The Government is ecstatic. Employment figures are high, unemployment is decreasing. Economists have been scratching their heads, seeking an explanation as to how this can possibly be the case when we are still suffering the after- effects of a bad recession. For the Government, there is no question that things are ticketyboo, and so concern about employment may be assigned to the back burner.
I don’t go along with this complacent attitude. There are several reasons why:
- Low-paid ‘unemployment’ Firstly, as recent press coverage has highlighted, there has been a huge growth in low-paid unemployment. Whether by design or necessity, 100,000s of people now work for themselves. I recognise that what many sacrifice in earnings they can make up for with job satisfaction (I was self employed for a dozen years). But they also face greater uncertainty.
- Zero hours contracts Then there is the staggering growth in zero hours contracts. Ministers may prattle on about a minority of zero hours contract workers who enjoy the ‘flexibility’ but for most it is a nightmare.
- Pension age workers Then there is the growing army of pension age workers, who are happy to do a little bit to top up their pensions.
- New workers who lack the ability to defend their rights: these may be young people, who are exploited by unscrupulous employers (I heard of one such case in Scarborough, where a call centre doesn’t pay new staff for the first week as they are ‘assessed’ and can be dismissed without a penny).
- Migrant workers, illegal or not who are treated as a sub-human species, not to be defended by anyone who fears a Daily Mail attack.
These forms of employment help explain why the UK productivity is stuck in a rut – when labour is cheap, there’s no need to invest in better ways of doing things. The question now is, what to do about it? The Labour Party needs to ensure that there is a far stricter regime of policing employment laws. The current policing of the National Minimum Wage is a joke. This is a function that should be devolved to local councils, along with the operation of Job Centres and the administration of benefits.
We also need to look hard at the role of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). Labour has already committed to giving LEPs more power and access to funding, but I am not yet convinced that LEPs are a proven model of local economic development. They are designed as business-led bodies which apply for and dish out mainly public money. I want to see more evidence of their bringing in private money too. And, I feel that when private business people are put in charge of economic regeneration, they should recognise that that regeneration can emerge just as strongly from the public sector as from the private. Much of the private sector is driven by public sector activity. As yet, I am not convinced that our local LEP, the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding LEP has sufficient experience or ambition to qualify for the extra responsibility a Labour Government would give it.
The UK’s current growth is insecure and is certainly not lifting all out of the recession. Scarborough and Whitby’s economy certainly doesn’t seem to be booming in the way ministers like to talk. We remain a low wage, seasonal and low skilled economy, and we lack a cohesive approach to tackle it.