Friday, 1 June 2012

Are We 'Unemployable' - Or Just Being Fleeced?

The 'unemployability' narrative is a Tory trick to maintain profits at our expense.

Richard Murphy in a blog today asks the question: ‘Are we unemployed or unemployable?’  He relates the two terms to Growth versus Austerity, Demand-led recovery versus Supply-Push recovery, Left versus Tory.

But he opens the door on yet another, deeply-disturbing development in the Tory narrative – the demonization of the workforce.

The ‘Unemployability’ narrative
Have you noticed, indeed, that the language of 'unemployability' is becoming more common?  The one that hit the headlines recently was a statement from the Scottish motor firm Arnold Clark, which announced that four-fifths of applicants for their apprenticeship scheme were ‘not employable at all’ – that they were ‘shocked’ by a normal working day, possessed of unrealistic expectations and unable to say any more than ‘I want’.  In addition, claimed the firm, the youngsters had ‘no concept of citizenship’ and – the TV report revealed – insufficient excitement about a career in the motor industry.

But Arnold Clark are not alone.  In February 2012 the Adecco group released ‘research’ showing that 73% of employers believed that a ‘permanent underclass’ of unemployable people is emerging within UK society.  The report revealed that 57% of employers did not have any apprentices, despite a general belief that they were ‘a good thing’ – the implication being, of course, that it was the ‘unemployability’ of young workers which was putting the employers off from expanding their workforce.

It’s not just young apprentices who are receiving the ‘unemployable’ treatment.  Last month UK Employment Minister Chris Grayling led a charge of business lobbyists claiming that UK graduates were ‘unemployable’, citing the lack of a can-do attitude among various other employability failings of UK youth.

The Tories, of course, are playing to an easy market.  Ever since Lee Adams penned the lyrics to ‘Kids!’ in the 1960 musical Bye Bye Birdie, people have tut-tutted about the failings of youth – the Adecco group found that, even more than the 73% of employers, no less than 84% of UK workers bewailed the emergence of a ‘permanent underclass’.  To a degree it’s even true – ‘real’ work always comes as a surprise to school-leavers.  (I remember well my first day at work – in Greenwood’s The Man’s Shop – when I was required to STAND! all day on the shop-floor; despite the fact that I was a cross-country runner and fit as a lop, I went home that evening seriously wondering whether I would ever walk normally again!)

It’s a myth, of course.  Having taught since the 1970s, I can assure you that the ‘youth’ of today are harder-working, better-educated, more flexible and innovative, more reasonable, and altogether better citizens than the pupils of 40 years ago – ten years of League tables and punitive Ofsted reports have seen to that.  Long gone is Willy Russell’s ‘Our Day Out’ teacher and any concept of education as ‘fun’ – nowadays, pupils are given their target grades when they enter Year 7, and they are relentlessly hounded and assessed to get them beyond that target by the time they leave.

So why the unemployability narrative?
So why the constant whingeing about easy GCSEs and devalued qualifications?  Why the unemployability narrative – why do we have a government minister openly talking down the British workforce on the international stage?

Part of it, of course, is a typically-Tory softening-up process before they fall upon our education system.  It is a strategy we are now familiar with – first you rubbish it, then you marketise it … on the grounds that this will make it more ‘efficient’.  The Arnold Clark announcement was overtly and explicitly political, not economic, and showed us where the Tories are going next: ‘We are increasingly concerned at the State-Sponsored Babysitting nature of some college programmes rather than the specifically-targeted vocational training … we believe taxpayers’ money should be being spent on.’

The ‘lazy workforce’ narrative
But the ‘unemployability’ narrative goes further and deeper than that. 

In another world, in 2006, the Guardian carried an article which claimed that ‘no one is unemployable’, in which a whole range of experts argued that, with the right support, anyone can be helped back to work.  That language of inclusivity has long since disappeared. It has been replaced by the ‘scrounger’ narrative, which sees many disabled and unemployed as work-shy opportunists who needs to be driven to work by interviews and reduced payments.  Last month even Nadine Dorries – whose mission is to bring the posh Tory leaders down to reality – outlined that part of that reality was ‘children being unemployable and spending a life time on benefits’ (my italics).

Neither is the target simply the young and adults on benefits.  The British worker is getting a kicking too.  Last year a Uswitch survey found that more than half of private businessmen believed public sector workers to be ‘unrealistic in their expectations about pay, holidays and employment terms’.  Only one-in-fifty stated that they would actively seek to recruit public sector workers, and one in ten stated that they would not employ public sector workers under any circumstances, even if they were the only applicant for the job.

And similarly, last year, steel billionaire Ratan Tata justified cutting 1,500 jobs on the grounds that the British workforce was ‘lazy’ and ‘unwilling to go the extra mile’.  We really do seem to be returning to a Thatcherite narrative of the ‘lazy’ British worker, who needs shocking and disciplining back into line to make British industry competitive again. I recently pointed out an alarming passage in George Osborne’s Autumn Statement in which he demanded ‘the right to work all hours’ and moralised:  ‘It’s no good endlessly comparing ourselves with other European countries.  The entire continent is pricing itself out of the world economy.’

So why the ‘lazy workforce’ narrative?
Yet people in the UK work longer hours and enjoy fewer public holidays than any other country in the European Union.  So why the increasing insinuation that British workers are in fact inferior and lazier than their counterparts in other countries?

Part of the answer, of course, lies in the Tory ‘it’s-not-our-fault’ reaction to economic recession.  Lazy British workers are simply one more cat-to-kick – alongside the outgoing Labour government and the Eurozone crisis.  Connected to this is the demonstrable failure of the private sector to expand (as the Tories promised) to employ sacked public sector workers … so you sell the unemployed a line that tells them to they are unemployed, not because you are an incompetent government with a non-existent business strategy, but because THEY are ‘unemployable’ – that it’s their own fault they are unemployed.
Partly, also, it is because theTores know that a ‘lazy-British-worker’ strategy will play well with the Tory working class.  Who doesn’t believe that he works harder than his workmates, and the Tories are past masters at playing on people’s resentments.  It also undermines working-class solidarity, and stops workers making waves when their colleagues are sacked … they must have deserved sacking because they were lazy.

How still to make a huge profits in a recession
But mainly, I suspect, this narrative of 'the unemployable' is part of the Tory strategy to further drive down wages and conditions of work.
It was the implications of George Osborne’s speech which terrified me – if European workers have ‘priced themselves out of the world economy’, what is the solution, if not to reduce their price – if the East has people who work much harder for much lower wages, is there any alternative save that we are going to have to do so too if we are to remain competitive.
And if the comparator is Thai children sewing footballs for pennies in filthy workshops, is that how far we are going to have to go?

Regularly, we are hearing of changes, many of them un-noticed and barely-protested, systematically stripping away, or proposing to strip away, people’s rights at work – pensions renegotiation, the pay freeze, regional pay, unfair dismissal rights, reform of the EHCR, ‘red tape challenge’, the Beecroft report, and on and on…

SO WHY, you have to ask yourself, are the government and the employers so determined to reduce our pay?
And the answer is brutally simple – money!
If they can reduce the workforce to a low-paid, terrified body which will do anything for nothing - companies can still maintain company profits despite the lower turnover during the recession.

Osborne and his 1% fully realise that Austerity will shrink the economy.  They know that growth and Austerity don’t mix. So they have to do two things:
* Firstly they have reduce costs if they are to maintain profits in a declining market … and the costs they have decided it will be easiest to reduce are labour costs.  Improving technology – innovation and investment – cost money, which they are not prepared to risk in a recession, so they fall back on the short-term (and yes, ‘lazy’) alternative, which is to reduce wages.  They are reducing the return to the workforce in order to maintain the return to themselves.
* And, secondly, they have to soften up the workforce to accept their reduced rights and pay – and you do this with propaganda which makes workers think that we ARE a lazy workforce and an unemployable population, and that therefore we MUST buckle down and (as the Lemsip advert said) – ‘stop snivelling and get back to work’.

So, maybe, the next time you hear a government minister ‘talking down’ the work-ethic or work-suitability of  British schoolchildren, or Britain’s workforce, you will be able to take it for the Tory trick it is.

'All in this together'?  You've got to be joking.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, blaming the education system has been in the making for many years now.