The new unemployment figures released today give the impression our economy is nearly back to full strength, but scratch under the surface and things are far from rosy for many in the UK’s workforce.
George Osborne will no doubt hail today’s statistics, which show that the UK’s unemployment rate has fallen to 5.3%, the lowest for seven years. But there are three big questions about the nature and quality of these jobs that Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party would do well to probe the government on over the coming days.
Firstly, while more people are in employment, we are as a whole doing less productive work. The UK’s output per worker per hour is 15% lower than it would have been had pre-crisis trends continued. This matters because less productive jobs are often less fulfilling and crucially, pay less.
This raises the second biggest challenge that Cameron and Osborne will hate to have to answer questions on: pay. Statistics released last week showed that six million people are paid less than the level of the voluntary Living Wage (set according to a basic but socially acceptable income needed to meet the cost of living). These jobs are overwhelmingly prevalent in the UK’s least productive industries – retail and hospitality.
Thirdly, not only has there been a rise in the number of low paid jobs, there are still a large number of people working in temporary and part-time jobs because they cannot find full-time work. Today’s data shows that almost 1.3 million people are working part-time but want to work full-time, and over 500,000 people are working in temporary jobs because full-time jobs are not available. This gives context to recently published statistics which showed that the number of ‘zero hour contracts’ (where employees have no guaranteed hours of work) has risen by 19% over the last year, affecting 744,000 people.
Jeremy Corbyn started his PMQs by dropping the big-shot political posturing and replacing it with questions from party supporters. At next week’s PMQs, he should pick questions from people struggling in the UK labour market. He should ask questions from people in low paid retail jobs wondering whether the increased National Living Wage will be enough to make up for the tax credits they stand to lose; people that have had to settle for a part-time job to make ends meet when they really need full-time work; and people on zero hour contracts suffering from anxiety about whether they will get the hours they need to pay the bills this month.
Getting beneath the top line statistics in this way allows the Labour Party to start a wider discussion about what measures we should be using to judge economic success in the UK. After all, the headline measures of GDP, inflation and employment failed to sound the warning siren before the global financial crisis of 2008. Making sure we judge the jobs we create by quality as well as quantity is an important step towards a more balanced economy that works for ordinary working people.