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Jobs You Can Build a Life On: The British Economy Isn't Delivering

Posted: 21/05/2013 00:00

Until recent months the unemployment figures have been used for some trumpeting of "it's not as bad as you think" by the coalition government - but recent figures, even in Tory/Lib Dem terms, give cause for concern. The number of official unemployed rose to 2.52million, with 15,000 more people unemployed in the three months to the end of March. The total number of people in employment fell by 43,000 to 29.7million.

But what isn't being asked is what's the nature of the employment available - what is getting or keeping people out of the unemployment figures?

Is it something sustained, sustainable, something they can live on, or are the workers being caught in poverty traps, mired in uncertainty from week to week, unable to live their lives in the way they would want? Can they set up or maintain a household, sign with confidence a six-month rental contract, or a 20-year mortgage, or feel safe that they'll be able to comfortably care for a child they might choose to bring into the world? It's clear that all too often, particularly for our young people, the answer is "no".
One in 10 British workers is working fewer hours than they'd like to. Forced casualisation is a reality for millions. The 'underemployment rate' for 16-24-year-olds is 30%. Retail workers are being offered 12-hour weeks, at a level that puts them below the national insurance payment threshold.

Another reality of employment in Britain today is the rapid spread of zero-hours contracts. More than 200,000 workers in Britain on zero-hours contracts; 23% of employers with more than 100 staff have adopted them for at least some staff. That means staff don't know from week to week, even day to day, how much work they'll get - and how much pay. The number of 16 to 24-year-olds on zero hours contracts rose from 35,000 in 2008 to 76,000 in 2012.

Once these contracts were restricted to the lowest paid and least skilled, but they're spreading fast. They're being faced by nurses, doctors, accountants, academics, and G4S 'custody detention staff' in Lincolnshire.

There's one final group of "employed" people in the government's figures: there are now 367,000 more people who are self-employed than there were in 2008. More than 200,000, or 60% of these, became self-employed between 2011 and 2012. Many who did that are finding it impossible to get a 'regular' job. Their average age is 47, many are 55 and above.

Then, finally, critically, there's the question of the level of pay. Regular pay rose by only 0.8% this year - the lowest growth since comparable records began in 2001. Inflation, however, is high - and despite years of promises, not looking like coming down any time soon - particularly not inflation on essentials like food, home energy and transport.

One in five workers in Britain, 4.82million people, is paid less than a living wage. The national minimum wage is currently £6.19 an hour, while the living wage - sufficient to provide a basic decent standard of living, nothing flash - is £7.45 in most of the country, £8.55 in London.

What does that mean, that people aren't being paid enough to live on? Well under the Labour government - which for 13 years allowed this situation to continue, and even get worse - it meant payment of increasingly large sums of what can only be described as 'corporate welfare'. Housing benefit and family tax credit in particular were paid apparently to workers, but in fact subsidised the inadequate pay given to them by their employers. Now of course we're seeing the Tory-Liberal Democrat government slashing that away.

What's to be done? Well there are some simple, almost easy answers. We need to make the minimum wage a living wage: if you work fulltime, you should be paid by your employer enough money to live on, pro-rata for part-time staff who choose that work pattern. No ifs, no buts. Your employer needs to meet the cost of your subsistence.

And we need to ban zero-hours contracts. The ice-cream shop that calls staff in or not on the basis of the next day's weather forecast might be maximising its profits, but it's putting its workers in an impossible situation - and ensuring that the state has to pay corporate welfare to cover the shortfall.

And we need to stop companies avoiding national insurance payments and other responsibilities by employing staff on extremely short-hours contracts. (And also stop ultra-short shifts. I know cleaners who travel hours into central London - from the only homes they can afford far away - to work three-hour shifts.) And we need to ensure that self-employment is not forced - by job centres or employers - on reluctant workers who are told they have no alternative but unemployment benefit - or sanctions on that benefit.

That would all be a start. But we also need to take a much broader look at the structure of our economy.

We've been guided, dominated, over the past couple of decades by the oppressive hand of a now clearly utterly discredited neoliberal ideology. Globalisation was good, big companies had economies of scale and would inevitably swallow up the minnows, outsourcing and privatisation would bring "efficiency" into the public sector, Britain could rely on specialising in services, particularly financial, pharmaceuticals and the arms industry, and import everything else it needed.

Small companies - the traditional engine of stable local employment and self-employment - have been swept aside - by the giants who treat their staff with casual inhumanity and unconcern, the giants who - as we learn even more every day - are failing to pay their taxes (and so failing to provide for the roads that get customers to their stores, failing to pay for the schools and hospitals their staff need, failing to pay for the police who provide their security). These giants squeeze their suppliers hard - demand tighter and tighter margins, pay their bills later and later - which kills small businesses.

If multinational companies were forced to pay their taxes, forced to pay their suppliers and their staff fairly, prevented from imposing all sorts of costs on communities without recompense (like the supermarket HGVs delivering into narrow suburban streets) then we could see a flowering of small businesses of all kinds, from high street shops to manufacturers to small service businesses. The local accountant would see her client list grow. The local signwriter would be put back to work. The local carpenter would be kept busy on shelves and shop fittings.
In short, we could rebuild strong local economies. Economies with decent-paying jobs - secure, fulltime, stable jobs that you can build a life on. Economies providing quality face-to-face services instead of inefficienct call centres of rage-inducing awful quality. Economies that support communities - that pay enough taxes to provide the services they need for themselves and their workers.

Government policies - tax policies, wages policies, planning policies, environmental policies, agricultural policies, traffic enforcement, industrial policies - have created the economy we have now - an economic monoculture, which like all monocultures is fragile, vulnerable to shocks, unstable.

It has to change. It has to be reshaped to fit within the limits of the one planet that is all we have to live on. It has to be reshaped to provide a wide variety of jobs to suit all. And it has to be reshaped to provide jobs that people can live on.

This article was adapted from a speech given to a Green Economics Conference run by Winchester Green Party on Saturday.

 

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