Hard times in low-wage region

EYEBROWS WERE raised at the Jobcentre in Redruth, Cornwall, yesterday. The positions advertised were all at or above pounds 3.60 an hour, a rarity for Britain's lowest-paid county.

They were accompanied by a notice saying that from today only jobs paying the new minimum wage would be posted. Cornwall's jobless have been used to hourly rates as low as pounds 2.

One man on the Government's New Deal programme was too scared to give his name in case potential employers saw his comments and changed their minds about hiring him. "Work has become so precious down here that no one is willing to risk anything. You have to be a lapdog, you have to do exactly what people tell you or you lose out on the smallest of job opportunities."

The local jobless rate is about 7 per cent, well above the national average. A report by the business analysts Dun and Bradstreet found the number of businesses failing in the South-west within the first three months increased in the past year from 973 to 1,365. Another 99 people joined the St Austell dole queue when a factory making shirts for Marks & Spencer laid them off. And if further proof were needed, the county has just been granted "Objective One" status, classifying it as one of the poorest areas in the European Union.

Nigel Costly, regional secretary of the South-west TUC, said: "There have been some shocking rates of pay. Some retail workers are still being paid pounds 1 an hour, picking cauliflowers only pays about pounds 1.40, and we found a nightshift worker getting pounds 15 for a seven-hour shift."

Stephanie, 24, who has two children, is living on the breadline. "I earn pounds 2 an hour cleaning families' houses. The minimum wage means nothing to me - these families say they'll only put my money up to pounds 2.25. They can always get someone else in for even less."

Louise Southwell, 26, a graduate, is struggling to pay off a pounds 10,000 college debt on a salary of pounds 8,500. "The minimum wage is long overdue but I think there could be a lot of pressure on people from employers to keep quiet or lose their jobs," she said.

Times are also tough for employers. Marion Holden, landlady of a Penzance guesthouse, said: "I'm not against the minimum wage in principle, but it is very hard for the employer. Tourism is down, everyone is going abroad, so I can't offset that cost by raising my room rates."

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