Thursday 14 March 2013

The Society for Cutting Up Jobs

I hear professional economists are in a quandary. Apparently, there is some confusion involving a puzzling feature of Britain's current baleful economic performance. Heads are being scratched and brows are getting furrowed because no one can explain how the economy is stagnant but yet more and more jobs are getting created. Usually, recession sees firms shedding jobs, lower spending, and the consequent loss of further jobs. If the numbers of people employed are going up, people are buying things and the economy expands in a self-sustaining boom. You should have a vicious or a virtuous circle, one or the other. But right now there is an impossible mishmash: we have bits of both. Frustratingly, the British economy just isn't behaving.

I'm no economist, but allow me to venture a theory based not on longitudinal trends, neoclassical endogenous growth theory or a half-baked return to utilitarianism; but on experience.

When I was 17 I got myself a part-time job at a brand spanking new supermarket. For at least ten hours every Saturday, and four hours on a Sunday I would stand behind a baking hot counter serving up all manner of unpalatable poultry products. Occasionally I would operate our deep fat fryers for those new-fangled southern friend chicken things, and take whole chickens and bits and bobs out of the oven. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I would find myself on the much cooler and cleaner pie shop immediately next door. But mostly I was up to my elbows in grease, or getting bellowed at by the store manager and his equally foul deputy. The pay was crap by mid-90s standards (£2.21/hour, rising to £2.63 when I reached 18) and the experience did have a profound radicalising effect, but I did have a good laugh*.

If memory serves our department started out with 16 members of staff. By the time I left for uni 14 months later, only three of the 'founding' workers had stuck it out - including me. But between those two points in time I got a crash course in the division of labour in the capitalist firm. Within a few months about half of the staff, including the departmental manager and her deputy had left. They were replaced haphazardly and never on the basis of actual need. But as long as the wage bill was kept under budget the store manager got his bonus, even though the business around him was running on vapours.

I never drew up the departmental rota sheets, but I remember the department needed at least three out front and one round the back doing prep. One of the back room boys (and they were boys - breading up chickens and throwing them in ovens was considered a manly job), the dept manager and one other worker were full-time. The rest of us were part-timers with contracts ranging from eight to 30 hours/week. As the full-timers quickly fell victim the department was more or less left to college kids to run. Apart from the occasional borrowed full timer from the deli, the bakery and the salad shop that was how it remained. The full timers' hours were shared out among a sliver of new part-timers who were employed to close the gap, or let slide. And for every subsequent worker who left, their hours were subdivided further to new employees, went into the (rarely seen) overtime book, or just allowed to disappear. The only way employees progressed to more hours was if they "applied" for and took jobs off-department. Small wonder it was eight months before the cooling trolley's grease bucket got emptied.

I suppose for most of us it didn't really matter that much. 14 hours each weekend suited my college commitments and allowed me to save for university. Others sunk their cash in their first car, their wardrobes, their burgeoning drinking habits. We all lived at home, we all had the bank of mum and dad to fall back on. Of those who were older, most other part-timers were women who fitted hours around childcare. More often than not their households had a second "breadwinning" wage coming in. At one level of remove, you could say flexible hours suited both the business and the part-timers who stuck it out.

But now let's take that and apply it to the working population at large. The government likes to trumpet the million new private sector jobs since 2010 as evidence of and justification for their approach to rebalancing the economy (though this total includes a couple of hundred thousand public sector workers who've either been reclassified, or had themselves outsourced to a private service provider or joint public/private ventures). But what the government doesn't like to dwell on are the record numbers of people having to take up part-time employment (or those full-timers on temporary contracts). Take Royal Mail, for example. Over at least the last five years, management have systematically preferred to replace the loss of a full-time worker by taking their job and chopping it into two or three pieces for a part-timer to pick up. A similar route has been taken in higher education. Regardless of an institution's research and teaching priorities, roles are dissected and fed out to contract research and teaching labour on extremely time-limited contracts. The public sector is not alone. The number of hours available in most supermarkets are now taken up by part-time workers. Banks, shops, factories, call centres - all of these enterprises are taking jobs and parcelling them out in smaller and smaller portions. Whereas you had one person doing a 39 hour week previously, so now you have two, three or four people each working a morsel of what was. And these are no longer in the main students or mums, but are increasingly 'ordinary' former full-time workers forced to take whatever they can get. Some who are able may combine two or more part-time jobs depending on how 'flexible' their contracts require them to be. Though most remain woefully underemployed.

From a business point of view employing more people theoretically builds more slack into the system when demand is high. And leaves them with lower liabilities overall. And for the government they get to pretend they're responsible for the stirrings of a job-led recovery. But spreading the collective wage thinly across greater numbers of people are forcing more people into tax credit dependence - we're all subsidising the significant savings and resultant profits businesses are making from cutting up jobs. Because lower hours = less pay, the significant growth in jobs are not matched by a congruent rise in consumer spending. And that's before we consider the chain linking precarious employment to what Giddens calls ontological security (how secure one feels in one's existence) to lack of spending and withdrawal into more privatised modes of life.

I'm not going to say 'problem solved'. I'm sure there are all kinds of exotic mathematics that can demonstrate the link between stagnant demand and the spreading of an equally frozen collective wage across more people does not exist, let alone has an impact on Britain's economy. But I will say that anyone who fights shy of the economic damage the rebalancing of the labour market away from full toward part time workers is doing, like Coalition politicians, or completely writes it out of the picture - like those economists who prefer their models of reality to that staring them in the face - are actually complicit in the taxpayer subsidised process that deprives millions of people from ever having secure, meaningful employment. They are members of the Society for Cutting Up Jobs, and deserve branding as such.

*As so many people have either worked in or shop at a supermarket, I don't understand why it's never become foil for a decent sitcom.


Strategist said...

A thought. Nobody should be spending 39 hours a week up to their elbows in grease and unpalatable poultry products being bellowed at. But if this kind of work must be done - and it does: if it's not frying chicken, it's wiping geriatrics' arses, or whatever - then best to share it out amongst many part time jobs.

I just wonder if there is a way to turn what is good news - the more equal sharing out of hours worked (70 hour weeks are as soul destroying as 0 hour week unemployment; 20-25 hours perhaps ideal, dependent on your stage of life) - into unalloyed good news. What's needed is to share the wealth our technology is capable of creating so that all can live comfortably (not lavishly) off a 25 hour working week. Such an outcome is technically possible; the problem is to have a system that allows it to happen.

asquith said...

Do you still eat chicken?

I laboured in a factory in the summer during the summer before I went to university and in the holidays. Then I worked at what was then THE, at Chesterton during my first year. During my second and third years I was, mercifully, able to manage without a job because I'd saved enough of my factory earnings.

I also did a stint at Royal Mail at the MDEC (not a hard job, but very boring) and then I was on the dole for a bit before I found another job, which I'm still on.

What I actually think is that, Labour or Conservative, we could be in for permanent unemployment. I don't think the alleged boom years were a time of genuine prosperity or that the nearly full employment (never quite as comprehensive as Blair and Brown alleged, but better figures than now) were real sustainable jobs.

So that the chickens were always going to come home to roost, if they survived your supermarket's suppliers, and I neither blame the coalition for unemployment nor do I look to Labour for any hope of the situation improving.

But at the same time as I've said this, I don't take an especially vindictive stance towards people on benefits, as it's rather implausible to say that there's been an outbreak of skiving that's affected 2.5 million people.

What I find disappointing is that the Universal Credit programme is unfolding so poorly in detail, because the idea of a basic income is one that I think can command a great deal of support or would if it freed people from fear of destitution and assured them that any efforts they made would better their lot.

The ultimate thing is that my work pays my bills and that's good for me, but it's hard to discern what good or use it is to society at large. I consider my voluntary work far more usseful, and most people if they weren't employed full-time would find something to do rather than sit round. Whereas the government have got it into their heads that there's something morally wrong and ddeficient about someone who doesn't work 40+ hours a week, regardless of the worth or value of what they do.

TLDR: this expresses it better perhaps.

Phil said...

The point is not so much preferring full-time jobs, it's about job security and the big hit working people take in the pocket when they're forced into part time jobs.

I would like to see the diminution of the working week. Who wouldn't?

jim mclean said...

Matt McGinn
Looking for a Job
I'm looking for a job with a sky-high pay
A four day week and a two hour day
S'maybe it's because I'm inclined that way
But I never did like being idle!