How You Doing?

We have an economic recovery – of sorts. But can you feel it? Are you better off now than you were in 2010? As Bill Clinton famously said when running against President Bush (Snr) in 1992, ‘How you doing?’

Economic growth of 0.8% in the first quarter of 2014 is of course welcome, but whilst the economy as a whole remains smaller than its peak in 2008, it is true to say that we have had six years of falling living standards. What is more, wage rises for the vast majority of working people still lag behind the Consumer Price Index once you strip out bonuses, whilst the explosion of insecure zero hours contracts reported by the ONS show that 1.4million faced “non-guaranteed hours”, with a further 1.3m that “did not provide work”.

As Ed Miliband has rightly said, this “epidemic” of irregular shifts has increased three-fold since 2010 and is “incompatible with building a loyal, skilled and productive workforce.” For those of us who wish to see a more balanced, egalitarian economy, benefiting all sectors of society and where reward and recognition is not confined to those at the top, who have already seen their financial rewards climb beyond all merit. This exploitative employee behaviour is economically and morally indefensible.

Of course, employers want what they euphemistically term ‘a flexible workforce’. Yet, one man’s flexibility is another’s insecurity and Labour are right to seek reform of working practices that mirror those experienced by millions at the beginning of the 20th century.

Workers like my grandfather, forced to congregate on Albert Dock in Liverpool in the early 1900s, waiting to be tapped on the shoulder before he knew whether he had a day’s work and would be able to feed his family. Workers who had no guaranteed minimum income, little protection from dangerous and unregulated working conditions and unable to plan for the future, never knowing whether they will be able to make ends meet (we had charity food hand-outs then too).A million people now rely on Trussell Trust hand-outs to eat, yet the Trussell Trust provide just 37% of the 1000+ food banks nationwide, meaning the true figure of those who are unable to feed their families without charity support is way beyond a million.

Zero hours contracts however are just one consequence of a deliberate political and economic strategy of austerity Britain and as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report makes clear, they are just one part of the UK’s in-work poverty problem.

Millions are confined to part-time work whilst seeking full-time employment, child tax credits and other in work benefits have either been cut or frozen and the essentials, such as food, utility bills and housing costs, that the poorest spend a higher proportion of their income on than those with fat wallets, continue to rise at a rate above inflation. Indeed, bizarrely, housing costs are actually excluded from the increasingly meaningless official inflation figures. All whilst scandalously under-regulated landlords hike up rents paid for by you and me through a huge increase in housing benefit. Housing benefit that goes straight to the pockets of landlords, not tenants, as many seem to believe.

All this and more is the backdrop to what right-wing commentators would have us believe is the miracle of George Osborne’s economy strategy, but which for many is simply a mirage. However, if you really do believe that we are just one step away from sustained economic and balanced growth, let me tell you what’s happening in one small corner of Essex. Yes Essex, in the South-East of England, traditionally thought of as doing better than most places and where people are told the economy is at its strongest.

At what will soon become a former manufacturing site, occupied by a company who last year announced record profits, handsomely rewarding the sort of company directors who never appear to think that wage restraint and financial discipline that they so often demand of their workforce, apply to them, over 100 people have faced redundancy. Whilst some have found work elsewhere, others have been forced to relocate, up-rooting their families in the process, employees with scientific graduate skills struggle to even secure interviews for technician roles in schools offering salaries way below their current income.

Unskilled workers and security employees left behind fare even worse. In being asked to apply for their present job by the company awarded the contract to secure what will soon be an empty site, those security personnel, already working the sort of unsociable hours that prevent all but the most transient home life, are being offered 12 hour shift patterns at minimum wage whilst being expected to fund their own training costs.

Some may consider this to be an economic recovery worth shouting about. Some may think that forcing the poorest in work employees to continue to chase a rat race which affords them a decreasing share of generated company profits, with working practices we were once all proud to have all but abolished a century ago, is progress. Some may even think that the millions of people whose work and home lives are increasingly insecure and hollowed out in the process, are a necessary part of ‘flexibility in a global economy’ (and other such self-serving, trite corporate management speak). I and millions of others see it as insufficiently regulated capital hovering up wealth on behalf of an ever distant economic elite.

So I ask again, How you doing?