For every one of those people who has found a job, it is good news that the number of people in employment has risen. I only spent a few months looking for work, and every rejection saps your confidence while the bills keep coming in. But figures which record more people in work and fewer people claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) are pretty meaningless on their own.
For a start, the two measures are not entirely correlated – someone finding a job is not necessarily someone coming off benefits. I was never claiming JSA while I was job-hunting. Likewise, someone coming off JSA is not the same as someone finding a job. The current stream of people relying in desperation on food banks thanks to the brutal system of punitive sanctions is testament to that. This, I think, is at the heart of the Bishops’ recent criticism of government policy. Finding yourself with no money for four or six weeks without warning is hardly going to inspire hope.
But even if we accept that more people are finding work, the figures still do not tell the whole story. I’d like to know what kind of work people are finding. During the recession, thousands and thousands of people in the public and private sectors were made redundant. Many of these jobs were full-time, well-paid, permanent contracts with secure terms and conditions. The labour market has been badly damaged since then, with less security for workers, and an increase in short-term, part-time, low-paid jobs. The fuss over zero-hours contracts has died down, but the situation remains that people can get such a job, their JSA stops, but they don’t get any income because they don’t get any work.
We need to see more than the headline figures before we decide if the economy is really getting better. It is important that we know that the number of people who are self-employed is continuing to rise – great if you want to measure entrepreneurship but not so great for job security. And the number of people working part-time is also still 46,000 more than this time last year. This should be considered alongside the measure of people working part-time only because they can’t find full-time work – currently almost 5% of everyone who is working, or 1.4 million people, nearly as high as it has ever been.
The other price we have paid for a rising number of jobs in an environment of weakening workers’ rights is a drop in the real value of wages. Inflation may be falling, but at 1.9% it is still higher than the latest figures on weekly earnings increase of 1.1%, and we have got several years of rising prices and falling wages to catch up on. And for those on the lowest wages, rising prices have a bigger impact, as food and fuel take up a bigger proportion of household spending.
Finding a job is a good news story for every individual involved. But before we hail it as good news for the economy as a whole, and a sign of our economic recovery, I’d like us to evaluate the quality of the jobs which are being created. We need more full-time jobs, permanent contracts and better wages. This needs to include actually enforcing the minimum wage to root out unscrupulous employers, and moving as a society towards the living wage to ensure that being in work means you can actually support your family.