Friday, 7 October 2011

Corporate Britain: The wages into profits miracle

Times are tough - living standards are falling, as the IFS reported last month. Average wages are rising by around 2% while inflation is over 5%. Consumers are cutting back on spending, demand on the high street is suppressed and employers are laying people off: unemployment continues to rise.

Amid all the gloomy headlines about unemployment, pay freezes, lay-offs, the eurozone crisis and the imminent need for further bank bailouts, you might have missed this virtually unreported statistical release from the Office for National Statistics.

The release demonstrates that corporate Britain is actually doing rather well: the profitability of UK companies was 12.1% for the second quarter of 2011 - up from 11.7% in 2010 and 11.3% in 2009.

In the service sector the picture is even more rosy, with companies profit rate at 15% in Q2 2011, up from 14.7% in 2010 and 14.2% in 2009.

Now of course LEAP did point out in its March 2011 report that some UK firms were engaging in rampant profiteering. We identified banks, supermarkets and energy companies - and called for a windfall tax on each sector.

So how - when times are tough, wages are falling further behind inflation, benefits are being cut and unemployment is rising - is the corporate sector managing to increase its profits?

The answer is part of the reason why we're in this crisis: because there has been a power shift from workers to corporations ('from labour to capital' if you like it in Marxist terms). As the share of the national wealth going to wages has declined so the the proportion going to corporate profits has increased. Workers are easier to sack and harder to unionise, and we have deregulated, liberalised and privatised.

Take a couple of examples where this is true in corporate Britain today:
Newsquest, a company which owns a large number of local newspapers in the UK has frozen staff pay, slashed 800 UK jobs, and last year closed its pension scheme. Times are tough? Well, not for the shareholders: their profits went up 15% (£10.8m) to £82.5m. More on Newsquest here.

Park Cake is a company you've probably never heard of, but you have probably seen their products. Its biggest customer is Marks & Spencer, for which it makes its famous Colin the Caterpillar cake and its popular chocolate ganache birthday cake. This year Park Cake directors awarded themselves a 10.6% pay increase and the Managing Director a 15% pay rise. Their workers' pay was frozen. To compound their greed, they are also exploiting their agency staff by exploiting a loophole in the new agency workers regulations. No pay rise, no rights, let them eat cake. More on Park Cake here.
In both these cases, the workforce is unionised - which is why you've now heard of them - but the law is so stacked in employers' favour that even the best unions (and the NUJ and BFAWU are two of them) are struggling to fight back.

Of course this squeeze cannot go on forever - if wages continue to be squeezed and unemployment continue to rise then people will cut back on buying things like newspapers and caterpillar cakes. As Nouriel Roubini said, capitalism might eat itself.

The solution to this crisis is therefore to restore trade union rights, raise not cut (as Osborne is doing) taxes on big business, uprate the national minimum wage and invest to create jobs. Trade unions are saying it. They're right. Labour should say it too.

1 comment:

  1. Your view on UK corporate profitability is misleading. If you look at the series provided, you find that corporate profitability is still well below its peak before the crisis, i.e 12.1% net in Q2'11 versus 14.9% in Q4'07. Yes, it's up from the low in the trough of the recession when it was 10.6% in Q3'09 but the recovery is feeble compared to the recovery in US profitability, which is now at a post-war high. For more on UK profits see: