Hart of the Matter
You might think that after Sunday afternoon’s sporting debacle in South Africa, and George Osborne’s doom-laden budget, people would be feeling a bit down.
But I have not noticed that in and around Haverhill this week, and there has not been much indication of it nationally either, at least through the various old-fashioned media that I use.
Whether people’s Facebooks have assumed sad expressions or their Twitters turned into mournful cheeping I wouldn’t know, but an air of cheerful resignation has pervaded what I have seen and read.
After the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 it was many months before anything in particular happened, a period described then, and by historians since, as the ‘phoney war’. The revival of that expression to describe the limbo between the chancellor’s budget speech and the announcements of the actual cuts in the autumn is probably worryingly accurate.
I was interested to read how the early departure of England from the World Cup is lamented by the traders in and around where the fans were staying, because they are apparently the biggest spenders of all the nations and gave a tremendous boost to the local economy.
One pub took more in an evening than it normally would in two months. That certainly gives the impression that there is affluence around in this country for the Government to get its teeth into.
The problem is that it isn’t very well spread around. There are large areas of deprivation and unemployment already and there will be more. Will Haverhill be one of them, as it has been in previous recessions?
To answer that question we need to look at current patterns of employment here, which have changed out of all recognition in the last couple of decades or so.
Twenty-five years ago you would have pointed to the meat factory at Little Wratting – HMP/Newmarket Foods/Grampian/Vion – as the lynchpin of the local economy, being by far the biggest employer. Then there were the big Haverhill factories, like Project, Addis, IFF, Herberts, Blagden, Winmau, Gurteens, etc.
But manufacturing has haemorrhaged away, not just from Haverhill, but from Britain. Of those I mentioned, Vion employs about a quarter the number that HMP did, and Herberts and IFF are the only others still making anything here.
Now the town’s biggest employers are to be found in very different areas. Top of the list is Suffolk County Council. Fairly close behind, I would guess, would be Addenbrooke’s Hospital and Stansted Airport. And then would come the supermarkets.
Jobs in the public sector are to be hit hard, so the county council is bound to contract to some degree. The NHS is to be ring-fenced, apparently, so the hospitals should be safe enough. Presumably the supermarkets will survive.
So, on the face of it, Haverhill looks quite well prepared for any downturn. We are often being told about the miraculous transformation of the town, and how the loss of any major industry would not now be disastrous because so many alternative jobs have been created.
The picture is a little different if you look at it closely. Anecdotally, many workers are in a very weak position in the local labour market.
Although the fact that businesses relocate to Haverhill looks very good, it does not always bring to the town what is claimed. Glossy promotional material about these businesses often claims the availability of good, experienced local labour was a major factor in them moving to Haverhill.
But if you can track down anyone local who has actually got a job in one of them, you will tend to hear that they find their working hours intensely boring because no one else there speaks English.
Never mind, we have lots of new retail and leisure outlets (ghastly term!) which have come here recently, bringing hundreds of jobs to the town – or so we are led to believe.
But when you talk to people who are employed in many of these, you discover it isn’t quite like that either. Large numbers of people are working part-time, because it gives employers more flexibility to cope with long opening hours, and because employees’ entitlements are far less under a certain number of hours per week.
I have heard stories of people (not in this town) having to go through a complicated double interview process for a 12-hour-a-week job. Others have been offered as little as four hours a week guaranteed.
That is all very well, but you can’t live on it, so you need to get another job as well. However, there is no guarantee when your four hours, or any extra overtime, will be, so you cannot be sure other jobs will not clash with it. And none of these jobs carry any sort of lasting contract.
So when anyone talks about job creation, or local employment levels, one needs to ask exactly what is meant by a job. It is an employers’ market, and it looks like becoming more and more so.