industry basis.

You won’t get far finding this kind of information from job advertisements. Recruiters are often coy about salary levels. They don’t want to alert existing employees to how much extra they would be prepared to pay newcomers. You don’t often get to know what the salary for a job is until you are at a late stage of the recruitment process.

Negotiate armed with information

If you are a prospective employee, you need to get as much salary information as possible before entering negotiations. Indeed, you need to know if it is even worth bothering to negotiate. Likewise, if you want a pay rise from your existing employer, you need to know what other people doing the same job elsewhere earn. This benchmark gives you useful ammunition. It also lets you know whether you should stay or move to a new position should your negotiation fail.

As far as I’m aware, there’s no equivalent of salary.com in Australia and New Zealand (if you know of one then email me). Salary.com is a US site. It shows data about what other people with your skill set earn in any  city or region.

The nearest thing I’ve found is when private research is published in a public forum. New Corporation’s Careerone often publishes this kind of data. Here’s an example of salary information for Australian jobs. Hays Recruitment offers some New Zealand salary information here along with more Australian data. If you hunt carefully you can find other sources. I’ll share any such similar sources that Knowledge Worker readers send to me.