Anyone who has seen the moving film Sorry We Missed You directed by Ken Loach will have been left in no doubt about the horror of the gig economy and the misery it heaps on workers and their families. Once referred to as McJobs, casual employment, zero hours contracts and spurious self-employment are now ubiquitous throughout the economy. Yet the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported on Tuesday that the unemployment rate in three months to November was only 3.8%, its lowest since the 1970s, while the number of people in work has risen by 208,000. The employment rate, according to ONS, is at a new high of 76.3%; and a report by Whiteshield Partners, in collaboration with the Said Business School, Oxford University, concludes that the UK remains the “ninth most resilient labour market in the world”. What exactly is going on here?
According to ONS someone who works only one hour a week is considered to be “employed”. They deny that this distorts the figures as the number of workers on less than six hours a week is “only” 1.4%. As the unemployment rate is “only” 3.8%, this presumably means that, as those working less than six hours a week are effectivly unemployed, the unemployment rate is actually 5.2%, not 3.8%. But even this figure is likely to be a gross underestimate.
ONS tend to hide behind internationally agreed definitions of employment and unemployment. That might assist international analysis, but it does nothing for assessing the economic reality that should be the basis for economic policy – and will be when we start to build a socialist future. Some 9 million people in the UK aged 16 to 64 are “economically inactive” and 14.5% of UK homes are “workless”. The official unemployment figure doesn’t reflect part-time workers who want full-time jobs, “inactive” workers alienated from the workforce and workers who are prematurely “retired“ by their employers . Analysing these groups leads some analysts to conclude that the true unemployment rate is not 50% bigger, as suggested above, it’s three or four times the official figure. That makes sense. How else can we explain the misery, so convincingly portrayed in Ken Loach’s film, of workers driven to seek jobs in the gig economy ?