Friday, 17 October 2014

Britons need more than a pay rise

The film, Two days, One night, starring Marion Cotillard as Belgium factory worker Sandra will have struck a chord with many workers today.

Sandra is told she will be made redundant unless she can persuade her fellow workers to give up their bonuses. She goes one to one seeking to persuade the different individuals of her cause. In the end she succeeds in converting half the workforce to her cause. This is not enough but the boss is impressed at her fortitude and says she can have a job when one of the other workers is released. She refuses, knowing that it will be one of those who voted to support her who will be let go.

The lesson of the film being the need to show solidarity, organise collectively and work for the common good.

The film is so timely at a moment of unprecedented insecurity in the workplace. The present much lauded economic recovery has in the main been prefaced on forcing more people into low paid insecure work. This is most clearly evidenced with the movement of more than one million workers, since 2010, from the more secure better paid employment of the public sector to the lower paid insecure work of the private sector.

There are now 1.4 million people on zero hour contracts, with two in every five of the new jobs created over recent years being self employed.

Some 4.5 million are classified as self employed. The  official figures published by Parliament found that the average annual income from self-employment is less than £10,000 for women - in case anyone should think that self employment is the exclusive status of aspiring entrepreneurs, the number of whom have incidentally declined by 52,000 over the four year period (2010 to 2014).  

Then there has been the growth in part time workers, who now account for 8 million out of the 30 million workforce. They account for half of the jobs created between 2010 and 2012. And it is not a life style choice or a matter of work life balance, most of those on part time jobs wanted full time employment but they had to take what was on offer.

At the same time real weekly wages overall have fallen by 8% since 2008, equivalent to a fall in annual earnings of about £2,000 for a typical worker in Britain.

In work poverty has also been on the increase with a growing amount of the benefits budget going to those in rather than out of work. An example is housing benefit, which has gone up by 59% since 2010.

The number of housing benefit claimants in work rose from 650,561 in May 2010 to 1.03 million by the end of last year.

The House of Commons Library calculated the amount spent on in-work housing benefit will rise from £3.4 billion in the 2010-11 financial year to £5.1 billion in 2014-15, making a total of £21.9 billion over the five-year parliament ending at next year’s election

The increase has been due to rents going up whilst wages have fallen or remained static. This situation is a good example of welfare for the rich, with landlords profiting out of the benefits budget whilst the poor struggle, less able to pay, but still getting the blame for their own poverty.

Just over half of the 13 million people in poverty - surviving on less than 60% of the national median (middle) income - were from working families.

This whole situation is very difficult to understand, set as it has been against a background of increasing wealth, evidenced by the presence of more than 100 billionaires (up by 12 over the past year). The wealth created though seems to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

It has been against this background that the political parties have been laying out their stalls ahead of the general election next May. There seems some consensus on the need to raise the minimum wage, this no doubt born out of the fact that capitalism itself needs people to have the money to spend on goods. The present situation is dysfunctional even in capitalist terms with the few who are getting richer, putting their money – often offshore-  so that tax can be avoided. More money is needed in the economy.

The Labour Party’s commitment to raise the minimum wage to £8 was welcome, until it became clear that this was to be over five years. The rise needs to be implemented far quicker.  What is really needed is a commitment to a living wage.

Labour has also made noises about zero hours contracts but putting the boss of Morrisons in charge of its review of this type of work has not filled anyone with much hope.  The strings that seem likely to be attached to any reform (such as working a year to gain employment rights) thus far planned seem unlikely to make much difference at all to the zero hours culture that pervades increasing numbers of work places.

Ed Balls talk of cutting child benefits and more austerity is not exactly the language to stir supporters onto the streets to campaign for a new Labour government.

There needs to be some proper regulation of work, not simply cutting back all of the time. As the TUC march and rally on 18 October declares Britain needs a pay rise. The economy is on the upturn people are told but it appears to be the bosses trousering all the profits. There needs to be a redistribution of wealth to those who actually do the work.
There also needs to be a change of ethos away from insecure low paid work of the zero hours culture toward the more secure, better paid work that has in the past typified public sector work. The whole things needs urgently rebalancing. The TUC event is a start but the Labour Party has got to pick up the baton and put policies into practice that work for the mass of people and the common good of all. This does not mean toadying up to business and promising to be meaner and more in favour of the rich and powerful than the Tories.

* The common good of all must be met - Morning Star - 17/10/2014
* Austerity days and nights- Britons need more than a pay rise - 17/10/2014

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