How unemployment is different this time around

The last time I was unemployed was 1998. Now, the reality is that there are not enough jobs.

Unemployment is up. As a jobseeker, this comes as no surprise. But what has surprised me about being unemployed this time around is how different things have become, and how much harder it is to find work.

I was last unemployed when I graduated from university, in 1998. To find work, I simply popped into an employment agency, showed I could use a computer and type things, and was offered a series of placements, despite having hardly any work experience. It was pretty straightforward, and I managed to hack a living quite merrily until the fateful day I started working as a journalist. What was the big deal about unemployment? It seemed to be a simple task to find a job, and earn a half-decent living.

This time around, I thought it would be that simple again, so before I was made redundant I popped into a few employment agencies, CV in hand. With much more experience and a wider range of skills than I had back in 1998, I thought it would be even easier this time to glide into temping, or some kind of work. I was wrong.

I knew things had changed when I couldn't even see a human being. "Send in your CV by email," said the weary receptionist at the first place I tried.

"But I've got it here, in my hand, here it is."

"No, it needs to be on email."

So I stood there, in reception, and emailed it using my phone, to someone who was sitting three feet away.

"We'll get back to you," they said. They didn't. And they weren't the only ones who didn't. I must have applied to every employment agency around here, and applied for every job that I think I could reasonably do. Nothing. I've filled in dozens of application forms, repeating the same information again and again, and sent my CV off enough times to kill a few trees, if they'd been printed out. It's been like having a job, but without the money. But still, nothing. It's got to the stage where I regard the terse "Dear Candidate" rejection email as a kind of near miss.

I thought it was something to do with the stigma of being a journalist, as if working in a poorly respected industry meant people perceived you as hacking phones and upsetting grieving relatives all day. But it wasn't that. This is the reality for a lot of people out of work at the moment; there just aren't the jobs to go around. As well as that, for those lucky enough to be on the books of an agency, they're being paid almost the same rate for work as they were paying me all those years ago, when I had a full head of hair. It's as if all the time in between never happened, but I look in the mirror and I realise it has.

So, it's the Jobcentre every two weeks to collect the 60-odd quid I get for having paid national insurance for the past 13 years. They call it Jobcentre Plus nowadays -- I think the "plus" is "plus a sense of grinding ennui and despair". The people inside are helpful and kind, and do their best for me, I know, but I have grown to feel sick about my fortnightly visits to sign on. That building is Svidrigailov, taunting me, teasing me, forcing me to confess... confess to a sense of hopelessness. You can't hide it when it's staring you in the face. Those who have been doing this for some time tell me I'll face pretend applications, literacy and numeracy tests, training courses to show I know how to use a computer, all to ensure I'm really trying my best to get a job. The humiliation will be complete, although I don't feel sorry for myself. I'm just disappointed that I can't do any better.

All that said, I think I'm extremely lucky. It could be so much worse. I'm fortunate enough to be able to scrape a couple of hours' work here and there, and my partner works hard to pay the mortgage (you don't get housing benefit if you've got a mortgage) and the bills while I dick around at home, doing nothing except writing and applying for jobs that I won't ever get. There will come a time, quite soon, when I will do something -- anything -- rather than this.

But I am lucky to have that choice. I hear stories from others about how much worse it is if you're disabled, or claiming long-term sickness, and are facing the barrage of suspicion and contempt from those who think you're faking it, or putting it on. Compared to which, me being on Job Seekers Allowance is really a small, and hopefully temporary, inconvenience. But it's an inconvenience that a few more people are having to go through than before. And it's an inconvenience that seems a lot harder than it used to be.

 

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Getty
Show Hide image

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.