Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Economy and society
Science and culture

Nowhere to turn

Cat Smith on the scandal of the one in five

April's UK unemployment figures in the three months to the end of February revealed there are now 2.48 million out of work, the first drop since last autumn. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said the rate of unemployment in the UK had fallen to 7.8%. The news for young people continues to be concerning with unemployment among 16 to 24-year-olds standing at 963,000, remaining above 20%.

With the recent introduction of changes in the law removing the compulsory retirement age this could spell continuing difficulties for young people looking for work as vacancies do not come up with older people working longer in the current difficult economic circumstances. The older members of the workforce are recovering from the worst of the economic downturn according to the latest figures; the rate of unemployment among 50-64 year olds was unchanged at 4.8%, while the rate for those over 65 fell to 1.9% from 2.5%.

As young people we cannot blame our parents and grandparents for continuing to, work longer, often the reasons for this are because they have to for financial reasons. However, we can ask the Conservative-led government in Westminster why they have scrapped the Future Jobs Fund which was creating job opportunities for young people. So with one hand they remove an opportunity to join the workforce and with the other hand they tripled fees for continuing into higher education. Young people have nowhere to turn. 

As the new £9,000 tuition fees have not yet started it's clear that the biggest barrier to continuing in education is the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) which is already pushing young people out of further education colleges and sixth forms. The EMA is a means-tested allowance of between £10 and £30 a week, paid to 16 to 19 year-olds who stay on in education.


With no jobs out there some employers are delighting in the number of young people willing to work for free. They call it 'interning', I would call it 'modern slavery'. Working in the Westminster Parliament there is no shortage of interns I bump into them and I can assure you that not one of them likes working for free. They want paid jobs but there are not any out there. Often they will say that they are desperate to work which is why they are interning to 'get their foot in the door', although as a tactic it's no sure way into paid work; I'm noticing it's not surprising me anymore when I see interns who are still interning a year on with no sign of pay, and often no expenses or lunch either.

The fact that MPs across all parties use unpaid internships is well known. In 2009, Unite the Union estimated that interns carried out 18,000 hours unpaid work each week in Westminster, and 44% didn't even get travel and food expenses. My trade union branch has argued that in practice Parliamentary interns are actually 'workers' not 'volunteers' and are being exploited. Expenses-only internships also mean that only wealthy people can even consider applying to be an intern. It also means most of the interns working in Parliament are from the London area.

I am an officer of the Unite the Union Parliamentary staff branch and we were amused by Nick Clegg launching his social mobility strategy last week. Clegg, a former intern himself, says he no longer wants to see  people get internships in  Parliament just because their parents 'whisper in the ear' of the right person at their golf club. He also says that he wants to see interns properly remunerated. Which is ironic when it was his father 'whispering in an ear' who gave him his first leg-up. 

Nick Clegg's new social mobility strategy looks hypocritical when Parliament can't get its own House in order. Parliament and its MPs should lead by example. Interns should be paid at least the National Minimum Wage and ideally the Living Wage or London Living Wage. No-one should be forced to pay for the privilege of working in Parliament.

Fall in wages

We have also learnt this month that total pay rose by 2% and regular pay, which excludes bonuses, grew by 2.2% compared with a year earlier, both well below the rate of inflation, as measured by the CPI index, which stands at 4%. So even those in work and earning continue to feel the squeeze in their spending power as many more people will struggle to pay the bills.

We can't forget the gender issues to recent unemployment either. Whilst the number of unemployed men fell by 31,000 in the three months to the end of February, the number of jobless women rose by 14,000. This is in contrast to previous recessions and reflects the growing number of households relying on women's incomes. As the cuts are primarily in the public sector (for now) we were expecting this to be the case. The main concerns are for women-headed single parent families who are already more likely to be living in poverty now being forced to live on state-support when they want to work. With the changes to housing benefit, in particular many families may be forced to move away from the communities they currently live in, and perhaps, away from family support networks. 

What should we expect next?

It is likely that below-trend growth will mean that the private sector will be unable to fully compensate for the increasing job losses in the public sector that will result from the fiscal squeeze that is now really kicking in. As a result the next set of employment statistics will not make happy reading.