Coronavirus

The looming jobs crisis will also be an inequality crisis of startling proportions

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I didn’t need to get out my crystal ball to make the doom and gloom prediction contained in the headline above. Simply observing the current state of the jobs market is enough to know that now, just like in so many times of economic crisis, the wealthiest and best-connected will make it through, while those lacking connections and funds will fall by the wayside. 

How do I know this? Well, a little bit of quick googling is all you need. If you search for ‘should I pay to do an internship?’ the search results are surprising. Instead of the top hits being a selection of choice moral diatribes, several of the results lead to sites encouraging interns to pay for internships abroad. Sites like One World 365 and CRCC Asia encourage students and graduates struggling to break in to the industry of their choice to pay to intern abroad. For between £1500 and £3000 (not including flight costs) a lucky UK student can volunteer in print journalism. Or for between £2000 and £2500 a budding intern could travel to India for an opportunity dedicated to social impact. 

Of course, whether any of these opportunities can actually be realised in a world that is shunning international travel is questionable. So that’s where Virtual Internships comes in, a site that allows you to pay for and complete your internship without ever having to leave your front door. In order to circumvent UK employment law (which requires interns to be paid), these internships are actually hosted by companies which are based overseas, which means that though an intern may never leave the UK, they will still technically be working in a foreign location. 

None of the things I have mentioned are new. But the situation we are now living through will exacerbate all of the inequalities these unfair opportunities create. 

The UK has officially plunged into a recession – the worst since records began. More than 730,000 Brits have lost their jobs during lockdown and that number is likely to rise significantly after the furlough scheme ends. Stories of hundreds of often overqualified applicants all vying for the same receptionist job or bar staff role are beginning to mount. We’re finding that there are far too many applicants for each job all over the country. 

It seems that we are sleepwalking into a crisis. When October comes around and the furlough scheme ends, what will happen to the millions of people whose employers are still unable to open up their jobs again? Few provisions have been made for the mass unemployment that awaits us; between 10 and 20% of the 9.4 million jobs that went on furlough will be made redundant, potentially amounting to a UK unemployment rate of 12% by Christmas. 

We like to think we have a social safety net in the UK, but this net is distinctly porous. The UK has one of the weakest employment safety offerings amongst OECD advanced economies, and deliberately cultivating a weak welfare state has been part and parcel of government policy for the past ten years. Dismissing strong protections for those facing redundancy as making life somehow unfairly ‘easy’, the successive Conservative governments since 2010 have left the UK in no position to face a crisis of mass joblessness. But now that that crisis cannot be avoided, the crisis of inequality which has been plaguing the UK for years will worsen.

Those who leave school with few or no qualifications will find themselves competing against those with A Levels or even degrees for poorly paid and insecure work. Those who leave university will find that graduate level jobs have become ever more elusive. With fewer jobs available, employers can begin to demand higher levels of qualification or experience for jobs that previously would have been entry level. Gaining further qualifications is not simply a matter of academic ability or general intelligence; it is a mark of financial capacity as well, with only those who can afford to spend more time studying or fork out for Masters’ fees able to do so. And gaining more experience? Well, if an entry level job paying an entry level wage asks applicants to demonstrate certain levels of experience in that field, that experience may often need to come through poorly paid internships or even volunteering – an option that is often only open to those who have significant financial support from their parents (and connections to get them an internship in the first place). And of course, for those who can afford it, the option to buy an internship is always there.

So as the jobs crisis begins to worsen, skills and employee qualities will gradually become less valuable. With the furlough scheme, we have seen an explosion in volunteering across the UK, as many of those who would typically have been in work find themselves with much time on their hands. But some of the volunteering those on furlough have been doing is simply work that freelancers would previously have taken on on a paid basis. Sites like Furlonteer and Furloughed Life connect furloughed workers with opportunities which allow them to keep their hands in and even gain new skills – all without being paid for their time. It is totally understandable that furloughed workers would want to keep busy and ensure that they are not de-skilling, but the ultimate cost of this is that employers begin to seek out and even value unpaid work, thus disadvantaging those who cannot do without reimbursement for their time. 

As job opportunities become thin on the ground, little has been done to protect the employees who will find themselves disadvantaged as a result. The government’s furlough scheme was undoubtedly the right intervention in March, but unless something else is done to ensure fair employment opportunities and to make sure that those unable to find work are not sliding into destitution, all of the furlough scheme’s benefits will fail to have any long-term impact. 

At the start of the coronavirus crisis, many people, myself included, saw an opportunity for society to fundamentally change for good. We saw that this crisis could herald a new era of equality. But as time goes on, it seems that that equality is becoming more and more elusive. 

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