The government is promoting news from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) that a near-record number of people have jobs. But another set of figures published today shows that the “record high” claim hides a grim reality.
News to celebrate?
On 16 July, the ONS published data showing an estimated 76% of the working age population is in employment. It also revealed an unemployment rate of just 3.8%, which the ONS said “has not been lower since October to December 1974”.
The government was quick to market this news as a win for Tory policies. Work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd said on Twitter that it was “the Conservatives’ record”. Employment minister Alok Sharma described ONS’s data as “another set of positive… figures”. And the Department for Work and Pensions press office celebrated the news with a graphic containing lots of upward pointing arrows.
In a November 2018 article, the ONS laid out how it calculates its employment figures. Crucially, it pointed out that people working fewer than six hours a week made up only 1.5% of total employment figures at that time. A majority of people – over 50% – worked between 31 and 45 hours per week.
All of this suggests the latest numbers should be great news. Except that on the same day, 16 July, food bank provider Trussell Trust published figures of its own.
From 1 April 2018 to 31 March 2019, the Trussell Trust sent out 19% more food parcels than it did during the previous 12-month period. A total of just over 1.58m parcels were sent out during the 2018/19 period, nearly 578,000 of which went to children. The charity said this represented an ‘escalation’ in numbers. It also revealed that school summer holidays were a particularly tough time for families in crisis. 87,496 food parcels went to children during the 2018 school summer holiday, a 20% rise on the same holiday period in 2017.
The Trussell Trust was clear about what these figures mean. It said that it expects “this trend will continue, prompting concerns that this summer will be the Trussell Trust network’s busiest to date”. The charity’s chief executive Emma Revie said these high figures were because people don’t have “enough money for the basics”. And she emphasised the need for a “real Living Wage”.
No sign of a healthy economy
The Guardian pointed out in March that “a low joblessness rate is not necessarily a sign of a healthy economy”. And the latest news bears this out. After the ONS’s numbers were published, director of the Institute for Employment Studies Tony Wilson highlighted the “huge growth in self-employment”. Wilson wrote:
the recent growth in self-employment in the last three months has far outstripped the growth in employment overall – with self-employment up by 120 thousand to a new record level of 4.96 million.
While saying that self-employed workers “overall are more satisfied”, Wilson also pointed out that one-in-five people in this position are “insecure”.
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) flagged up the same thing, and went on to say: “The number of ’employees’ has actually fallen”. It also said that the huge rise in self-employment is down to part-time work.
Despite the government’s gloating, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady read between the lines. She said:
Wage growth is still below pre-crisis levels. Today’s figures are little consolation for workers still feeling the effects of the longest pay squeeze for 200 years.
While there are record job numbers, more people are also using food banks than ever before. Speaking in April 2018, director for the Living Wage Foundation Tess Lanning said that “one-in-six households referred to foodbanks [are] in work”.
What the figures hint at is a nightmare society in which more people are working, and for longer hours, but for such little money that they can’t even afford the basics of survival. That is the result of permanent austerity. And only the most heartless would think this is something to celebrate.
Featured image via Paula Peters
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