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Unemployed Struggle in Britain at Record Employment

Employment has hit a record high of 75 percent, the British government announced Wednesday, but those searching for work argue the figures mask a tough reality.

"It's survival -- it is one day a time -- you have to rely on other people to get through," said Mark Webb, 48, an unemployed Londoner living in the city's Southwark neighborhood.

In Britain, unemployed people or those out of work for medical reasons receive a maximum of £73 ($102, 83 euros) a week, a social benefit received by 2.8 million people which does not afford them a decent standard of living.

Webb, who lost his job as a physical trainer, said was able to stay in his home after the state stepped in to pay the rent.

But for his meals, he must rely on a local baker who donates his unsold goods, and a neighbor who makes him soup.

"You survive by saving everything," he told AFP, explaining how he avoids using costly energy. "You heat just one room in the house, you eat tin food that doesn't need cooking, you eat things raw."

Britain's jobseekers allowance is certainly not viewed as a substitute salary.

- 'Very tough' -

Sarah Megarity, a social worker at the Action West London association, said the fund "is not designed for people to live on. It is designed to get them back to work as soon as possible."

The association offers numerous support services for unemployed people, including advice on how to manage on their low budget.

"With this amount of money, it's not easy to live on. It's definitely very tough," said Megarity.

"They have just enough money to get the bus and buy dinner. Where it is problematic is when bills come in as well."

Outside a Jobcentre Plus, the national agency tasked with helping unemployed people find work, John Williams knows his outgoings off by heart. 

"I put £5 a week on electricity, about £7 or so on water. Transport, £20 a week, phone around £4 a week," said Williams, who visits the library to search for jobs online.

Unemployed people have to demonstrate steps they have taken each week to find a job, or risk seeing their allowance cut.

"I am able to keep my head above water," said Williams, describing the UK system as a "vicious cycle" which does not help him find long-term solutions.

"You are forced to take up anything you are offered," he said. 

Williams had been self-employed and worked a series of short-term contracts, before work dried up at Christmas.

After signing on at the Jobcentre Plus he said he was twice given one-day jobs which ended up lasting three days a time, but has not been given the opportunity to find a professional job which would leave him in a more secure position.

- Employment up, poverty steady -

Williams' situation is part of a broader pattern of people in precarious employment in Britain.

The number of self-employed people has risen to reach 4.5 million in September last year, up 18 percent since 2010.

People working "zero-hour contracts", which give no minimum guarantee of hours, has jumped by five times over seven years to reach 883,000 in June 2017. 

"Instead of addressing long-term, structural challenges that people may face in accessing secure and decent employment, we are getting lots and lots of people who are being pushed into work," said Joe Dromey, a researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank.

"While unemployment has fallen very substantially, the levels of poverty have not fallen, because people have been increasingly in low-paid work" which can also be unstable, he explained.

The government nevertheless plans to cut funding for programs supporting the unemployed, budgeting £130 million for 2019/2020, down from £541 million in 2015/2016.

Source: Agence France Presse


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