Walking from the train station to the austerity uncovered bus in Northampton town centre, there seemed to be a real buzz about the place – lots of people out and about, and a nice market square. Maybe we’d stumbled on evidence of Britain’s recovery that the Chancellor is so keen to talk up.
Sadly not. On closer inspection, there were a fair few boarded up shops. The row opposite the bus said it all – two payday loan shops next to each other, the local connexions office (a publically funded careers advice service) closed.
Many of the people we spoke to on the way to work said similar things – grateful to have a job but barely enough pay or hours to get by. Sitting on the table with a group of local people who had been affected by the bedroom tax (yet again a major issue that people are very angry about) and disability cuts, one guy said he felt embarrassed to be talking to us as he had a job and a home. However, his story symbolised a lot of what was wrong with the jobs market today.
An articulate and skilled worker, he was expecting his first child in the autumn and craved a steady income so he could save for his family. Instead, he was employed by an employment agency to work for a major high street bank. The pay was low, the hours variable and he had no idea whether he’d be working from one week to the next. If this is the new kind of ‘flexible job’ that businesses are creating then we’re in serious trouble.
We left Northampton and moved on to Corby – or little Scotland as a local called it! A councillor provided a potted history of the town – Scottish and Irish workers migrated to Corby to work in the now closed Steelworks, hence the not very middle England local accents – and said that most jobs were provided by the 40 or so employment agencies that now operated in the town.
Virtually everyone I spoke to who worked in the private sector was employed through an agency – many on zero contracts and everyone on low pay. For me, Corby answered Britain’s labour market puzzle – plenty of people in work but most doing low-paid jobs on short-term contracts that prevent people from saving or spending enough.
But of all the people I spoke to today, the testimonies of a young couple – Chelle and James (pictured, above) – stood out. From eviction threats over the bedroom tax, to cuts in disability living allowance, zero hours contracts and useless employment schemes, and finally the threat of scaled back services at their nearest hospital, they had suffered in so many ways from the impact of the cuts. It was tragic to hear how a young couple had been pushed into despair and poverty by austerity. I really hope their luck changes but one thing’s for sure, the help and support they need to turn things around is unlikely to come from this government.
Rob Holdsworth is Campaigns and Media Officer at the TUC