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Job insecurity for life

The threat of redundancy and debt has made the nineties' slump a nightmare for many people. And drastic changes in working practices have made the sense of insecurity worse still.

Elli Dashwood details the impact of unemployment and 'flexible' working on our lives today.

Andrew Calcutt's interviews reveal how, whether it's in the glamorous world of television or the squalor of the London underground, going to work is getting tougher all the time

Nobody is safe any more. It doesn't seem to matter what job you do, the threat of redundancy hangs over your head. And even those who can hang on to a job are not insulated from the climate of economic insecurity. People are having to put up with whatever working conditions their employers impose, for fear that their job might otherwise disappear altogether.


By March 1992 official unemployment had risen for 22 consecutive months, to reach 2 804 000. The real jobless total, discounting all the Tory government's attempts to fiddle the figures, would be a million more.

Job losses are no longer concentrated in the traditional industries and manufacturing sectors which accounted for the rise of mass unemployment in the early eighties. Now the sectors which grew in the short credit-financed boom of the late eighties are also shaking out jobs. Indeed the drop in employment is most noticeable in the sectors where there is furthest to fall.

In the eighties, the Tories claimed that service sectors like retailing, banking and finance, along with construction and hi-tech engineering, could compensate for the decline of traditional manufacturing industries in Britain. In the slump of the nineties, however, these 'new' sectors are among those in which companies are forcing through the most redundancies.

Many of the sectors which grew briefly in the late eighties were concentrated in the south-east, and their more dramatic decline is highlighted by regional patterns of job-loss. Total unemployment rates across the country were fairly even in March 1992--10.8 per cent in the North and 8.3 per cent in the south-east. But the rate of increase shows a marked differential.

Since March 1990, unemployment in the north has risen by 16.5 per cent. In the south-east it has soared by 61 per cent. That region has accounted for more than half of the total rise in joblessness during the past two years. The boom towns of yesterday are the new unemployment blackspots.

Rising unemployment always has an impact on people's attitude to work. But today the sense of insecurity is being accentuated by the collapse of the sectors which were seen as the source of tomorrow's jobs. Many of those who did well out of the eighties' credit boom are no more likely to survive in the nineties than anyone else. A job for life is a thing of the past, and those in employment are holding on for dear life.

One consequence of this has been to strengthen the employer's hand in the workplace. Through the eighties, the defeat of the old labour movement enabled British bosses to institute important changes in employment patterns and working practices. These are now compounding people's problems at work.

'Flexible' working

One of the most significant trends of recent years has been the introduction of 'flexible' employment and working practices. The employers' aim is to create 'the so-called flexible firm in which variations in demand for labour - they call it "numerical flexibility"--are absorbed by recruiting or shedding labour from the firm's "peripheral workforce". This comprises such workers as self-employed sub-contractors, directly employed temporary workers, agency temporary workers and part-timers' (Employment Gazette, March 1992).

As the table opposite indicates, the majority of the labour force now work 'flexibly' in one way or another, whether by doing overtime (often compulsory), working part time or by becoming self-employed. The common factor in all 'flexible' working practices is that they involve the employees bending to suit the needs of the boss at any one time.

Flexible working is certainly a bonus for the employer, who finds it easier to hire, fire and get more out of his workers as the company requires. The notion that flexible working is an advantage to workers themselves, on the other hand, is one of the biggest cons of the decade. Self-employment and part-time working are both cases in point.


Becoming self-employed - 'being your own boss' - was promoted in the eighties as part of Margaret Thatcher's crusade for the individual. Encouraged by the government, self-employment grew by 57 per cent between 1981 and 1991, when it accounted for 14 per cent of all employment. But far from escaping the fear of unemployment, the self-employed now find themselves less secure than ever.

Most of the increase was in the south, where employed workers turned themselves into one-man sub-contractors or businesses in a bid to secure work in such unstable sectors as construction, hotel and catering, and other services. Even when the economy appeared to be doing relatively well, many of the self-employed found it tough to make a decent living; 25 per cent of self-employed women work more than 45 hours a week, while 25 per cent of self-employed men work more than 60 hours.

If the self-employed person's business has survived until now, it will be finding times tougher and tougher. Sub-contractors' livelihoods are dependent on whether bigger businesses are expanding enough to hire them. In the current slump, when the big firms are suffering, the sub-contractors are going to the wall.

Using sub-contractors makes things easier for many employers, who can hire labour without giving any guarantees and get rid of it without paying any penalties. For the worker, self-employment probably means even less control over the future than before. They are at the mercy of others with no back-up or stability at all.

Part-time working

The government and the employers tell us that working part-time provides more choice. Women in particular are supposed to benefit from being able to have a family and a job. In fact, many women have no choice at all; the lack of decent and affordable childcare facilities makes part-time work the only kind they can do. It is the employers who get the real choice. They are free to employ less full-time labour and more part-time workers, who are far cheaper and more 'flexible' (easy to lay off).

During the eighties, 70 per cent of labour force growth was due to women's employment, mostly part-time. Three quarters of all employed women work in the low-paid service sectors. Part-timers get little or no employment protection. The law makes a 16-hour working week the minimum requirement for any entitlement to maternity benefits, reinstatement after maternity or redundancy payments. More than a third of all women work less than 16 hours a week.

In June 1990, an Income Data Services report noted that 'families are becoming more dependent on income provided by part-timers. It is no longer pin money for extras such as holidays, but is now used for mortgage repayments, rent, etc'. Given the steep rise in redundancies among full-time workers since then, the trend towards families living on part-time wages must be increasing.

The availability of cheap, unprotected part-time labour gives the employers more leverage over the entire workforce. It makes full-time jobs on a decent wage harder to come by and hold on to.

Unstable living standards

For those in work today, an apparently good job doesn't necessarily mean a decent standard of living. It has been estimated that annual growth in earnings is now at its lowest since 1967. The average rate of wages growth may still be above the official rate of inflation. But in real terms, maintaining living standards today often means working longer and harder. Half of all employees now work some 'unsociable' hours for their money. If their employer doesn't need them to do so, their income falls.

The sense of instability is added to by other factors. The threat of home repossession and default on other personal debt intensifies the sense that your life could easily fall apart.

Debt worries

In 1992, a big proportion of personal wealth is tied up in housing, reflecting increasing home ownership. But the slump in house prices and the continuing high interest rates mean that many people are now paying more than they can afford for property that is worth less and less. The spectre of mortgage arrears and possible repossession assumes even more importance, since most now have less cash savings available to fall back on.

Around 12 per cent of all households now have a debt problem of some description, two thirds of these involving mortgages. It's not surprising that most people now fear what tomorrow may bring. Their lives are less stable and offer fewer prospects than at any time in the last decade. So much for the 'Opportunity Society'.

The Teacher

'Because of the recession, three times as many people are going on teacher training courses. You're told there's a teacher shortage and a job at the end of the course. This may be true of some subjects, but in others the competition is fierce and many newly qualified teachers can't get a post.

'I started on £11 000. In future, how much you get paid will depend on how many of your students pass exams. Next year, schools will publish truancy rates and exam rates, like businesses issuing accounts.

'Under LMS [local management scheme], each school allocates its own budget. Many governors have decided not to pay for supply teachers. So staff have become a general resource expected to fill in the gaps and teach everybody else's subject. Not so much "the teaching profession", more like being on a production line.

'The exact format of the national curriculum is still not finalised. Schools are using this as an excuse not to issue full contracts. Governors are only issuing yearly contracts, or they take junior teachers on for a term or half a term at a time.

'Everybody on short-term contracts is desperate to get a permanent job. When the Times Educational Supplement arrives in the staff room, everyone rushes for the jobs section. It's like gold dust.'

The building worker / civil servant

'I started coming down from Liverpool to work on the sites during the long school holidays. When I was 15, I was taking home nearly £300 for seven days work. Now I'm 22 and I get half that.

'In the late eighties you could choose where you wanted to work. It all started to wind down in the summer of 1990. It took me three weeks to get a job and the wages dropped to £160. From then on, you'd have to put up with a bastard foreman, whereas previously you could punch him, walk off the site and into another job.

'There's no building work here now, and nothing in the States. Same story in Australia. And there's no point going to Germany because the East Europeans are trying to get work there.

'So I decided it wasn't worth the hassle and applied to the civil service. Eventually I started as an administrative officer in the Employment Service - a clerk on the frontline with claimants. I'm on a permanent contract but management are trying to bring in more casuals with no rights. Most of them are hanging on to get a permanent post, so they have to toe the line.

'Management are re-writing the contracts for permanent staff. The general feeling is they can do whatever they like. Already they've implemented dress codes and compulsory name tags as part of the Citizen's Charter. The charter is a device to make the workforce responsible for the system's inadequacy, and it gives management more scope to discipline you and make you more insecure.'

The tubeworker

'"London Transport guarantees you a job. We will never make you redundant." That's what they used to say to every new recruit. But it's shifted now. The feeling now is, hang on to it while it lasts.

'They are offering sovereigncy - their new word for voluntary redundancy. They intend reducing the drivers by 900. We're all due to be interviewed for it. And there is a new L and A procedure - lateness and absence - so they can dismiss you more easily.

'There is a drive to discipline, with more duty managers checking that blokes are wearing hi-vi (high visibility) vests and not smoking in the depot. They promote the idea that there are eyes watching you all the time. They take you up to the control centre at Earls Court and tell you "we can see what you're doing on every train". That's how they caught two blokes napping at Heathrow one night. People think, bloody hell, you've got to watch yourself.

'Blokes are disillusioned with the unions. Everyone feels the insecurity and each is looking to his own. The attitude is very different from three or four years ago, when there was some defiance. Now people come into work and just switch off. It's wide open for them to do what they want.'

The TV cameraman

'A TV crew used to be three people - camera, lighting man and sound recordist. Now they're moving towards one-man banding: a camera operator working on his own from a car containing camera gear, lighting gear and sound gear. The new job description is "technical operator". This can be inside or outside the studio, operating cameras, lights, vision control, anything.

'All technicians are waiting to be re-interviewed for our own jobs. So no-one wants to object to new work practices which mean four days on, three days on call, and only one "protected" day off. Although you're not paid to work the three days, if you don't respond to your bleep they can dismiss you.

'We were always permanent staff. The BBC want to introduce a contract scheme whereby you are employed for one year. This year there will be 30 per cent redundancies. Some will set up as sub-contractors for the BBC. It means a drop in salary of about a third with no guarantee of any future after the first year.

'In the long term they will get rid of the category "BBC staff", and have everyone on individual contracts. We're already working under a scheme where producers choose whether they want a BBC crew, freelance or whatever. Of course they choose people who say yes all the time and don't charge for it. People are told, "however many hours you do, don't claim for more than 12". Each programme is budgeted separately, not as part of the BBC as a whole. Everybody's being set against each other to save costs.

'Management have created an atmosphere of worry and fear. People are always working out what deals they could get if they were made redundant, what their pension would be. People are totally disillusioned with Beta, the union. They just laugh at it. Most of us have done the same job all our working lives and there's nothing else we can do.

The printworker

'The gravy train jobs have gone. I worked eight hours on Saturday and I took home £25. Flexibility is the buzzword - an hour on one job and then on to something else. Overtime is paid at the ordinary rate. A few months ago the managing director said no more overtime rates and if you don't like it get a job somewhere else. There's pressure on you to do as much overtime as they want. This week I'll be working 70 hours. There was one guy who refused overtime so they sacked him. People are afraid to say no.

'If you're not working quick enough, they sack you. They target certain people, give them a nickname like 'snail'. Foremen come over and talk about someone, encouraging you to take the piss out of him. They offer you personally a rise if you take on somebody else's work so they can get rid of him.

'The trial period for new employees used to be three months. Now it's three weeks. If the guy doesn't fit, they let him go and get someone else. While they think about sacking someone, they'll train up another guy to do his job. There's no redundancy pay. They are exploiting the fact that everyone's desperate for work. Some guys travel 20 miles before starting at six am.

'No-one's got any confidence in the union. Guys getting the push can't do much except leave ink in the ducts and unbolt the machines. One owner - a real cowboy - was shot in the knees. Sometimes resentment is directed against Asian managers in the trade.

'When I became a printer people said to me "you're set up for life", but now there's nothing going.'

Category of flexible work% of workforce involved
Temporary/contract working8
Reservism(just work when asked/needed)5
Work at home4
Regular paid overtime19
Annualised hours5
Compressed working week4
Term-time working0.3
Flexible start/finish time27

Present in at least one of the above categories75
Not present in any of above25

(Percentage sum adds up to more than 100 because respondents can be present in more than one category)
Source: Employment Gazette, March 1992

No of Mortgages Arrears6-12mnths12+mnthsrepossessions


(Source: Social Trends 1992)

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 43, May 1992

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