British workers reject ‘low-wage culture’

Resistance to the UK’s ‘low-wage culture’ is growing. According to new research from the TUC, the value of wages in the public sector has fallen by thousands of euros a year since 2010. But workers are fighting back.

As part of its austerity programme, the British government imposed a pay freeze in 2011, followed by a 1% cap on wage rises.  Seven tough years of pay restraint have led to real hardship for thousands of workers. The TUC has now calculated the real terms pay loss in many different professions.

For example, prison officers and paramedics are out of pocket by over £3,800 a year (€4,300). Firefighters are down nearly £2,900 (€3,300). Nuclear engineers and teachers have lost approximately £2,500 (€2,800). Crown prosecutors, who represent the state in criminal proceedings, have seen a pay fall of £4,400 (over €5,000). Many healthcare workers state that higher food, transport, utility and housing costs have hit their standard of living. In a trade union survey, 73% admitted having to ask for help from family or friends, while 200 had resorted to food banks. A post-election poll by the TUC showed that 76% of voters want to give public sector workers a pay rise.

A new report by the Office of Manpower Economics, which services the UK Pay Review bodies, confirms that hourly earnings across 353 occupations dropped on average by almost 6% in real terms between 2005 and 2015, and for many workers by over 10%.

At the same time, the Resolution Foundation, a non-partisan think tank that analyses living standards, found that younger workers under 40 have been squeezed the most. In London, wages were 11% down on pre-crisis levels. It called for more ‘self-employed’ workers to be covered by minimum wages. Half of all workers classified as self-employed in the UK fall below the low pay threshold.

The broader impacts include a loss of morale, and a growing staff recruitment and retention crisis which will only get worse as Brexit makes it more difficult to attract workers from EU Member States. There are already alarming staff shortages in hospitals in high-cost areas like the south of England. Nurses point to a £3,000 (€3,400) fall in their pay since 2010, and their governing body, the Nursing and Midwifery Council, has now reported that for the first time ever, more of their members are quitting their professions than joining.

Furthermore, the loss of earnings means workers have less money to spend on goods and services, which in turn undermines local economies and society in general.

Where services have been outsourced to private companies, things are as bad or worse. Low-paid hospital cleaners in London say they sometimes take on two or even three jobs just to be able to feed their families, while holidays, sick pay and working conditions are squeezed. Now many are turning to trade unions and taking joint action to demand a better deal.

Individuals tell how the falling value of pay affects their lives and their families.
“For seven years, our pay has risen more slowly than inflation — or not risen at all,” says Ashley, a medical clerk. “I’ve noticed the cost of food and petrol going up, and I worry about paying my mortgage. I already make lots of savings — I don’t take holidays and organise Christmas on a budget. But despite that, I currently need my overdraft in order to manage.” Public service workers just want a fair deal. “I know we have public support on this.”

Malcolm works for the Metropolitan Police. “When it comes to food, our weekly shops are getting more expensive so budgeting is a lot more important. I have spent all my savings because I have needed that cash for general day-to-day items. It’s most important to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. The nice things in life have to wait.”

“My pay has remained virtually static since 2009,” says civil servant Denise. “With the increasing costs of transport, food and bills I have struggled. My husband works for the NHS and we have two children. I estimate that I am now £400 a month short on wages to bring me back to the living standard I had 10 years ago.”

Concludes TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady: “It’s been seven long years of pay cuts for our public servants. And ministers still won’t tell us if relief is on the way. Recent months have shown how brave and dedicated the people in our public services are. It’s time to give all of our hardworking public servants the pay rise they’ve earned.”

Photo credit: UNISON