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Building back better? Not for the working class

Building back better? Not for the working class

This article was originally published in The Big Issue on October 12th 2021.

Last week, in a speech branded “economically illiterate”, Boris Johnson insisted that the UK was transitioning towards a “high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy”, a claim which, at first glance, has been corroborated by recent ONS releases and articles across the media, suggesting the jobs market has recovered to pre-Covid levels.

In reality, the headline figures belie the fact that as we emerge from the pandemic, we are in fact accelerating towards a new kind of economy – one based on poverty and insecurity.

Rather than the carefully planned strategy it is purported to be, Johnson has cherry-picked wage increases and a record number of job vacancies, retro-fitted an entire political agenda around it, and presented this as a recovery.

While wages in specific sectors have seen an increase due to labour shortages, commentators across the economic spectrum have agreed that this is not the path to a stable recovery.

In terms of the number of payrolled employees, once again, figures suggest that we are approaching a full recovery. Yet, this metric excludes the self-employed, with the total number of workforce jobs still 2% below pre-Covid levels and unemployment still 15% higher.

Estimates suggest that well over 1 million people were still on furlough when the scheme ended on September 30th, roughly 5% of the UK’s workforce. If these workers became unemployed overnight, the UK’s unemployment rate is set to practically double.

Even if we ignore what types of work are fueling this “recovery” and assume any job is something to be grateful for, the figures continue to omit inconvenient but vital truths.

According to the ONS, in most sectors, there are still far fewer people in work than before the pandemic, with only a few exceptions.

‘Scientific and Technical activities’ has seen a 1 per cent increase, while the next largest increase has been in real estate. This bounce reflects the government’s focus on ensuring that property values continued to rise throughout the pandemic. But will these last jobs remain once ONS figures catch up with the end of the temporary reduction in stamp duty?

By far, the biggest increases in job levels have been seen in health social work (1.7 per cent) and public administration (5.3 per cent). Together they represent over 75 per cent of the additional jobs seen since March 2020. It seems increasingly plausible that the majority of the recovery from this pandemic is contingent on the continuation of the pandemic itself.

Reporting solely on these figures creates the illusion that all jobs bring equal levels of security to workers’ lives. However, even despite statistics showing that unemployment rates were at a generational low before the Covid-19 pandemic, claims of “a crisis of work” had already begun to emerge.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, mass unemployment didn’t just slowly disappear.

Instead, it morphed into under-employment, part-time work, zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment. Unemployment rates reduced, but the pervasive sense of precarity did not. Now, almost two years after the onset of the pandemic, we are seeing precisely the same thing.

While there are 62,000 more payrolled employees compared to pre-pandemic levels, there are 161,000 more on temporary contracts, and 144,000 accepting these only because they have been unable to find permanent contracts.

Similarly, people are being pushed into part-time work in lieu of available full-time jobs. Meanwhile, although 81,000 extra people have been employed in public administration, the fact that over a quarter of these are on zero-hours contracts, suggests the government itself is creating insecure work.

Indeed, in August, relative to the same period in 2019, 3.9 per cent more people had a zero-hours contract. Of these, 37% reported working fewer hours than usual, with 20% facing at least a ten hour reduction in working hours.

These figures indicate that while jobs may be returning, they are more likely to be temporary, part-time or with significantly reduced hours; further spreading insecurity throughout the economy.

The figures also show the disproportionate impact of insecure work on certain demographics such as women and migrant workers. Indeed, among women, the increase in zero-hours contracts was 9.8 per cent, and amongst those not born in the UK, 8.2 per cent.

Though it has had devastating impacts, the rise of insecure work over the course of the pandemic has been unsurprising.

While tens of thousands of workers were losing their jobs without being provided with any financial support, certain employers saw a sharp increase in activity due to the pandemic, requiring more labour.

The combination of the two has led to people being forced to take up insecure positions in sectors such as Amazon warehouses, courier companies, food delivery services and even the government itself.

In response to the current crisis of employment, last month, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer pledged that a Labour government would ban zero-hours contracts, a policy supported by 70 per cent of the British public.

Along with implementing a single status of worker to prevent bogus self-employment, and introducing rights such as sick and holiday pay from day one of employment, this proposal would go a long way to tackle the blight of insecurity on UK workers.

Indeed, responding to the polling results, Angela Rayner, Labour’s Deputy Leader and the Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, said, “it is no surprise that the British people want to see the end of zero hours contracts and a rise in sick pay – these policies are unarguable and will benefit workers, businesses and our economy alike.

Millions of working people have no idea how much income they will have from one week to the next so are living in constant anxiety about whether they can pay their bills”.

Boris Johnson will continue to peddle the narrative of an economic recovery while overseeing the massive acceleration of the proliferation of insecure work behind closed doors. What we are seeing in the UK jobs market may count as ‘building back better’ for a select few people, but certainly not for the working class.

PHOTO: Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street