Even in the smoke and mirrors world inhabited by the official figures on unemployment and poverty, a world in which thousands of jobless are routinely airbrushed out as ‘economically inactive’ or ‘self-employed’, one can still glean some sense of the helter skelter disintegration of economic life in Britain, accelerated by the health emergency but having its root cause in the crisis of overproduction.
The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted that just in the first three weeks of the lockdown, commencing on 20 March, the number of workers claiming Universal Credit (UC) nationally shot up from 3,012,736 to 4,209,795. The impact on the poorest in society is getting worse, as is emphasised by the anti-poverty charity Turn2us: “This sudden increase in unemployment as a result of coronavirus is, while not surprising, a significant cause for concern. We have heard from hundreds of thousands newly unemployed people who have already spent their savings and now face hunger, homelessness and debt” (‘Turn2us responds to the latest unemployment figures’, Turn2us website, 19 May 2020).
Particularly hard hit are poverty-stricken families in the south west of England. The DWP admits that in Devon and Cornwall the number of workers registering for UC rose by over a hundred thousand just in the first four weeks of the health emergency, a figure which must by now be many times greater. On 12 March there were 228,043 UC claimants; by 9 April there were 334,822, representing a 46.8% leap (William Telford, ‘Number of SW Universal Credit claimants tops 300k since lockdown’, Business Live, 19 May 2020).
The above-cited figures are from official sources, and so will have already been reheated many times before being served up for public consumption. Yet even such doctored stats as these reveal enough for workers to start drawing their own conclusions about the true depth of the economic and social crisis into which we are plunging.
Thousands more to go at Rolls Royce
Having secured government cash to put over 4,000 of its British employees on furlough, Rolls Royce is now planning to go ahead anyway and dump 3,375 of its workforce in East Derbyshire and Renfrewshire. This deals a further sickening blow to what little remains of the manufacturing life of Derby.
This is part of a worldwide contraction in jobs, with Rolls Royce slashing 9,000 of its global workforce of 52,000.
The company exclusively blames the health emergency for this cull of jobs, and this clearly has a bearing on the timing of this announcement. However the underlying overproduction crisis had already pressured Rolls Royce into contracting its labour force, as Derby can well testify. In 2018 it axed thousands of jobs at Derby’s civil aerospace site, shedding back office staff and middle managers, and now it’s back for more. The pandemic has been seized upon as a pretext to press on with cuts, conveniently presenting as an ‘act of God’ what is essentially a consequence of capitalist crisis, albeit aggravated by the pandemic.
If Rolls Royce is incapable of preserving and developing this manufacturing linchpin of the East Midlands, then let its Derby operation come under public ownership, where necessary repurposed to focus on the manufacture of products of genuine social need.
Centrica, the owner of British Gas (privatised by Thatcher) plans to cut 5,000 jobs in Britain. It plans to slash its labour costs by outsourcing its call centres and back-office operations to ‘offshore’ providers in South Africa and India, whilst its in-house engineers will be replaced by outside contractors.
Under already intensifying competition in the crowded energy supply market, now aggravated by the Covid lockdown, British Gas is struggling to hang on to its customer base, last year losing 286,000 of its customers. Since the lockdown things have got even worse, with industrial customers shutting up shop and domestic customers deferring payment.
Centrica employs 27,000 globally, of whom 20,000 are in Britain. The 5,000 faced with redundancy represent 25% of the British workforce. Particularly badly hit will be Yorkshire, with hundreds of jobs under threat as the company moves to close its regional training academy in Leeds.
SPS Technologies, which makes aerospace parts, is also using the excuse of the lockdown to justify aggressively slashing labour costs through redundancies and the imposition of inferior employee contracts at its plants in Nottingham, Leicester and Rugby. SPS plans over 420 redundancies across the Midlands; those who remain face the prospect of reductions to pay grades, sick pay, shift premiums, paid breaks – and anything else that SPS can dream up to shave down labour costs.
In Nottinghamshire the company is planning to get rid of about 100 of the 300 workers at its Annesley plant and another 40 out of the 100 workers at the Mansfield plant, whilst in Leicester it wants to consign another 100 workers out of 480 to the scrap heap. And in Rugby there are nigh on another 100 losing their jobs.
P&O takes the money and runs
Shipping companies responsible for ferrying essential goods like medical and veterinary supplies into Britain are being given a state subsidy in the form of Critical Freight Grant Payments. Yet the company which has received the highest amount, P&O Ferries, is presently planning to slash 1,100 jobs on the very same routes!
RMT general secretary Mick Cash explained: “The Government is supporting ferry companies to the tune of over £33m until mid-July. By that time, P&O Ferries will have put 1,100 workers – mostly seafarers in Dover and Hull – on the dole” (‘RMT slams scandal of taxpayer support for P&O shareholders’, RMT website, 8 June 2020).
So far from being hailed as heroes for their role in safeguarding the passage of essential goods to Britain, they are rewarded by getting the sack whilst the bosses dip freely into the public purse.
Imperial College sackings
Another group of workers whose vital work in the struggle to fight the pandemic is being similarly rewarded is to be found in Imperial College, working in the department of Information and Communication Techno-logy (ICT). The Covid-19 Response Team based at Imperial has been central to advising the government on how to deal with the pandemic, and members of the Team point out that their globally important work relies upon the support of the ICT staff. Covid-19 Response Team member Dr Samir Bhatt, who is advising the state of New York as it comes out of lockdown, stressed that “For weeks now, all of our Covid-19 response work has had to be done remotely. It goes without saying that our work is of significant public health importance, both within the UK and around the world, and it would have been impossible without the Imperial ICT staff and their heroic efforts in the midst of incredibly trying circumstances” (Quoted by Anna McKie, ‘Imperial Covid-19 researchers criticise plans to cut 75 ICT jobs’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 9 June 2020).
Yet incredibly on 3 June, bang in the middle of the pandemic, Imperial College dropped a bombshell. The college union UCU reported that “Imperial College told 281 staff in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) that 156 of them were at risk of losing their jobs. Imperial says it expects 75 staff to be made redundant, meaning more than a quarter of the department will go, with the first jobs expected to be axed in July. However, UCU fears the losses may be higher. Imperial says the cuts will save £2m and the restructure will take eight months” (‘Covid-19 scientists’ outcry at Imperial College’s plans to axe vital staff’, UCU website, 8 June 2020)’
Debenhams shafts its cafe workers
In April last year the prestigious department store chain Debenhams went into administration, no longer able to hack it in the ruthlessly competitive retail market. Shock therapy at the hands of the administrators closed 22 of its stores at that time, enabling the stricken company to limp on for another year, until the pandemic came along and tipped it back into administration in April.
Workers employed in the 100+ cafes run by Debenhams were put on furlough, with the government paying 80% of their salaries. Whilst they tightened their belts, at least they could look forward to resuming their normal jobs when the lockdown lifted – or so they were encouraged to believe.
This expectation was rudely shattered on 27 May when staff were summoned by text to a conference call the following day. Staff wondered what the meeting would be about. Maybe it would be to discuss plans for the reopening of stores on 15 June? Instead workers were told that the cafés would not reopen, and they were being made redundant with immediate effect and without any period of notice. Worse, because their jobs no longer existed, the furlough payments would cease at once. And when staff asked about redundancy pay, they were told to apply to the government.
Had Debenhams been straight with its workers back in March and given notice of redundancy, at least staff would have had some time to seek alternative employment. Instead the company strung the cafe staff along for two months (at taxpayers’ expense) before summarily ditching them, with no better prospect than joining the long and winding queue for Universal Credit.