Should unemployed people be forced to take any job?
I was interviewed recently on LBC Radio in connection with the case of Greencore, a sandwich-making business which is opening another factory in Northampton in 2016. The firm needed 300 new staff by then, and with 8,000 people currently unemployed in Northampton the question was why the company was concentrating its recruitment efforts in Hungary.
Of course, the media had grasped the wrong end of the stick again, the Mail leading the way with its 'Is there no one left in Britain who can make a sandwich?' headline, jumping on this combination unemployment/benefits/immigration story with glee instead of accuracy. It turned out that Greencore was hiring people in the UK too, that it was only recruiting for a few dozen current vacancies in Hungary, and in any case, anyone with experience of the UK benefits system knows that no unemployed person would be allowed to wait more than a year for a job. That way lies a sanction and a demand to redouble efforts to look for work now.
The question the LBC presenter kept coming back to was the same regardless of all these caveats and the impossibility of attaching it to the matter at hand: should unemployed people be forced to take any job?
We know the government's view on this, with its sanction system that removes benefits for turning down any employment opportunity regardless of how unsuitable it is. George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith have trumpeted the jobs recovery but have been less keen to dig into the facts behind it. On the surface an unemployment rate of 6% is a lot better than most expected a few years after the worst recession in living memory, but the quality of jobs is a big issue. Too many have been part-time, fake self-employment, zero hour, temporary and minimum wage, leading to the kind of in-work poverty that sees workers resent the workless having been encouraged to look to there for scapegoats by politicians and papers.
It turns out there is something else behind this feeling, a deep-seated problem which is being exploited. Writing in The Washington Post, Stephen Bevan of the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness at the Work Foundation cites a study carried out in Australia about the attitudes of those in work and those out of it. Thos made clear that the five pillars of 'good work' - control, autonomy, challenge, variety and task discretion - have a huge influence on how employees feel about their jobs and themselves.
Being unemployed is bad for people's mental health, and on average, being in work is better for it. But within that, there is a huge variety of experiences. It turns out that those workers in jobs where they can't control or choose their tasks, where they are watched over constantly, where there is little variety or challenge, actually feel worse about themselves and suffer worse mental health than unemployed people.
Working in a job that allows this control and autonomy is far better for an individual, something politicians with the luxury to choose their hours and work should remember next time they try to condemn someone for not taking a £6.50 an hour factory job.
This is bad for the country as well as the individuals within it. Osborne has apparently been mystified as to why billions of pounds of tax he thought he would receive now his economy is 'booming' has simply gone missing. The low quality of jobs and low income that goes along with this is part of the issue, but surely one of the reasons less tax is paid is because unhappy people are less productive, leading to lower bonuses and lower corporation tax being paid.
It is all of our responsibility to look into the actions of our government rather than accept their assurances at face value. If we want the kind of economy and country where all are empowered to make the most of their careers and lives, and where the needs of the many are prioritised over those of the few, we need to understand the real story behind the coalition 'recovery'.