Sunday, 21 August 2011

The plight of Brett Taylor and the unemployed of Leek

I have every sympathy with the plight of Brett Taylor reported as having applied for over 100 jobs without success. Many thousands of people in North Staffordshire will recognise that experience. It is important that people are not reliant on welfare and that they spend their time in useful endeavour, but the present Government policy of "welfare to work" which attempts to address the dependency culture is deeply flawed and deserves closer scrutiny.

Firstly, long term full time jobs are as rare as hen’s teeth. I will go further any permanent job is a rarity that is if you believe the Job Centre Plus which advertised just three jobs in Leek last week and they were all temporary and part time. Even jobs, which are historically associated with North Staffordshire no longer, exist - leastways on government websites. Out of curiosity I sought to see if there were any pottery worker posts available and the only one I could see was for a worker needed in Warwickshire.

The jobs that many people in North Staffordshire would have done years ago have all but disappeared. It has been calculated that since the 1960s we have lost in excess of 100,000 in the staple industries of pottery, textiles, mining and steel that loss of many long term and stable jobs has not adequately been replaced.

As an experiment I looked at what sorts of jobs were advertised in the local Leek papers during the two big recessions of the last 30 years. I researched those jobs advertised in the autumn of 1981 and 1992. In the first recession of Mrs Thatcher’s government between 1980-6 over 3 million people lost their jobs and North Staffs was especially badly hit. Yet even in the months of rapid increase of worklessness jobs in the staple industries of textiles and potteries jobs were still being advertised. The mills of Leek still wanted machinists, winders, over lockers and fitters.

There were also jobs in engineering going in the many small companies often looking for young and willing staff to learn a trade in a "hands on " way. Potbanks were still recruiting.
In the early 80s we still made things and that was still true albeit in a reduced way at the time of the next recession in 1992 where again 3 million people were without work. In a full-page advert in August Halle Models, for example, were undergoing an expansion and were looking for workers. It was true that there were job losses at the time most notably at Britannia Building Society and at Peri Lusta in Mill St.

The local newspaper reported in 1992 that there were 2,300 people of working age who were unemployed and around 160 vacancies. These seemed varied and there was even a job as a trainee journalist which required 2 A levels and 5 O levels from likely candidates. I would imagine that the basic requirement now as far as entry qualification is now a post graduate journalism qualification.

In the Post and Times last week there were a number of jobs advertised; but many were part time, temporary and agency based work. Jobs existed in retail, cleaning, catering, security and nursing and also in the public sector including the local schools and universities usually requiring a degree. There was one job advertised in engineering. This was the only job that actually resulted in something being made- the decline of the manufacturing sectors is one consequence of government policy over the last 17 years.

The growth of employment agencies is the most marked change from previous recessions and it is now to these organisations that the long term unemployed are directed to find them work. Such work is not guaranteed and usually temporary. As someone remarked leaving the security of the benefit system for such posts is like stepping on thin ice.

In such circumstances the present benefit system has failed to move with the times because it is programmed to expect claimants to move into steady jobs instead of the reality of the insecurity of "zero hours contracts" or commission based work that face the unskilled. The system is designed for predictability when work patterns are anything but. Individuals who return to benefit after their short-term contract has ended often face weeks of waiting before benefits are re activated and in that time they build up rent arrears and debts.
The poor bear no responsibility for the present economic crisis, the blame for that lies at the feet of bankers and politicians, yet as elsewhere the most vulnerable have to bear the brunt of the hardship while those who are guilty get away scot-free feather bedded by taxpayers money. The reliance of financiers on state handouts is one form of dependency culture that is rarely spoken of.

The answer? Well, to take up Brett’s point more could be done by the big employers in the area including Councils to employ local people through " community benefit " clauses in contracts rather than exporting work to Derbyshire might be a start. We should reflect how the community can create work in Leek especially for the young and how morally justifiable to the comfortably off is the increase of unemployment and the poverty that inevitably follows.

However, what is probably required is a root and branch reform of the welfare system if the future of employment for the poorest in society continues to be so vulnerable and doubtful. The idea of a basic liveable income, which everyone receives, has been kicking around now for 200 years- perhaps its time has come.