If you have ever been ill, attended a school or had to call the emergency services, then congratulations, the overwhelming odds are that you have benefited from the labour of public sector workers. These are the people who keep the country running: they care for the sick, educate the young and protect all of us. And yet in the years since the public sector pay cap was introduced, NHS workers have seen their wages fall in real terms by around 15%, while police officers and teachers are taking home respectively £2 and £3 an hour less.
As headlines broadcast the lifting of the pay cap, the government’s offer so far is this: a 1% pay increase plus 1% bonus for police officers and a 1.7% pay increase for prison officers, with the promise of future ‘flexibility’ concerning other workers. Pay increases for police and prison officers will be paid for from existing budgets, putting yet more pressure on vital services that are already overstretched. The pay increases announced so far are still below the rate of inflation, amounting to a real-terms pay cut. To call this insufficient is not strong enough. It is an insult.
The fact that there are those who are attempting to justify this paltry offering with talk of national debt would be laughable if the situation were even remotely funny. Under the Conservative austerity programme that ushered in the cap in the first place, national debt rose by £450 billion between 2010 and 2016. Household debt, meanwhile, has risen at such an alarming rate during the last year that economists are warning of a repeat of the 2008 financial crash. Austerity has failed. And yet nurses are still being forced to use food banks in the name of ‘balancing the books.’
Public sector workers are not just the backbone of society; they are individuals with lives, needs and often dependants. The last two governments’ sustained programme of cuts has made their jobs harder than ever, with 93% of respondents to a survey of public and voluntary sector workers conducted by the Guardian claiming that they are stressed at work some, most or all of the time. This, combined with falling pay, has led to recruitment and retention problems across the sector, which the government’s offer will likely do little to assuage.
Theresa May has praised the ‘sacrifice’ that millions have had to make, but at this stage she needs to offer something more concrete than plaudits. Unions are threatening industrial action, with Unite even hinting at illegal strikes. While these are unlikely, it is an extreme response to what is becoming an extreme situation. If managing the economy requires sacrifice, that sacrifice should never be fair wages for some of the hardest workers in society.
There are difficult times ahead for Britain, and it is time for the government to show where their priorities truly lie. For a successful, united country, workers must be treated with fairness and respect. If the government is not willing to do this, we will all feel the consequences.
(Image courtesy of The Guardian)