Working poor on the rise in the UK

(Originally Published by Equal Times)
Translations: Español | Francais  

Unions and policy experts have denounced the British government after a report revealed that more working families live in poverty than workless ones.

A job centre in the UK. Photo by Paul Farmer
Despite falling unemployment figures, the report – written by the New Policy Institute (NPI) and published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) – found that out of 13 million British people living in poverty, an estimated 6.7 million live in a family with at least one working adult.

The annual Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion report, also claims low pay and insecure work have led to an unprecedented fall in living standards.

Peter Kenway, Director at NPI and an author of the report, told Equal Times that the findings reflected the fact that welfare support for British workers was “steadily sinking.”

“Poorer members of society are under more pressure than at any time since the birth of the welfare state…A strong safety net to catch those who fall is vital for social mobility – millions are saved by it every year even now – yet no leading politician will defend it."

Another report published last month, authored by Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK, showed the average earnings of Britain’s rising number of self-employed workers dropped by 27 per cent from 2008 to 2011.

The report claims that many workers have been forced into self-employment since the economic crisis as they are unable to find secure jobs.

Andy Britner, a 49-year-old trained electrician from Manchester, has first-hand experience of underemployment and poverty. Britner was pushed into self-employment earlier this year as he could not afford to pay for the latest regulation exam for electricians – which he needed to remain qualified.

“I was trapped. The job centre were telling me not to apply for that type of work anymore. The only training they could offer me was totally unsuitable,” he recalls.

Britner, who lives alone, now works as a handyman doing basic jobs such as domestic light fitting. As he is registered self-employed he qualifies for tax credits but claims that the introduction of the ‘bedroom tax’ earlier this year means some weeks his income is lower than when he was unemployed.

“It’s a bit erratic – if I don’t get much work in sometimes I’m £40 ($65) worse off than when I was unemployed. I’m only just surviving. The government says people are better off in work but that just isn’t true for many people.” he says.

Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress, said overcoming the problem of job insecurity and poor wages is one of the UK’s biggest challenges:

“The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report shows how right unions are to worry about living standards, especially for low-paid workers. The combination of precarious employment where many people are

having to juggle multiple part-time jobs – often on zero-hours contracts – and falling real wages, at a time where everyday essentials seem ever more expensive, is forcing an unprecedented number of families below the poverty line.

“Unless wages begin to rise again, millions of ordinary families will continue to walk the financial tightrope, and the gap between the haves and the have nots will prove impossible to close.”
Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of JRF concurs:

“We have a labour market that lacks pay and protection, with jobs offering precious little security and paltry wages that are insufficient to make ends meet.

“While a recovery may be gathering momentum in the statistics and official forecasts, for those at the bottom, improving pay and prospects remain a mirage…We must strengthen our efforts to reduce poverty – it is damaging to the people who experience it and harmful to our economic prospects.”