'This is not what full employment looks or feels like'

18 Apr 2018

Speaking in response to 'overheated' public comment on new unemployment figures, ICTU Assistant General Secretary Owen Reidy said that the discussion has instead highlighted the need for NI to have a better informed debate on its economic future.

"There is a real danger of policy makers and influencers sliding into complacency when they see headlines about 'full employment'. An Unemployment rate of 3.5% is of course a good thing but focusing only on this as evidence to say that we have reached full employment is regrettably premature.

"Firstly, the rate of economic inactivity continues to be the fundamental sticky issue in the labour market that sets NI apart from Great Britain. As well as the 60,000 people who are classed as 'inactive, but want to work', there are a far higher proportion of persons with disabilities who are effectively debarred from the labour market than other parts of the UK. This includes people carrying mental and physical scars from the conflict.

"Secondly, if we were really at full employment we would see this pushing through in terms of wage inflation. This is not yet the case. To make things worse, the wage profile of the jobs being created are lower than the wage of profile of jobs being lost. We are not replacing jobs like for like. More people are working, but their hours are shorter, their contracts insecure and their wages are lower.

"Thirdly, we have a gender dimension which is often missed. Part-time employment has been growing sharply for men, from 26,000 in 2010 to 51,000 in the most recent figures (for Dec-Feb 2017). This is particularly worrying in the context of most recent earnings data that shows that wages for part-time males has been declining. There was a 2.6 per cent fall in wages for male part-time workers in the private sector, which amounts to a 5.1 per cent decline when adjusted for inflation. We are seeing this feed through to economic inactivity as work no longer pays. (https://www.nisra.gov.uk/publications/ashe-headline-statistics-northern-ireland)

"In addition, female self-employment since 2009 has risen from 18,000 to 39,000 in the latest figures and much of this increase has been in solo self-employment which is part-time (such as health care and education support), which confirms the perception of greater precariousness.

"This pattern of low wages and precarious work is the reason why the entire NI trade union movement has been challenging business and political representatives and gaining their support for concerted action, as it becomes apparent that these are now structural flaws in NI's 'business model' which breeds long-terms problems with skill shortages and lower tax revenue which in turn holds back economic growth, productivity and social progress for all. (http://www.betterworkbetterlives.org)

"There is now  a groundswell among the people and groups we have been interacting with for a new way of approaching economic matters and their social impact. The case for a forum on social dialogue, which is common across Europe and operating well in Wales and Scotland, is becoming irresistible.

"We have always been advocates for power sharing in this society and we want it restored. A forum for Social Dialogue is not a panacea to all our ills and we would be naïve to think so. It is also not an end in itself, it is a vehicle, a means to an end. But civil society and our uncertain political class need a new process whereby we can all have an informed and representative input and where the trade unions can influence public policy in the interests of workers in NI."