“The jobs market is thriving” says Chancellor Rishi Sunak... Instead of a huge rise in unemployment after the end of furlough, as some predicted, employment is now, according to the national statistics office, 409,000 above the pre-pandemic level... This is, we are told, “excellent news”!
Whether it is “excellent” enough to hide the bad news surrounding Johnson, as a result of his partying, or the latest allegations of damning lies from that paragon of truth, the sacked Johnson advisor Dominic Cummings, is altogether another question!
But whatever is going on - or not - in Downing Street, the current reality facing the working class and its wages, jobs and conditions, remains unchanged. So what then, about these latest figures, which show that employment is up by half a million jobs?
It should, of course, be remembered that the ONS definition of “employment”, includes, to quote their website, “anyone aged 16, or over, who has completed at least one hour of work in the reference week, or are temporarily away from his or her job, such as being on holiday”. So, an extremely wide and flexible definition! And it gives no indication whatsoever of how many workers are in a real job, paying a real wage!
If experience is anything to go by, a large number of this so-called “employment” remains temporary, if not downright precarious: in other words, what is really “thriving” is the zero-hours contract!
Famine amid plenty
In fact this situation recalls the often-quoted line from the “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” which goes: “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink!”. There may be vacancies everywhere, but when you look for a decent permanent job which pays a decent wage, you just cannot find one!
Well, not directly, anyway... you have to line up in the queue for a temp agency job which will subcontract you to some boss somewhere, usually on the minimum wage. Which means the only security is insecurity!
The bosses’ mouthpiece, the Financial Times (FT), writes this week that “there are 1.25 million vacancies - with a quarter of a million of these unfilled jobs in health and social care sector” (the underlying cause of much of the chaos in the NHS and the 6 million-long waiting list!). It goes on to ask why it is, in the face of worker-scarcity, that average wages are not rising? And even more surprising, it points out, not only are wages not rising, they are actually falling! Yes, the ONS, quoted by the FT, reports that “average earnings [are] now falling in real terms, with inflation outpacing pay gains”.
In fact it is precisely this problem that is the most urgent issue for the working class to address. Official inflation is due to hit a 30-year high in the coming months. According to the experts, it will reach at least 7% in April (which will be at least 8%, using the “old” RPI measurement)!
Prices up? wages up!
Rising inflation is almost all caused by skyrocketing energy costs. This is not only happening in Britain, but everywhere in the world, thanks to the gas and oil giants’ fixing of prices at a higher rate after the glut in their product, due to the pandemic, drove prices down!
So here, the government’s cap is coming off the energy tariff, thus allowing energy companies to increase their prices, in turn. Everyone’s energy bills will go up on average by £60 per month. Yet already there are reports of the elderly, disabled and those on the lowest incomes, suffering hypothermia, because they cannot afford to turn their heating on.
In this context, the super-greedy OVO Energy, a major supplier, showed its contempt for the poor by offering tips to its “taken-over” SSE customers on"keeping warm in winter without turning up the heating"! It suggested they cuddle their pets, or do star jumps! However, it has not “suggested” it could keep its prices at the same level, let alone cut them!
So what about the Labour Party’s grand alternative suggestion, that to help against these rising energy costs, VAT on energy bills is scrapped? This would reduce them by... 5%! Yup, when they’ve gone up by 50%!
Others suggest that the costs accruing from the 40 suppliers which went bust due to the rise in wholesale prices last year - and which are added to customers’ bills (!!) - be paid out of income tax. So workers should just pay another way..!
Yet what about suggesting that those past energy super-profits, paid by consumers into shareholders’ pockets are raked back? Or more simply, that the whole sector - with its 4 major suppliers still holding billions in profit - is taken back fully, into public hands?
That said, calling for nationalisation of the energy sector is no answer to the immediate crisis affecting working class pockets. But workers have their own answer to this - and it is within quick and easy reach. With the critical shortage of hands in so many sectors, it would be possible to mount a fight across all of them for decent, much higher, pay - and an end to precarious, temporary jobs. This kind of fight - across both public and private sectors - has not been undertaken so far. It is long overdue!