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Employment Figures Do Not Tell The Full Story

Today, amongst all the Brexit furore, new figures from the Office of National Statistics reveal that the UK is currently boasting record high levels of employment and near-record low levels of unemployment. These numbers will be no doubt lauded by some as evidence of an economy that continues to ‘confound expectations.’

On one level it is true that since the financial crisis the general trend has been one of rising employment that has brought those further down the income-distribution scale into the labour market. However these headline figures do not paint the full picture and are used to mask huge problems in the world of work.

Firstly, it is important to note that the past decade has brought next to no gains in real wage growth. Despite the recent pick-up in real wage growth, weekly wages today remain lower than they were before the financial crisis. Many mainstream commentators attribute this to the ongoing ‘productivity crisis’ but it is also fundamentally related to the fact that workers have very little bargaining power in the workplace.

The Trade Union Act 2016 placed further draconian restrictions on unions’ ability to organise and take collective action in order to raise working standards and pay. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, the UK is in the unenviable position of being ranked alongside Russia and Congo-Brazzaville as a regular violator of workers’ rights.

Compounding this has been the growth of atypical work, such as self-employment, zero-hours contracts or agency work. Two-thirds of the growth in employment since 2008 has been in ‘atypical’ roles The nature of this kind of work makes it even harder for unions to organise and access workers (although there are an increasing number of success stories here), and these types of employment tend to be poorly paid and deny workers’ fundamental rights, as well as having a detrimental impact on workers’ health.

A combination of these factors, alongside rising costs for many households, now means that 1 in 8 workers in the UK are living in poverty. While the Prime Minister may boast of a “record low number of children in workless households”, more than half of children in poverty live in a working household.

In this context, workers are pushing themselves harder and harder to try and make ends meet. The 2017 Skills and Employment Survey found that 55 per cent of women and 47 per cent of men said they always, or often, came home from work exhausted. Problems that are particularly acute in the public sector amid ongoing austerity cuts.

The extreme toll that the labour market can have on workers is reflected by the fact that work-related stress, anxiety and depression now accounts for 37 per cent of all work-related ill-health cases and 45 per cent of all working days are lost due to poor health.

As such, the old binary of employment-unemployment, which dominates media headlines, is not fit for purpose. Merely stating the number of people in work does nothing to reflect the lived reality of many workers’ themselves. It does not reflect the huge regional or sectoral disparities in pay and conditions.

Nor does it reflect on growing levels of inequality. Instead chants of ‘record employment’ help to prop up and legitimise an economic system that is failing the vast majority of people.

The conversation must move on to the quality and nature of work. The European Trade Union Institute utilise a job quality index which encompasses wages, forms of employment and job security, working-time and work-life balance, working conditions, skills and development and collective interest representation. Adopting such a metric would not only alter the nature of debate but pose more fundamental questions about the purpose and direction of a successful economy.