While the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson praises the country’s golden future as soon as Brexit has been accomplished by 31 October, increasing social inequality in the UK has dropped off the agenda. However, nine years of Conservative and Conservative-led governments have left their mark with many people stranded in abject poverty. The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston recently referred to government policy as “designing a digital and sanitised version of the 19th Century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens” (BBC, 22 May 2019). In this blog post, I will look at precarious employment as one of the key causes of inequality.
Michael, not his real name, is keen on finding employment and contacted several employment agencies in Nottingham, one of the most impoverished areas in the East Midlands. ‘After the selection day at a local employment agency,’ he writes, ‘I was instructed to register before 5pm in order to put my name on the list for work the next day. They then stated that they (the agency) would contact 10 people in the morning but they only needed 5. Meaning it was a race to get there and anyone who wasn’t needed would be turned away.’
The employer was not some kind of unknown company. ‘The vacancy was at Marks & Spencer’s warehouse in Castle Donington, which is roughly 15 miles away from Nottingham with travel costs of £6.50 a day. The journey takes over an hour, meaning that to get there for 9am, I would have to travel from Nottingham at 7am, and if I was unable to get any work that day, I would have travelled for 3 hours there and back for absolutely nothing.’
It is the combination of zero-hour contracts, in which employees do not receive any guaranteed amount of hours per week, and the role of employment agencies, which underpin the widespread phenomenon of in-work poverty. ‘More than 500,000 British workers have been swept into working poverty over the past five years, according to a report that shows the number of people with a job but living below the breadline has risen faster than employment’ (The Guardian, 4 December 2018). Overall, there are four million workers in the UK, who live in poverty. Zero hour contracts and jobs with low numbers of hours have taken their toll on working Britain.
And yet, poverty and inequality are not natural phenomena. They are the result of political decisions. It is here where the Labour Party comes in as a progressive alternative to Tory austerity. Its Manifesto pledges to abolish zero-hour contracts and introducing a minimum wage of £10 per hour go a long way towards addressing the problem of in-work poverty. Only a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell can turn round the situation!