Mini-jobs: Will they help?

A new legal category of work might help people into unemployment.

The creation of "mini-jobs", which allow people to take on work without paying tax or national insurance, is being considered by the Treasury as one of a package of measures to make it easier to create employment.

The idea – being promoted by some influential Conservative MPs – is modelled on a scheme in Germany, in which employees can earn up to €400 a month (about £314) without giving up any of their salary, and employers pay only a flat rate to cover pensions, social insurance and wage taxes, making administration simpler.

People can hold several mini-jobs up to the €400 a month tax-free limit, with the only impact on their income being the reduction of unemployment benefit over a certain threshold. Between €400 and €800, workers pay tax on a sliding scale.

As discussed in an ex-ante appraisal of Germany’s 2003 mini-jobs reform by the DIW Berlin, the plan is essentially a subsidy on low earnings so as to increase employment in low wage markets and to ease the long-term unemployed into the labour market.

Firstly, on the supply side, it is argued that welfare recipients are unlikely to enter the labour force when the already low wages they have access to are further depressed by social security contributions. Secondly, on the demand side, DIW argue that:

Given limited downward wage flexibility in the low wage sector due to binding minimum wages, SSC have to be borne at least partially by the employer of low-skilled workers, thus reducing their employment.

The Free Enterprise Institute, which has spearheaded the appeal for "mini-jobs" in the UK, has praised the German reform for lowering youth unemployment, increasing turnover in the jobs market, and increasing temporary work by two per cent in ten years. The report goes on to lament the fact that temporary workers account for just six per cent of the UK labour force, in contrast to Germany’s 15 per cent.

While the merits of increasing temporary employment are at best contentious, German commentators have criticised the mini-jobs model for creating "a massive disincentive for the unemployed".

Rather than bridging the gap between the labour market and the marginalised, they argue, mini-jobs have further ostracised the peripheries of the labour force by trapping them in low-wage jobs that offer no margin for progression. It is held that the subsidies, by inflating the value of low-wage jobs (as is intended) will lead people to substitute longer-term, more stable sources of income with mini-jobs. This, one can argue, while soothing unemployment in the short run, can have hazardous effects for income inequality, as well as stifle the development of a skilled labour force. Similarly, employers will be encouraged to fragment existing full-time jobs into series of mini jobs, thus extending the potential evils of the reform beyond those that are currently excluded from the labour market.

Consequently, the subsidy (as predicted by the aforementioned DIW paper) may reduce tax revenue without actually reducing welfare subsidies. This is confirmed by Johannes Jakob of the Federation of German Unions, who contends that the most viable option consists in combining welfare with a tax-free mini-job.

While the initiative may induce some people to temporarily seek employment, it is likely that mini-jobs will prove an expensive and structurally venomous distortion of the labour market.

John Lennon in a Mini Cooper. Well how would you illustrate mini jobs? Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.