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Underemployment: the struggling workers hidden by jobs figures

This article is over 9 years, 1 months old
Tories boast Britain has a lower unemployment rate than Europe. But a new study reveals millions of workers can’t get enough hours, writes Siân Ruddick
Issue 2332
Not all part time workers want more hours—but the proportion of those who do shot up during the recession and has kept rising since
Not all part time workers want more hours—but the proportion of those who do shot up during the recession and has kept rising since

Over three million people work- ing in Britain are struggling to survive on the pay they receive each month—and want to work more hours than they can get. That’s the finding of a new report from the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

These workers—one in 10—are called “underemployed”. Since 2008, when the economic crisis began, their numbers have risen by 42 percent. That’s a million more people.

The report reveals how one in four part time workers want to work more hours. Young people, women and low paid workers are the most likely to be underemployed.

These figures are one reason why the official unemployment rate is lower in Britain than across parts of Europe—and lower than it has been in previous recessions here.

Underemployment affects women more than men and young people most of all. People between 16 and 24 are almost twice as likely to be underemployed as any other age group. But it is also hitting older people. Underemployment has doubled among people who are working despite being 65 or older.

Some 33 percent of bar staff and 31 percent cleaners are underemployed. And every type of worker recognised by the ONS has seen underemployment increase except for “managers and senior officials”—from machine operatives to secretaries.

Having more workers stuck in part time work benefits the bosses. Part time workers are on average paid a lower hourly rate than full time workers, have less holiday pay and sick leave. Again, they are more likely to be women—often with children to look after.


The government subsidises underemployment and low wages through working tax credits. These are given to working people by the government to top up their income. The amount varies depending on whether you have children or not.

Some three million people receive working tax credits. But this underestimates the number who need the credits, since claiming them is so complicated that many people give up. The latest changes to working tax credits will lead to some of the poorest people receiving less.

Just one week before the ONS figures were released the all party Work and Pensions select committee slammed the government’s plans for a new “universal credit”.

From April next year this new benefit is set to bundle together housing benefit, jobseekers’ allowance, tax credits and income support into a single payment. The credit will be paid monthly instead of weekly and be capped at £400.

Claims must be made online. MPs have voiced concerns that many people will not be able to make the online claim and will fall into debt. They say that vulnerable people will be harder to spot and support.

And people are already getting less money. In April this year the government changed the rules. Now parents need to work more hours to qualify for working tax credits.

‘Workfare is useless’

Lack of jobs and attacks on benefits create a perfect storm of misery for thousands—and the government’s workfare scheme isn’t helping.

Only 3.7 percent of people on the scheme, which forces them to work without wages in the name of work experience, went on to find jobs. That’s a lower proportion than for people who hadn’t been on the scheme.

Adrian Cannon is 49 and lives in Leith near Edinburgh. He has been in and out of work for most of his life. Adrian told Socialist Worker, “I’ve been on so many of these workfare-type schemes. Most of them are useless.

“I don’t know anyone who’s found jobs through them—and I have kept in touch with people afterwards. Some people find work eventually, but it has nothing to do with the scheme.”

Over 12 percent of working age adults claim jobseekers’ allowance in the Edinburgh North & Leith constituency. There was an 81 percent rise in youth unemployment between January 2001 and January 2012.

The idea that Britain’s economy has recovered rings hollow for Adrian. “I need full time work to survive,” he said. “But in this economic climate it mostly seems to be part-time that’s available.”

Workers’ woe worst in Wales

The largest increases in underemployment since 2008 are in Northern Ireland, which has seen a staggering 84 percent rise, with the East Midlands at 50 percent.

Workers in Wales are most likely to be underemployed. One in eight find themselves in this position. Welsh secretary David Jones was grilled in parliament last week over job losses.

‘Taking any job available’

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said in response to the report’s findings, “Around 2.5 million across the UK are currently out of work, but this figure only tells half the story.

“Taking any job available, even if it meant lower pay and fewer hours, was a pragmatic response. The fact the number of underemployed people continues to grow shows just how weak our recovery is.”

Short straw for temp workers

The number of people stuck on temporary contracts has also gone up. Some 655,000 temporary workers say they can’t get permanent jobs. That’s 41 percent of all temporary workers. The number has almost doubled since the crisis began.


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