IIn the late 18th century, as the impact of the Industrial Revolution bit into the lives of the nascent working class, the high cost of fuel, notes one study, “forced people in many parts of the south to abandon cooking. family”. Fuel costs were much higher in the south than in the north. Accordingly, Frederic Morton Eden observed in The state of the poor (1797), “the culinary preparations of the peasant of the North are so diversified, and his table so often furnished with hot dishes”, whereas in the South, the working-class families not having the means of boiling or cooking potatoes land, were forced to buy cheap white bread and cold dinner.
Because it was more expensive to cook at home than to buy homemade bread, there were more bakeries per capita in poor areas like Hampshire than in wealthier areas like Yorkshire. Over 200 years later, we are back in a Britain where many poor families are ‘forced out of the home kitchen’ due to the high cost of fuel. Not only has there been an explosion in food bank use, but many food bank users are “turning down items like potatoes and other root vegetables because they can’t afford to boil them” .
Much of the discussion about the cost of living crisis has rightly focused on the impact of soaring prices on the lives of millions of desperate people. It’s not just inflated commodity prices that have created such desperation. It is also the precariousness of income and, in particular, the dazzling growth in recent years of poorly paid and precarious jobs.
A study by Dalia Gebrial and Paddy Bettington, think tanks Autonomy and Center for Labor and Social Studies, traces what it calls the “uberization” of the labor market. ‘Insecurity’, he observes, has ‘become an endemic part of British working life’ and ‘the proportion of the workforce in precarious employment has exploded’. The kind of insecurity once associated only with the gig economy is now spreading across many employment sectors: the health and care sectors, hospitality, cleaning, hairdressing and beauty, even” previously protected middle-class jobs in academia”.
Using markers such as unemployment, underemployment, temporary contracts, part-time work, variable weekly wages and zero-hours contracts to establish an “index of insecurity”, the report suggests that “the insecurity increased by 50% since 2005”. Almost all professional sectors show greater precariousness.
After the financial crash of 2008, unemployment rose sharply, peaking at 8.5% in 2011 before falling back to 3.8% over 45 years in 2019. The fall in unemployment has been hailed as a major economic achievement. But unemployment fell largely because workers were lured into low-wage or part-time jobs or self-employment. The price of low unemployment has been greatly increased job insecurity. London, often seen as wealthy, has been particularly hard hit by precarious work. Thus, unsurprisingly, women, young people and ethnic minorities.
The most publicized and shocking expression of job insecurity has been the recent dismissal by P&O of nearly 800 of its shipping staff. There was widespread outrage, including from ministers, who called on chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite to resign and on the government to review all contracts with P&O. But it was government policies and laws that made these mass layoffs possible in the first place.
P&O’s actions have been particularly savage, but employers often resort to the “fire and rehire” policy. A study last year showed that 10% of all workers were asked to reapply for their jobs under worse conditions or face dismissal; for 18-24 year olds, this figure has almost doubled. British Gas, British Airways, the Go North West bus company and many others tried to fire and rehire workers last year. Last October, the government blocked a private member’s bill to ban the practice. For four decades, successive governments have, in the name of creating a “flexible” labor market, made it easier for employers to fire workers and harder for unions to react. The roots of the process go back to the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher’s attack on trade unions and the post-war social model. This is not the first time that P&O has laid off workers en masse. In 1988, the company exploited Thatcher’s laws to lay off 400 workers, impose pay cuts and longer hours, then used the ensuing 16-month dispute to break up the National Seamen’s Union.
When New Labor came to power in 1997, it introduced important protective measures, such as the national minimum wage and tax credits, but kept Conservative anti-union laws and strengthened the will for a market more flexible work. In the early 2000s, what some analysts call an “hourglass” labor market had emerged, divided between poorly paid “McJobs” on the one hand and generously rewarded “MacJobs” on the other, with reduced “average” jobs.
While union membership fell from 13.2 million in 1979 to a record high of 6.2 million in 2016 (since then it has recovered slightly to 6.6 million), those most in need of union protection are the least likely to be unionized. It’s like a throwback to early 20th century labor relations. The expansion of precarious and low-paid jobs in a flexible labor market without the protection of unions has been a major driver of the cost of living crisis.
There is a desperate need for an immediate response to soaring prices, ranging from an appropriate increase in benefits and the minimum wage to bringing rising energy prices under control. But it is equally important to challenge the policies that have created a precarious labor market under the guise of a flexible labor market: the need to roll back union restrictions and remove employers’ rights to fire and to rehire and prevent unions from organizing. Above all, there is a need to ensure union protection for the lowest paid and least secure workers, by expanding the work of unions such as the IWGB and the RMT.
A 21st century Britain in which there are echoes of late 18th century fuel poverty and early 20th century job insecurity is not something we should tolerate.