Everything Theresa May thinks she's doing for workers is only making their situation worse

The projection that earnings will be almost £1,000 a year lower than predicted in March means that any light at the end of a 10-tunnel can only be an oncoming train

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The Independent Online

The Autumn Statement has struck a discordant note. The Government’s policies are a long way from what workers really want.

At the outset, let us say that the workers’ wish list is neither self-aggrandising nor over-ambitious. A recent TUC survey identified the top 10 issues for younger employees, including low pay, poor-quality jobs, lack of training opportunities, weak opportunities for progression, underemployment, precarious working conditions, persistent bullying and harassment and having no voice in the workplace.

So this is not just about the flat-lining of pay, described with disarming simplicity by the Institute of Fiscal Studies – although the projection that earnings will be almost £1,000 a year lower than predicted in March means that any light spied at the end of a 10-year tunnel can only be an oncoming train. (It is hard to imagine the impact of this on key workers such as nurses, doctors, firefighters and care home assistants, but the sympathy shown for junior doctors would worry me if I were a Cabinet minister right now.) For workers, the other components of the Autumn Statement all fell short of what employees would expect from a Government which is apparently on their side.

In Numbers: Philip Hammond's Autumn Statement

Brexit is the dominant issue, and the one on which there is the least clarity on. That’s the OBR view, not just mine. The immediate prospect of lower growth in GDP and wages, higher inflation and rising unemployment sends a bleak message. The national productivity investment fund allocation of £23bn over four years will help roads, rail, broadband, housing and science, which all bring positive employment prospects. But this is meagre in comparison with our OECD counterparts.

When workers are particular concerned about increased insecurity while working harder and harder, the economic reform measures announced on Wednesday are especially important. Full marks to Gloria del Piero for getting the PM to reverse her u-turn on worker representation on company boards, but we will have to see whether the commitment is meaningful. As Janet Williamson observes, “appointing a non-executive director to speak on behalf of the workforce or setting up a stakeholder advisory body are not the same as putting workers on company boards. Don’t think that working people won’t notice the difference.” Government endorsement of the TUC’s manifesto for workplace consultation would be welcome, but I am not holding my breath.

Employment rights are only as good as their enforcement, so 20 per cent extra budget for National Minimum Wage enforcement and promised action on bogus self-employment are to be welcomed. But employment tribunal cases have fallen as costs sharply increase, and the Trade Union Act makes organising workers in growing industries such as hospitality, services and retail increasingly difficult.

The Autumn Statement is clearly not for everyone. What is most disturbing and disappointing is that it seems focused on "just about managing". You are a Jam if your household income is 60 per cent of median earnings – £19k presently. But the reality of "just managing" for workers, their families and our society is that it is corrosive and disempowering. For workers, the government’s approach is more Jam today than jam tomorrow. 

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