Recovery, what recovery?

By Bernadette Meaden
August 13, 2014

Every day the gap between real life experience of the economy, and the version of events offered by the government and mainstream media, seems to get wider. It is surely only a matter of time before somebody tells us we have never had it so good.

The latest
employment figures
have been trumpeted as a sign of success by government ministers, and there seems little appetite in the mainstream media to question this view. The fact that pay is falling in real terms, and many jobs involve exploitative terms and conditions, is not seen as a major issue. Very little attention is paid to the invisible 1.07 million people who are counted as unemployed but who do not or cannot claim Jobseeker’s Allowance.

Some people just disappear from the statistics altogether. I personally know two middle-aged individuals who are unable to work and have been utterly defeated by the current punitive benefits system. They are both completely without support and forced to rely on family to survive. There must be many more like them across the UK. I tweeted about this today, and received a heartbreaking response from @sharpsecret: "Been supporting our disabled son for mnths. No benefits or LA support. Now we’ve run out of money & have to sell our house."

As BBC News reported "Self-employment is one of the big stories of the recovery. One in seven workers in the UK is now working for themselves." The government hails this rise in self-employment as some sort of entrepreneurial renaissance, when in reality it is part of the increasingly precarious nature of work, alongside zero-hours contracts and short-term agency work. Employers get all the benefits of a committed workforce, with very few of the responsibilities.

One employment lawyer has described the rise in self-employment as the "contracting out of employment rights." People that would previously have had an employer paying National Insurance, sick pay, holiday pay, maternity pay etc, now have no choice but to be ‘self-employed’, losing rights and taking on all the responsibilities and risk that entails.

The son of a friend is now ‘self-employed’ delivering vehicles around the country. If he delivers a vehicle from Liverpool to Southampton for instance, the company may say that should take six hours, so he gets paid for six hours. If the traffic is bad and it takes longer, he doesn’t get paid any more. And he doesn’t get paid for his time or expenses on the return journey, so he often hitchhikes home. The company gets the job done at minimal cost, and he earns a derisory hourly rate.

When covering the rise in self-employment the BBC, rather ironically perhaps, chose to report on Hermes, the parcel delivery service, saying, "Parcel delivery firm Hermes uses 9,500 self-employed workers. It calls them 'lifestyle couriers'. Martijn de Lange, operations director at Hermes, says staff like the freedom of choosing how much work they do. They often fit the job around other work or childcare." He went on to say that people must be happy with the pay, otherwise they wouldn’t take the contracts.

The BBC may have forgotten a Newsnight report from 3rd December 2010 which alleged that Hermes' self-employed couriers should be regarded as direct employees, and also accused the company of exploiting them, claiming they were paid as little as 50p for deliveries and were liable to have work withdrawn if they went off sick. Or they may have been unaware of more recent reports, like the story of Joy Leader, 56, who had worked for Hermes for 14 years but had her contract cancelled because she lost a handheld device.

When MPS recently investigated zero-hours contracts they found "evidence of Jobcentre Plus staff putting pressure on jobseekers to accept work without guaranteed hours and threatening sanctions if they turned the job down or tried to leave when insufficient hours were available."

The truth is that the employment figures look relatively good because many people have been bullied into, or otherwise forced to accept, highly unsuitable and exploitative work, for employers who are reaping the rewards. Workers are caught in a pincer movement between bosses and the DWP.

Employers know that if they offer someone on JSA a job, however low the pay or poor the conditions, they have very little choice other than to accept it. Refusing any ‘reasonable offer’ of employment will trigger sanctions. And of course, it’s the Jobcentre which decides whether an offer is reasonable, not the person who will actually have to do the job.

If there is a recovery, it’s a recovery for business, not for workers. If we are on the road to prosperity, we are leaving too many people behind.

© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.