The latest unemployment figures have opened a debate in Scotland over part-time working and I have done several media slots on this issue in recent days.
The number of people in work in Scotland rose by 12,000 over April to June, to 2.5 million, apparent good news. However, this figure is still 5,000 lower than 12 months ago. What these figures hide is the growth in part-time employment.
Scotland now has 684,000 part-time workers, up from 624,000 in the 2008-09 period, and 13,000 higher than the same period this time last year. This dramatic rise is made up mostly of male workers and has pushed the number of Scots who are part-time, but want to be full-time, to double that of the start of the recession.
Let's be clear that part-time work is fine in principle. For many workers it fits in with their lifestyle and other commitments. UNISON has long argued for flexible working and has negotiated many agreements to promote this option to those who want it. However, these figures show that part-time working is being forced on workers who don't want this option, leaving them with the same bills to pay but on lower wages. We are in effect seeing the growth of underemployment.
One caller to a radio programme I did argued that his friends thought it was great. They were earning more as part-time workers, up to £1000 per day. I was tempted to ask what planet he was living on! Most of our part-time members would welcome taking home £1000 per month. Most other callers reflected the reality of getting by on less that £150 a week, particularly those caught in the UK government's Working Tax Credit trap.
We are also seeing some unscrupulous employers exploiting part-time work. The growth of zero-hours contracts is one example of this. We see this in the care sector where employers use this type of contract to minimise their costs. Even to the extent of not paying, or not making adequate provision, for travel time. It's not only the workers who lose out. Clients get short changed on their allocated time and high staff turnover means little continuity of care.
There are also wider implications for the economy. Underemployment contributes to the low wage, insecure economy that leaves workers unable or unwilling to spend in the high street. A key feature of the recession is the lack of consumer confidence and under employment coupled with weak employment rights is a major reason why this downturn is going on and on.
The growth in self employment is another example of underemployment, not a sign of renewed entrepreneurial spirit.
So the growth in part-time working is a feature of the recession, not a positive growth in flexible working. It is being exploited by some employers and is contributing to low consumer confidence and the lengthening recession.