One of the most famous British electoral posters was the
Conservatives’ 1979 “Labour isn’t working” slogan against a picture of a long,
snaking dole queue. With a general election no more than nine months away and
unemployment approaching three million again, it is tempting to assume history
is repeating itself.
But that would be to ignore some important differences between the labour
market in 1979 and in 2009 that pose questions for employers as well as
The bald facts are dismal. Unemployment is rising at its fastest quarterly
pace on record, by 281,000 between March and May, according to the official
Labour Force Survey of households. Meanwhile, employment fell by 269,000 over
the same quarter, close to the record seen in the February-to-April period.
However, the more timely claimant count the measure of people actually
claiming unemployment benefit posted its smallest rise for 13 months in June:
the number of jobless on this measure rose by 23,800 that month and down from
rises of 30,800 in May and a record 136,600 in February.
George Buckley, chief UK economist at Deutsche Bank, calculated that,
relative to the same point in previous recessions, claimant count unemployment
rose by around 100,000 less this time than in the 1990s and about 180,000 less
compared with the 1980s.
There are many possible explanations for this. Job losses have fallen heavily on
the credit crunch sectors such as financial services, where workers see a stigma
in claiming the dole. At the same time, the government has continually tightened
benefit rules over the past decade, making it harder for people to claim.
These factors may play a role, but Buckley believes what’s really happening
is that workers have made a trade-off between lower wages and keeping their job.
“Real earnings have fallen at a faster pace than during the 1980s or 1990s
recessions and employees seem more willing to accept lower wages and hours in
return for keeping their jobs, a feature of more flexible working practices and
less powerful unions than during past recessions,” he says.
An eye-catching example is the deal struck by British Airways and its unions
in July for a 2.61% pay cut for its pilots, saving the company £26m. This
followed June’s agreement by nearly 7,000 airline staff to volunteer for unpaid
leave or work for free, saving up to £10m. As Tony McCarthy, BA’s director of
people, puts it, “In this unique environment, we felt it was right to make it
possible for colleagues from across the airline to play an active role in
helping to secure the airline’s future and, by doing so, their own.”
As well as shoring up their finances, employers who persuade workers to take
a pay cut can hang onto the skills they would lose in a traditional jobs cull.
Incomes Data Services says this contrasts with the early 1990s when companies
engaged in “de-layering” stripping away layers of management and support
services to create lean businesses that often provoked confrontation and
industrial action. “On the whole, we have seen employers and unions negotiating
to avoid compulsory redundancies, to retain skills and talk about the way to get
through a temporary collapse in demand,” says Alastair Hatchett, head of pay and
HR services at IDS.
A survey conducted in May by IDS showed that pay freezes accounted for
one-in-three pay deals with the rest offering average increases of around 2%.
This process is reflected in a decline in wage growth, according to official
figures: underlying annual average earnings growth (excluding bonuses) was
limited to just 2.6% in the three months to May, the lowest rate since the
series began in 2001. This is a slowdown from 3.9% in May last year.
“Companies have imposed wage freezes or even pay cuts,” says Howard Archer,
chief UK economist at analyst IHS Global Insight. It is likely that unemployment
would have been higher without this flexible approach, but that pay has been
This should be good news for employers, but it could delay recovery. “Lower
wages will have negative repercussions for household income, which could set
back any recovery in consumption and therefore, the economy,” says Deutsche
Bank’s Buckley. He adds that lower incomes also make it harder for households to
pay down the debts a move that would help to speed up economic recovery.
“The question seems not whether the UK is emerging from recession, but
rather, what the post-recession macroeconomic environment looks like,” Buckley
says. “With sizeable imbalances in debt levels, house prices and the saving
ratio to work off, the UK recovery may prove lacklustre.”
The problem may not be so much that labour is not working, but that it is not
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