British economy still icebound

by Daphne Liddle

ON THE DAY that Margaret Thatcher was ceremonially buried, new figures were released showing that unemployment rose again by 7,000 to 2,560,000 between December and February, bringing the unemployment rate to 7.9 per cent — an apt commemoration of her life’s achievements.

The number of people in work fell by 2,000 in the latest quarter to February, to just under 30 million.

The figures continue to disguise large numbers of under- employed, those trapped in part-time jobs who desperately need a full-time wage to meet subsistence level but who are barred from claiming top-up benefits by the short hours they work.

Also on Wednesday the IMF against lowered its forecast for the economy in Britain and delivered another warning to Chancellor George Osborne that his extreme austerity measures are choking off chances of an economic recovery.

Low wages, rising prices for essentials like food, rents and home heating, along with high levels of personal debt means that consumers in Britain are doing minimal shopping and high street shops continue to close.

The Office of National Statistics says that regular pay, excluding bonuses, rose by just one per cent last year, the lowest since records began more than a decade ago.

Meanwhile inflation remains at 2.8 per cent meaning that the real value of wages is tumbling. The Bank of England expects inflation to rise to three per cent later this year and that it will stay above the target rate of two per cent until 2016.

Tuesday’s figures from the ONS also showed that Retail Prices Index (RPI) inflation, which includes housing costs, rose to 3.3 per cent in March.

The IMF said world growth would now be 3.3 per cent for the year, down from 3.5 forecast six months ago. But for Britain it is forecasting growth of just 0.7 per cent, after saying in January that the country’s economy could expect one per cent growth.

Spring may at last have come to our gardens but Britain’s economy is still locked in deepest winter.

Agricultural workers are about to take and even deeper hit as, on Tuesday, without a parliamentary debate or vote, the Government abolished the Agricultural Wages Board.

Unite, the union which represents agricultural workers, is angry that the Commons debate on the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform bill was guillotined, so MPs could not debate the amendment abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board, which has protected the incomes of 150,000 agricultural workers since the Second World War.

Unite national officer for agriculture Julia Long said: “What we have witnessed today is a national disgrace and the capitulation of MPs to the interests of the big employers and the supermarkets, who want to ruthlessly drive down costs.

“There was not even a vote on the amendment by MPs on this vital issue which is a stain on democracy. The spectre of poverty embracing the countryside is now very real.”

It is estimated that there are about 60,000 agricultural workers and managers in accommodation provided by their employer. They could face losing their homes after 1st October, if they left their current employment and had to negotiate a new contract.

Unite has already made a submission to the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights making the point that:

“The destruction of the Agricultural Wages Board without replacement by an alternative collective bargaining body for the agricultural industry will be in plain breach of the UK’s international obligations.”

Unite has also accused the Government of reprising the darkest tactics of the Thatcher era by ushering in an era of ‘hire and fire’ in a desperate attempt to shore up its catastrophic mismanagement of the economy.

With the IMF warning the Chancellor on Tuesday that his cuts programme is failing the nation, and the Government’s Enterprise and Regulatory Reform bill and Growth and Enterprise bill reach their final stages in the House of Commons.

The bills give the green light to “rogue” employers by making it cheaper to sack workers unlawfully and ushering in punishing charges for workers’ redress. The Government will also allow employers seeking to shut down larger workplaces to do so with limited consultation with employees, so, according to Unite, hanging an “exit here” sign above UK plc.

The prospects for workers in Britain are very low unless they mobilise to fight back and to take the fight to a much higher level than the current union leaders are comfortable with.

The alternative is extreme discomfort and getting worse for all of us.