UK unemployment will get worse before it gets better

Without targeted action, the UK will suffer.

Everyone knows it is tough to get a job right now. But it’s going to get worse, before it gets better. That’s the judgement of the Office for Budget Responsibility. Their latest forecast, published by George Osborne alongside the Budget, shows that unemployment will peak at 8.7 per cent and it will not fall until quarter three 2013, next September at the earliest.

The UK’s unemployment rate (8.4 per cent) is the worst for 17 years, since 1995. But the OBR’s forecast suggests that another hundred thousand more people in Britain will be without a job before the end of the summer. IPPR analysis – based on the pattern of the increase in 2011 – shows that 50,000 more men and more 50,000 women will become unemployed this year, with 100,000 public sector jobs lost and the 200,000 new jobs created in the private sector being matched by the increase in the number of people looking for work in the UK.

Young people will continue to bear the brunt of unemployment, with an extra 41,000 young people aged under 25 joining those already unemployed breaking a new record, since records began in 1992. At the other end of the age scale, an extra 7,000 people aged over 50 will become unemployed, who will find it very tough to find work again.

Overall, unemployment will not "peak" until at least September and if unemployment rises again this month, as the OBR predicts, it will be the tenth month in a row. In America, unemployment is falling and the economy growing. Last year, the US economy grew by 1.7 per cent versus 0.8 per cent in Britain. US employment grew 1.2 per cent while Britain lagged at 0.7 per cent. And US growth appears to be accelerating: it was 0.7 per cent in the final quarter of 2011 compared with a decline of 0.2 per cent for Britain.

An important reason why America is stronger is that President Obama has maintained his commitment to fiscal stimulus while the UK has focused on austerity. The biggest danger in the UK is not Greek-style default but Japanese-style stagnation. But even if the government won’t change its fiscal stance, there is something to learn from America.

The primary tool for US stimulus has been a payroll tax cut introduced in 2010 and recently extended with cross-party support through 2012. The cut reduced the rate of an employee’s contribution to social security from 6.2 to 4.2 per cent, putting $1,000 per year into families’ pockets. This has injected $92 billion a year of stimulus into the economy and US consumer spending increased by 2.2 per cent last year while it shrank by 0.8 per cent in Britain. One might think this extra spending was at the expense of debt reduction, but the reverse is true — US households have reduced debts by 11 per cent since the bubble burst as against only 5 per cent for Britain.

This combination of increasing consumption and reducing debt is the key to recovery. Businesses in Britain and around the world are sitting on record piles of cash: $2 trillion globally. But they won’t invest that cash and create jobs until they see the demand for their products and services rising. And squeezed consumers won’t create that demand until they have confidence they can spend a bit more and manage their debts.

This has been the longest recession and the slowest recovery that Britain has ever experienced. The personal tragedy of the slow economic recovery is the way unemployment will continue to rise, even once the economy begins to grow. The risk is that high unemployment becomes a permanent feature of the UK economy, as it did in the 1980s. Even within the context of the Government’s deficit reduction plan, it is short-sighted of the not to do more to get people back into jobs.

People queue outside a jobcentre at the height of the recession. Credit: Getty

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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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.