UK: The Guardian view on work: it’s not just a job
Ministers have come to rely on monthly employment statistics to provide a regular injection of good economic news. Wednesday’s were no different: employment rates have climbed steadily in the last five years, and now stand at 74.6%. Unemployment is at a 42-year low. Britain’s jobs recovery is certainly welcome. But it should not distract from the structural issues that are blighting the labour market.
Jobs have been created, but at a cost to take-home pay and job security. The Institute for Fiscal Studies expects average real earnings to be no higher in 2022 than they were before the financial crisis: a situation it describes as “unprecedented”. Inflation is outstripping pay growth. High levels of employment are accompanied by very low productivity growth. Growing numbers of low-paid, low-skilled workers are also facing deepening job insecurity. The TUC estimates one in 10 people are now affected by precarious work, such as low-paid self-employment, agency working or zero-hours contracts. Too much of the work that has been generated since the crisis unfairly shifts risk from employers on to workers, who miss out on basic employment rights such as sickness pay, parental leave and protection against unfair dismissal.
The growing employment rate also obscures the fact that the number of disabled people out of work has remained stubbornly high. The benefits of working for those who can, despite a disability or a mental health condition, are well established. But disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as those without a disability. The results of the work programme, the government’s welfare-to-work support for the long-term unemployed, have been dismal for those with a disability: only one in six found a job, compared to one in three of those without a disability.
The government has a manifesto commitment to halving the disability employment gap by 2020. This is a welcome and ambitious target, which would require supporting more than a million disabled people into work. But now it is massively scaling back the employment support it offers disabled people. In the last parliament, around 150,000 a year benefited from employment support from specialist providers. Under the new work and health programme being introduced this autumn, the Department for Work and Pensions estimates just 27,000 a year will receive support. Even if they all found jobs, this would be nowhere near approaching the levels required to meet the government’s target. Beyond this, disabled people needing support will be directed to Jobcentre Plus, which is already having to cope with the rollout of universal credit – and providing support for an extra 200,000 people a year who would have previously been referred to the work programme, now scrapped. This is entirely self-defeating: high-quality back-to-work support for disabled people could pay for itself over the long term, through a higher tax-take and lower benefits spending.
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