The holiday islands where everyone’s working: Why are so few people on the Scillies jobless?


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The Independent Online

Having two jobs is not uncommon on the Isles of Scilly; neither is having three or four. But on this scattering of islands 28 miles away from Land’s End, having no job at all is almost unheard of.

The archipelago tops Britain’s rankings for rates of employment, according to government figures published last week. All but one of its five inhabited islands has no job-seekers at all, and last month there were just three unemployed people on its largest island, St Mary’s, making up just 0.1 per cent of the 2,200 strong population.

Better known for their turquoise waters and white sand beaches, which attract more than 100,000 tourists annually, the Scillies have successfully managed to buck national trends in unemployment.

While the rest of the country sees growing numbers of young people out of work and long-term unemployed, all three of the archipelago’s benefit claimants were over 25 and all had been out of work for less than six months.

Despite the cost of living creating such high levels of poverty that the islands qualify for special European funding, they have become the unlikely employment capital of Britain.

Louise Parr, 21, is working behind the till at The Sandpiper, a clothes shop in Hugh Town, St Mary’s commercial centre. When not there she can be found waitressing at the Mermaid restaurant round the corner and she says many of her friends have lots of jobs.  “I was born here and I can’t think of anyone who’s been on jobseeker’s allowance that I know,” she says. “It’s quite easy to get a job here, especially in the summer. I’ve done three jobs a summer before – working as a chambermaid, waitressing and working in a café.”

More than a quarter of islanders are self-employed and at least one in five has more than one job.

Diana Mompoloki, 45, is head of economic development for the islands’ council. She believes this high rate of self-employment is key to the low benefit numbers: “Not only do we have low numbers on benefits, we also have a high level of entrepreneurship. I think it’s being an island: people are very resourceful. You often have people with sustainable livelihoods, made up of four or five different jobs.”

The islands have the fourth-highest rate of entrepreneurship in the country – more than 72 businesses per 1,000 population – which is the highest of any local authority outside London.

Ms Mompoloki says these start-ups impact on the Scillies’ working culture: “They’re all micro-businesses that are owner-managed. People like that rarely take up benefits.”

Throughout the economic downturn, the already tiny proportion of unemployed has been falling. In 2001, those on jobseeker’s allowance made up 1.7 per cent of the population – or 23 people, steadily decreasing to the three now on JSA. Samantha Mallon, 41, works as a taxi driver, runs a guesthouse, chairs Five Islands School’s parent-teacher association and has a six-year-old son.

She was born on Bryher, lived in London in her 20s and now lives on St Mary’s. “I’ve never been out of work. Islanders are very self sufficient. They’ve always had to be and that comes through the generations.

“As a community and a group of people we’re tough and I think that work ethic has been passed down by parents. But we’re also fortunate that we do have the jobs people can go to.”

An estimated 70 per cent of working-age islanders are employed in tourism, which means work can be seasonal. But with the flower-growing industry and the council providing winter work, most manage to find something. Even in February, when seasonal work in tourism is at its most scarce, just 10 people across the islands were claiming JSA this year and all for less than six months.

The acute housing shortage and the size of the islands’ tourism industry does improve the employment chances of anyone with a home on the island. One islander, too worried about the fallout of their comments to be named, commented: “Even people who would probably be unemployable on the mainland get jobs here, because we need people to work. It all comes back to limited housing, but if you live here and you’re breathing you can probably get a job. And if you’re willing, you can probably have four or five jobs.”

Declining unemployment levels will also be partly for Darwinian reasons, since some who find it tough to get a job on the islands may just leave. But it would be too simplistic to suggest that all the poorer residents leave and only the rich ones stay. Wages are low on the Scillies – a recent assessment found average wages on the islands were the fourth-lowest in Britain – and around 17 per cent of the population lives in council or social housing.

The high cost of living makes things hard for residents. Food prices are pushed up by the shipping costs and houses are made expensive by scarcity and visitors. But since many people born on the archipelago want to stay badly, they find creative ways to keep their island lives afloat.

After leaving St Agnes for the mainland to work in weapons for the Ministry of Defence, 45-year-old John Peacock was keen to return home. He came back in 1994 to help his dad set up a boat service between St Agnes and St Mary’s and now he is also establishing a software company to run alongside it.

“There are very few people on St Agnes that are employed by someone else,” he explains. “There’s a culture of wanting to work and wanting to be self-sufficient. Until tourism took off around the 1970s, most people were either a farmer or a fisherman and that’s what you did. It’s hard work, but this place gets into your blood and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. My commute to work every day is getting on my quad bike for three minutes. You can’t argue with that.”

Scillonians’ self-sufficiency is so renowned that they still have a reputation for wreck-scavenging when ships run aground on the archipelago’s lethal rocks. After the MV Cita sank en route from Southampton to Belfast in 1997, islanders were enthusiastic in helping with the “clean-up” of a windfall of car tyres, tobacco, house doors and even women’s summer shorts.

That culture of thrift even extends to business ideas. Helen Shave, 38, works in a shop called Rat Bags, which was created after her sister and brother-in-law started keeping offcuts from sail-making and turning them into canvas bags.

She says it is part of being an islander: “Anything that’s scrap people will recycle. Nothing is wasted.”

In the chandlery shop by the seafront, John Read, 73, is serving a mixture of local boatmen and immaculately dressed visitors fresh from their yachts. “I’ve been self employed in printing most of my life and now in retirement I’m employed,” he says, sifting through rows of bolt trays.

“I’m supposed to be part-time but I work 33 hours a week. People also work hard because a lot of employment here is low-paid.”

Mike Pender, 69, a lobster fisherman from Bryher who has come in to get bolts for his boat, chips in: “This is  the first day off I’ve had in ages. We don’t let people in unless they can bloody work.”