… After a brief enforced hiatus due to industrial injury (bad hand) and an extended break over Christmas, Mahmoud at the Cosmodemonic Parcel Company texted at 2.58pm saying ‘Can you come in at 5.15 pls?’ Nothing like the personal touch; nothing like a bit of notice. As usual, when we got there, no-one told us what the hours were, how long this would go on for or what the terms would be. Out of the 50 booked for the pre-Christmas induction session, 15 didn’t show and others lasted a week or so before drifting off or found something more interesting. There are three guys and 2 lasses left and we feel like we’ve won a competition we hadn’t entered. The company now only lets all the casual workers know on a day to day basis whether they will be required for a day’s work or no. There is no thinking required, just attend when your told: if you turn down a days work, you get bumped down the list. The casual contract is a zero-hours contract but if you stick it for 3 months, the hourly rate goes up. Some chance.
The work is physically invigorating, if dull at times, but the hours are now shorter: 5pm-10pm which is more manageable tedium wise than 3.15 to 10.15 (with the last 15 minutes time and a half). At least there is energy left to read and write until the wee hours of the morning. Today, at 5pm, thinking that the afternoon shift would have got in touch by now, dinner was half way prepared and tentative plans had been made when at 17.20 the text arrives ‘18.15 pls.’ This gave 45 minutes to change, make inadequate sandwiches, cycle to the station, buy a ticket, catch the train and then cycle the 14 minutes to the depot (in the rain) when in fact 1 hour and 15 minutes is required: 15 minutes that will be docked from pay. The reason why they can do this is because of ‘the list’ and our awareness that there is a very real risk of being bumped down if you ask for more notice, miss the call, or turn up late.
The short term contract proved to be very short indeed and has turned into an absolutely zero-hours contract. Each day of the first week was spent waiting by the phone between 3 and 5 but there hasn’t been a call for several days. Back at the DWP, for once, they sorted the claim out surprisingly quickly. So, it’s back to being unemployed. Again.
Although we can polish our CVs, prepare for interviews or read futile books like ‘Dressing To Get The Job You Don’t Want’ being unemployed still involves essentials like caring for children, parsimonious food shopping or dealing with banks and landlords. Outside of work we often rely on bought things to occupy us and work to earn the money to pay for them, but when that source of income dries up, what then? We become time rich and cash poor because we cannot realise that time in a meaningful way. It is difficult to fill time productively or meaningfully on a very limited budget.
‘The generosity (or lack thereof) of unemployment insurance benefits will affect how diligent workers are in looking for jobs.’ T Taylor, The Instant Economist.
The frequent stigmatisation of unemployed workers – which includes those involuntarily made redundant, those ageing or with outmoded skills, the disabled, the downsized and victims of bankrupt businesses – is played out in the media which portrays them as scroungers and puts the blame on the unemployed worker because the job market has failed them. The attacks on the unemployed, chorused by wilful misrepresentation and tabloidal ‘shock-horrors’ about people living in subsidised mansions, is a disgrace. At the time of writing (February, 2014) there are over 2.5 million unemployed and the percentage that fits this ideologically driven stereotype is relatively small. The ease with which the unemployed are stigmatised and blamed for ‘exploiting benefits’ is caused by the ignorance of the ruling classes about the very real situation, principally outside the south east of England, that people actually live in. As a political body the unemployed have no representation or voice in mainstream discourse (unlike ‘hard-working families’) and are an easy target for the kind of slating which often precedes further attacks on benefits. Governments cut benefits in the hope of pushing people into work but what about people who live in areas where there are no jobs or what few jobs hardly cover the cost of living and are highly contested? This is a geographical concern and is hardly new:
‘It was already clear that unemployment was concentrated on a relatively small part of the workforce, so the rise in unemployment in the 1980s caused its duration to rise and regional concentration to increase.’ (Booth.)
Attacks are also made by governments on benefits in a bid to cut public spending (no housing benefit for under-25s, ATOS forcing the genuinely disabled into inappropriate work, others being forced into jobs that are clearly unsuitable) but they rarely explain that the real reason why people are surviving on benefits is because of an inherent fault in the economic plan that they subscribe to. Economists see the unemployed as a variable number and expect a small percentage to always be out of work. Even right wing economists have to recognise the inevitability of unemployment:
‘everyone agrees [unemployment] must be one of the most important issues in any discussion of capitalism… I do not think that unemployment is among those evils which, like poverty, capitalist evolution could ever eliminate from itself.’ (Schumpter, 60).
The British economist Keynes and his successors thought that in times of industrial slump, when unemployment rises, the government should take up the slack until the market recovers but if the government are intent on cutting public spending then this is unlikely to happen. It is in the interest of the government and a well established practice to ‘adjust’ unemployment figures.
‘British unemployment statistics were compiled, but they were overtaken by political interference as the Conservative government of the 1980s, in a period when unemployment was rising rapidly, made a series of substantial revisions to definitions, almost all of which had the effects of lowering the rate of recorded unemployment.’ (Booth).
‘The reserve of unemployable industrial labour… is always present. It forms a necessary prerequisite of the sudden expansion of production in times of boom, and is another specific condition of capitalist accumulation.’ Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation Of Capital.
Full employment is rarely possible so there will always be a surplus of labour power. Full employment sounds attractive as governments want to maximise labour and production to maintain a steady economy so job creation is a major concern for them:
‘Food producing nations were also customers for Britain’s exports, and falling prices for their own main exports meant that it left them less able to buy manufactures from the UK.’ (Booth, 46).
Parts of the UK economy is dependant on exporting goods and are susceptible to any fall in demand, and this dependency on outside demand affects unemployment. Better quality rival products, cheaper alternatives or technological obsolescence mean that the vagaries of markets far away determine whether the worker keeps his job or becomes a ‘scrounger.’ Local unemployment therefore has a global component.
Only benefit claimants are counted despite the fact that a percentage of unemployed workers do not claim for what they are entitled to (and others exist via illicit incomes) so the singular term ‘unemployed’ requires a fairly complex explanation. The unemployed are defined by the OECD as those with no job and actively seeking one, and those who are available to work. Unemployment is broken down into several different categories: the unemployed does not include those at college, the disabled and their carers; frictional Unemployment includes those between jobs or on short term contracts; voluntary unemployment is when people choose not to work; seasonal unemployment means yearly fluctuations in numbers due to the nature of the work: seasonal figures show that in summer there are more agricultural and tourism jobs. The more sinister term ‘Natural Unemployment’ refers to the way unemployment figures fluctuate within the economy ‘naturally.’ Structural unemployment is when workers’ skills become outdated, they become too old for retraining, traditional local industry disappears or technology replaces people. There are the unemployed in workless regional dead-zones like parts of the North East, Merseyside or Scotland, that have never recovered from job cuts in local industry as there has been little to replace them, hence 50 year old engineers stacking supermarket shelves (if they can get the job in the first place as age has major drawbacks in a competitive job market). Governments have failed to acknowledge that they perpetuate a boom and bust economy where increased unemployment is inevitable as we have seen in the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, the mid 2000s and now in 2014 with the 2.5 million out of work. All these eras are as debilitating as they are repetitive: ‘The slump of the early 1990s was almost as steep as that of 1980-82.’ (Booth, 131).
What also remains unacknowledged is the need to train people to deal with these inevitable downturns and consequent periods of unemployment that occurs so regularly and inevitably in these economic cycles.
‘With a high replacement rate (i.e. the ratio of income when unemployed to post-tax-and-transfer-income in work) the low paid may be little worse off (and in the short term perhaps better off) out of work … an unemployed person had little financial incentive to seek work.’ (Barr).
Of course at one end there are people who choose to be unemployed or can cope with reduced incomes and ultra-frugal lifestyles whilst keeping one step ahead of the DWP, and at the other there are those for whom work makes no financial sense as any wage on offer is too inadequate to equal that covered by benefits (which is also impacted by the problem of unaffordable childcare). A single working class parent with two kids is going to find difficulty in getting a job that covers rent, food, bills and child care during holidays or shift patterns so it is in their interests to claim benefits. It is not their fault that wages do not cover the cost of living: most workers would rather have an adequate and reliable income. Once again, the failings of the economy are blamed upon those who are alienated from it the most.
‘The average probability of being unemployed is well known – it is simply the aggregate unemployment rate. There is also considerable knowledge of the possibility of unemployment for subgroups of the labour force.’ (Barr).
What are the options to cope with being unemployed? Few. Different age groups face different uncertainties and difficulties. In Japan, the young hikikimori chose total withdrawal as a coping strategy. The reduction of life to a small room, laptop and junk food can hardly be a psychological or physically healthy option. This is a middle class youth phenomenon available only for those whose parents can subsidise them to a certain extent, like internships, unpaid work or ‘experience’ to try and find a way in to full time paid work. A scheme is proposed where firms are subsidised for taking on young workers: they work for 6 months but when the time is up they usually find themselves unemployed again. Elsewhere, others grudgingly take whatever work is available – for money, not for any innate belief that ‘all work is useful’- and this funds other more interesting activities external to the job and is reminiscent of the slacker phenomenon in the 1990s. In the UK there are the glibly titled ‘NEETS’ – Not in Education, Employment or Training – that range across the social spectrum. Young people under 25 are 3 times as likely to be unemployed as older folk (and in certain areas, more so) and benefits are becoming harder to claim. Youth unemployment is 20% in the UK: many become trapped because they are unable to gain the vital experience which would move their early careers on, and the longer they are out of work, the less likely they are to get it. They need a job to get experience but need experience to get a job. If there is no work in the area and they cannot afford to move to where there may be jobs and they do not have the experience even if they moved there, what then? Young people end up on benefits for which they are then castigated, marginalised and stigmatised. Social factors such as attitudes to further education and family expectations about careers affect progress. Crime, drugs, desperation, depression and benefit dependency increase drastically. Once again, geography is a significant factor. Unemployment is exacerbated by an uneven distribution of available work and workers to do it: that is, there is plenty of work in the South East but trying to relocate from Scotland to find a cheap place to live near the job in London is extremely difficult.
Unemployment & The Economy
Unemployment has an adverse effect on the economy: the more jobs, the more money in circulation so the more people buy; the more people buy, the more things are produced or imported and distributed and so more jobs are created; the less jobs, the less money, the less demand and production falls, jobs go so even less money in circulation … At the start of 2000, the job market was strong then after the 2007-09 recession, jobs disappeared, less money was circulating, the service industry shrank and the economy contracted. Unemployment is cyclical, is determined by and follows the cycle of industrial wealth. In this boom and bust cycle, unemployment is not an unfortunate side effect of an otherwise solid economy but an inevitable part of an economy that puts short term private profits before long term investment and social welfare and where public sector jobs are lost and the private sector fails to replace them. The government blames unemployed workers for their predicament rather than blaming a private sector that is unable to provide work whilst the public sector is being deliberately under funded. A strong economy requires maximum employment, stable prices (i.e., no inflation of prices which make wages worth less) and growth in industry but unemployment, price increases, low wages and shrinking industry mean inflation, stagnation and recession. Inflation is when prices go up more than wages – and prices always go up, never down – which leads to a decline in purchasing power. This is caused by companies increasing prices for commodities whilst wages remain the same. Strong economies need a wealth of capital, human labour, natural resources as well as technology and the knowledge to utilise it. Investing in the workforce, training and new technology increases productivity. So, if full employment is not achievable and unemployment inevitable, why are the unemployed chastised, vilified and Kyle-ified? Why are the unemployed blamed for the faults of a system that marginalises them through continuous boom and bust cycles, the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2007, 2014? Why are the unemployed seen as a ‘problem’ rather than a continuum within a faulty economic model that focusses on short term profits rather than long term growth? Why is there absolutely no acknowledgment of the inevitable periods of unemployment in education and methods of dealing with enforced idleness, poverty and despair? The unemployed are always with us.