While the way to a man’s heart might be through his stomach, the recent UK election showed that Britain’s politicians think the best way to votes is through people’s wallets.
For the Conservatives, their big election talking point was the UK’s “jobs miracle”. By the time the country headed out to vote in 2015, there were two million more people in work than there were in the three months before the 2010 election. The Labour party’s initial but ill-founded message was the “epidemic of zero hours contracts”—an increasingly common form of employment contract with no guaranteed hours.
Concerns about the quality of jobs on offer are becoming common around the world, from Hilary Clinton’s comments on the “gig economy” to warnings from the International Labour Organisation about increasingly insecure employment.
In the run up to the UK election, talking about the number of people in employment presented few complications. The measure used by the Office for National Statistics is consistent with both the framework set out by the International Labour Organisation, and the way the term is used internationally.
But finding statistics for the debate the UK Labour Party wanted to have, about the quality of employment, was trickier. There was little clarity about what indicators we should use to discuss the experience of employees in the UK, and interpreting the indicators available proved tough.
Take the variation in the hours worked by people on zero hours contracts. Some argued that this contributed to economic insecurity: people didn’t know how many hours they were going to work, so they couldn’t effectively plan out their finances for the coming weeks and months.
But others said the variation in hours simply reflected the type of person who took jobs on zero hours contracts. Pensioners and students may have commitments or lifestyles that preclude full-time employment or set hours. For some, flexible hours could actually be a source of increased economic security: people who might not otherwise have been able to take on work were getting jobs, and getting paid.
The quality of a job is also subjective. To have a discussion about insecurity, we need some agreement about what indicators to look at. In the UK, there were no official releases on employment quality or international guidelines focussing discussion on an agreed dashboard of indicators, so it was easy for conversations to lose their way among the range of sources.
Amid this confusion, the real but unquantifiable increase in zero hours contracts offered a proxy for the public debate on overall quality of jobs — but not a particularly good proxy. We have a time series for the number of people employed on zero hours contracts, but it is badly affected by respondent error and survey changes. The statistics could not support the claim of an ‘epidemic’ — and once Full Fact pointed this out the Labour leader revised his message to an “epidemic of job insecurity including zero hours contracts”.
Despite these problems, politicians and journalists continued to use these figures on zero hours contracts. They understood the statistics, and it didn’t require them to leap between multiple data sources in a way that was guaranteed to lose their audience.
There is demand for a more structured set of indicators on the quality of employment both in the UK and it seems abroad. Producing an agreed list of measures would be challenging, and the list of potential variables is huge: workplace injuries, level of training and personal development offered, reported satisfaction with work-life balance, variation in hours worked and much more.
But the work of the Office for National Statistics on releases on national well-being in the UK shows that it is possible to develop a meaningful list of indicators on highly complex topics. Efforts to provide insight into these issues would be gratefully received by those in public life, given that the debate on quality and security of employment is not likely to subside any time soon.
Sam Ashworth-Hayes is the economics lead at Full Fact, the UK's independent factchecking charity. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Sam Ashworth-Hayes
Read our recently published article What makes a good job? Job quality and job satisfaction, by Andrew E. Clark
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