Thu, Dec 26, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Workers must confront ‘general living crisis’ for well-being

By Chang Ha-Joon  /  The Guardian

With economic growth now picking up and unemployment inching its way down, things are beginning to look up for Britain’s economy. Except that it does not seem that way to most people.

British Prime Minister David Cameron may be in denial, but most people in Britain are experiencing a “cost of living crisis,” as the Labour Party put it. Growth in nominal wages has failed to keep up with the rise in prices. With real wages predicted by the UK Office for Budget Responsibility not to recover to the pre-crisis level until 2018, we are literally in for a “lost decade” for wage earners in Britain.

Worse, the crisis for British wage earners is much more than the cost of living. It is a work crisis too. For most people, unemployment results in a loss of dignity, from the feeling of no longer being a useful member of society. When combined with economic hardship, this loss makes the jobless more likely to suffer depression and even to take their own lives, as starkly shown by Sanjay Basu and David Stuckler in their book, The Body Economic. There is even some evidence, published in the British Medical Journal, that out-of-work people become more prone to heart disease. Unemployment literally costs human lives.

POOR WELL-BEING

British workers have been doing badly on this account since the financial crisis began. Although the unemployment rate has fallen, it still stands at 7.4 percent. Most people find this rate acceptable, if regrettable -- but that is only because they have been taught to believe that full employment is impossible. We may not be able to go back to the mid-1960s and the mid-70s, when the jobless rate was between 1 percent and 2 percent, but a rate much lower than today’s is possible, if we had different economic policies.

There is also the issue of job security. The feeling of insecurity is inimical to our sense of well-being, as it causes anxiety and stress, which harm our physical and mental health. It is no surprise then that, according to some surveys, workers across the world value job security more highly than wages.

British workers have been doing very poorly on this account too. The rise in the number of zero-hours contracts is only the most extreme manifestation of increasing insecurity for the workforce. The 2010 European Social Survey revealed that a third of British workers feared losing their jobs -- giving Britain, together with Ireland, the highest sense of job insecurity in Europe.

Then there is the issue of the quality of work. Even if you are getting the same real wage — which most British workers are not — well-being is reduced if your work becomes less palatable. It may have become more strenuous because, say, the company has just turned up the speed of the conveyor belt in the factory, as happened to Charlie Chaplin in the film Modern Times. Or the stress level may have increased because the company reduced your control over your work, as Amazon did when it decided to attach GPS machines to its warehouse staff.

Whatever form it takes, any deterioration in the quality of work can harm the worker’s well-being, and this is what has been happening to many employees in Britain.

HIGH JOBLESS RATE

The European Social Survey also revealed that a quarter of British workers have had to do less interesting work. The Skills and Employment Survey last year revealed that British employees are now working with much greater intensity than before the crisis. The proportions of jobs requiring high pressure, high speed and hard work all rose significantly from 2006.

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