It may be too late to save the UK economy from recession

Today has seen a flood of bad economic news. The Autumn Statement may be too little, too late.

I am really hoping that one of these mornings I am going to wake up to some good economic news. But today was definitely not that day. The continuing flow of bad news on top of bad news is something we are all now becoming accustomed to.

I can only imagine how Vince and George feel every day when they open the economics and business pages of the newspapers. I did think it was time to try to be optimistic but I could find zero good news on the economics front; sorry. Neither Papendreou nor Berlusconi's resignations appear to have calmed the market's nerves.

Today started with an email from REC/KPMG's report on Jobs showing that the number of permanent placements had gone into negative territory. Recall that the latest labour market estimates from the ONS showed that employment had fallen over the last quarter by 178,000. So this is very bad news as it suggests that the labour market is headed downwards fast. Unemployment is set to rise again and there is every likelihood that youth unemployment will hit the million mark very soon.

No wonder there are thousands of youngsters on the streets of London, to this point protesting peacefully, about the government's lack of a credible higher education policy or any strategy to deal with rising youth unemployment.

But the bad news continued to flood in all morning. First there was the ONS publication of August's trade in goods deficit revised from £7.8bn to £8.6bn, but the deficit then widened further in September to £9.8bn - the biggest on record.

Second the CBI cut its growth forecast for 2011 to 0.9 per cent from 1.3, and for 2012 to 1.2 from 2.2 per cent, which is slightly more optimistic than NIESR's estimate yesterday of 0.8 and 0.9 per cent - recall that the OBR expects 2.6 per cent in 2011 and 2.8 per cent in 2012.

Third, the ICAEW/Grant Thornton Business Confidence Monitor showed business confidence has collapsed - companies are as gloomy about the outlook now as they were in the depths of the recession. The slump in sentiment pointed to a 0.2 per cent drop in GDP in Q42011.

And finally, we mustn't forget Italy - their 10 year bond yields were up 66bp at 7.37 per cent at noon today which is in bailout territory. Spanish yields were also up at 5.7 per cent. Greek yields are already over 25 per cent while 10 year Portuguese yields are over 11 per cent. This suggests the eurozone is heading into recession which hurts the UK economy which also now seems headed that way. Q42011 and Q12012 look likely to have negative GDP growth, which is consistent with a technical definition of a recession.

So the headwinds continue to gather. The Autumn Statement at the end of the month looks like it is going to be too little too late to prevent the UK economy going back into recession. I did warn them.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.