Irene is a cleaner who works on minimum wage. Her working day starts well before dawn. She leaves her children at home sleeping, and takes two buses to work to avoid a tube journey she cannot afford. She juggles multiple jobs to try to earn enough so she can feed her family.
Often, those jobs change schedule arbitrarily. Her ability to pay her bills depends on sheer chance and the decisions of an unaccountable supervisor. When a payment is delayed or a payslip is wrong, she ends up having to choose between bare essentials like food and heating.
According to some, Irene should count herself lucky. That’s because the UK’s unemployment rate is at its lowest since 1975. Apparently this is a sign that Brexit is great news for the economy – the UK workforce has never been in better shape. And as one of the 32 million in work, Irene has nothing to complain about.
Not that Irene complains, of course. But I would challenge anyone to say to her face that the employment situation in Britain has never been better. Anyone celebrating the latest job figures should stop and think for a moment about the millions of cleaners, couriers and care providers who keep our country running, yet frequently don’t have enough money to cover the bare essentials. I would ask those rejoicing to put themselves in the place of those who do not have the security of knowing how many shifts they will be given from one week to the next.
While UK unemployment fell by 75,000 in the three months to July, bringing the jobless rate down to 4.3%, these figures disguise a disturbing trend in the British labour market – one of falling wages, rising insecurity and false self-employment. At the New Economics Foundation, we carried out research that shows two in every five people employed in the UK are in “bad jobs” – work that doesn’t provide a secure, living wage.
The figures also obscure the fact that more than half of the self-employed are failing to earn a decent living – and there are increasing numbers of them. And then there is the huge increase in short and zero-hours contracts.
While zero-hours jobs are often praised for the “flexibility” they offer, the reality can be very different. Low-paid employees often live with crippling uncertainty about how much money they will earn each week. And many say they fear that refusing a shift will lead to loss of work in the future.
People are now facing a “triple squeeze” on their living standards – falling wages, rising inflation and a reliance on high-cost consumer loans. With wages struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living, families are increasingly turning to credit cards, financing schemes and payday loans just to put food on the table. It is a shocking reality that two-thirds of Britain’s children in poverty are from working families.
Of course, national statistics will always struggle to capture the real experience of those at the sharp end of the UK economy. And perhaps it is a mistake to wait for national responses to these problems. The New Economics Foundation is working with people in the most uncertain parts of the economy to help them take control of their economic future. In Leeds and Bradford we’re working with taxi drivers to set up their own app, giving them control over their shift patterns and pay, and posing a real challenge to the dominant Uber model. And in London we’re working with trade unions and campaigners to improve the conditions of those in precarious work.
Meanwhile, we have to keep up the pressure on the government to protect workers from the most exploitative employment practices, such as excessive surveillance and false self-employment.
It would be churlish to dismiss low levels of unemployment completely. Of course it is good that people are in work. But unless we look seriously at the quality of work people are doing and whether it provides them with the security and salary needed for a decent standard of living, then we will be failing them. We will be failing Irene.