When a survey found this week that millions of people fear losing their jobs in the next six months, shocking unemployment figures reveal today (May 19) that their worries are justified.
The total number of people claiming unemployment benefits in April surged to 2.1m – the highest level since records began in the 1970s, according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The figures, which have highlighted the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the attendant lockdown, showed that in April alone, more than 800,000 people signed on to Universal Credit and Jobseeker’s Allowance benefits. The steep rise in claims represents an astonishing 70 per cent increase in a single month.
Some regions have been hit harder by job losses than others, with areas in the north and south west of England – already among the most deprived – seeing the worst impacts.
As horrific as the jobless figures are now, it is thought that the government’s job retention scheme – a wage subsidy programme now covering 8m people – has saved jobs for now and kept the figures from going into a much sharper free fall.
Jonathan Athow, a deputy national statistician for the ONS, explained the figures.
“In March employment held up well, as furloughed workers still count as employed, but hours worked fell sharply in late March, especially in sectors such as hospitality and construction,” he said.
“Through April, though, there were signs of falling employment as real-time tax data show the number of employees on companies’ payrolls fell noticeably, and vacancies were sharply down too, with hospitality again falling steepest.”
Last week, chancellor Rishi Sunak announced he would until the end of October extend this scheme, also known as the furlough scheme, where the government covers 80 per cent of wages for people who cannot work amid the lockdown.
The government has not outlined what it will do after the end of October. Given the uncertainty about how long social distancing measures will need to be in place and the fact that demand could take many months to pick up again even after the lockdown is fully eased, fears have been raised that government withdrawing support could trigger many millions more job losses.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner warned yesterday (May 18) that the government must take action to protect the millions of people whose livelihoods are at risk after it was revealed that huge swathes of people fear losing their jobs in the next six months.
“Millions of jobs are now at risk across the economy, and although the jobs cliff edge may have moved with employers being asked to pay their fair share towards wage protection from August, many will simply throw loyal workers under the bus rather than put their hands in their pockets,” he said.
Turner said Unite is now calling for a National Council for Recovery together with unions to formulate a strategy to create a fairer, greener economy.
This he said, would “[help] our industrial heartlands to meet the challenges of the climate emergency, alongside a comprehensive jobs creation programme to support our regions and communities, as well as the needs of class and the planet.”
Young people hit hardest
The shocking unemployment figures come just weeks after new researched showed that young people working in low-paid jobs were the most likely to face the economic impacts of the lockdown. This is because many work in jobs whose businesses were ordered to shut down, such as bars, cafes, pubs and other hospitality settings.
And while the furlough scheme may have helped save millions of jobs, far too many employers are refusing to take advantage of the state wage subsidy and are instead making people redundant.
Today alone saw two major jobs loss announcements – one from SSE Energy Services, which said it plans to axe 2,600 jobs, as well as from Tradeteam, owned by DHL, which said it will close a depot resulting in more than 200 people, currently furloughed, being made redundant.
In both instances, Unite is demanding that they reverse their decisions.
Turner noted that both pressuring employers to furlough their workers and strategic government action are necessary to keep job losses from continuing to spiral out of control.
“The latest jobless figures reveal the true scale of the challenge we’re facing,” he said. “Despite our success in securing pay protection through the furlough scheme, bad bosses are shamefully choosing to cause needless suffering by sacking workers at a time of desperate crisis.
“Unite and other unions have in many cases successfully piled the pressure on individual employers to reverse job cuts and furlough their workers – this is something we will continue to do,” he added. “But unions alone cannot keep what we fear will become a tsunami of future job losses at bay. We need the government to step in and – with the support of unions – set up a National Council for Recovery so that we can strategically plan, rebuild and restore our economy; protecting jobs, our regions and communities in new deal to build a better, fairer, greener future.”
The latest jobless statistics make for grim reading during Mental Health Awareness week this week, when many will be feeling the mental strain of either having lost their jobs or fearing for the future.
Unite has published a mental health guide to help people cope with the mental stress of the pandemic and lockdown. You can read our guide here.
By Hajera Blagg