‘Huge jobs crisis’ looming for Northern Ireland in 2021

A doubling of the number of redundancies proposed over the last year in Northern Ireland is only a taste of what is to come in 2021, said retailers’ representative Glyn Roberts.

Belfast city centre in November 2020. Retailers have been in crisis due to the coronavirus restrictions. Photo: PressEye
Belfast city centre in November 2020. Retailers have been in crisis due to the coronavirus restrictions. Photo: PressEye

Responding to stark new figures from Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) – recording 10,000 redundancies since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March this year – Mr Roberts said the greatest challenge has yet to be faced.

“It is a lot worse that what is being outlined, and there is going to be a huge challenge whenever furlough does come to an end. We are facing a huge unemployment problem into 2021,” the Retail NI chief executive said.

Approximately half of the redundancies were described as being in the manufacturing, and wholesale and retail sectors. Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate is now 3.9% – up 1.6% on last year.

Mr Roberts said: “I think it’s a very stark illustration of just how much economic damage the pandemic has done, and I think those figures would nearer 100,000 if it wasn’t for the furlough scheme.

“Added to that the many thousands of small business owner and independent retails who are in survival mode at the minute. In the short term it is not looking good at all.”

Mr Roberts said a third NI Executive imposed lockdown would be devastating.

“You can’t just switch the economy off and on like a car. You just can’t shut down a business and expect them to open up months later,” he said.

“I think the problem is this knee-jerk reaction, whenever we have problem with [coronavirus] transmission rates, is just to close business down.

“This is a mistake I believe the Executive might be moving towards again, and it would be utterly insane when the last circuit breaker/lockdown we had didn’t dent the figures either. These are discussions we hope to have with ministers in the next few days.

“And you can add into the mix the huge disruption that Brexit is causing on top of all of this, so it’s a perfect storm of crises and pressure upon pressure.

“We are not in good shape at all, and I am desperately worried about where we are at the minute.

Nisra also recorded the first annual decline in employee jobs since September 2012. Estimates from the Quarterly Employment Survey September 2020 indicate that employee jobs decreased over the year by 4,080 to 775,020 jobs.

SDLP economy spokesperson Sinead McLaughlin has also predicted a “very difficult” employment situation for some time to come – describing the outlook for 2021 as “very worrying”.

Belfast-based economist Richard Ramsey said government support is distorting the “true state of the labour market”.

He said: “It’s difficult to get a true picture of what’s happening in the labour market because there is so much support – whether that’s the job retention scheme or the self-employment income support scheme – which is giving an artificial picture and flattering the true state of the labour market”.

Mr Ramsey said self-employment rates are plummeting, and added: “In particular, male self-employment is falling at its fastest rate on record.”