Anger is escalating in the UK after Conservative Members of Parliament blocked Labour’s bid to raise the salaries of public sector workers. The government of Prime Minister Theresa May voted against the opposition amendment to the Queen’s Speech that aimed to put an end to the 1% pay increase cap which public sector workers have endured since 2010.
The pay cap was introduced by former PM David Cameron in 2010 as part of the coalition government’s austerity agenda designed to curb public spending and reduce the country’s financial deficit. The cap has resulted in the freezing of pay for key public sector employees — including teachers, firefighters and National Health Service staff — at a 1 percent rise for the last seven years.
The timing of the government’s refusal to increase wages for public sector professionals couldn’t be more damaging.
In May of this year, inflation in the UK rose unexpectedly to 2.9 percent, its highest level in almost four years. Consequently, in real terms with rising inflation, many public sector workers are feeling the pinch of a parsimonious 1 percent pay increase.
Recent tragedies in Britain have added fuel to the fire, as public anger mounts toward a government that insists it is “holding its nerve” over austerity despite growing economic and social pressure. In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire in London last month, and recent terror attacks in Manchester and London, public support for better pay and working conditions for firefighters, police and other emergency services has grown.
Firefighters Forced to Tighten Their Belts
In the first breach of the government’s 1 percent pay cap, firefighters in Britain have been offered a 2 percent pay increase for this year. But the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) says the proposed rise is simply “not enough” and falls short of solving the problems that the ongoing pay cap and austerity measures have created.
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, said that the offer demonstrates the “1 percent cap is dead in water, but the offer from our employers is simply not enough.”
“Firefighters have endured seven years of pay restraint imposed by the government,” Wrack told Sky News. “It is sickening to hear politicians praising firefighters for the outstanding work they do every day of their working lives only to be told they have to tighten their belts as a result of economic problems caused by bankers.”
Key Workers Being “Taken for Granted”
Unions are condemning the prolongation of the pay cap, saying public sector workers are being “taken for granted”. Unison, the UK’s second largest trade union, said that seven years of pay caps and freezes are harming recruitment in many public sector professions and demoralizing existing workers.
Another profession dented by the ongoing pay rise cap is education. Teachers’ pay has been frozen since 2010, and the government just announced the pay increases for more than half a million teachers in England and Wales will remain capped at 1 percent.
The Union of Teachers (NUT) was quick to condemn the pay rise cap, stating how, during the last seven years, teachers’ pay rises have fallen behind inflation by 13 percent. NUT’s general secretary, Kevin Courtney, described the announcement as a “missed opportunity”, saying the government will regret the decision as the “teach recruitment and retention crisis gets worse.”
Talking to Occupy.com, Dr. Andy Pickard, the former Head of Education at Manchester Metropolitan University, spoke of the retention crisis currently affecting the profession — a catastrophe he blames on the actions of former Conservative governments.
“As with so many aspects of public policy, the roots of the problem go back to the 1980s when the Conservative government of the day decided to replace existing national pay bargaining procedures with Pay Review bodies,” said Pickard. “This meant that teachers, for example, no longer had a voice in the process of setting their salaries and it was clearly an attack on their professionalism. It also created the suspicion that whatever teachers merited, their pay was set ultimately by the treasury.”
As a result, “we are now reaping the consequences of that policy in that there is an absolute need to increase pay in order to address the crisis in teacher retention,” Pickard added, “but this cannot be done because of the somewhat arbitrary imposition of 1 percent, which has been the limit for several years.”
A “Summer of Protests”
Another profession hit hard by the ongoing pay rise cap is nursing. In the wake of the announcement to decline the amendment to scrap the 1 percent pay rise cap, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) along with nurses across the UK have planned a series of protests against their below inflation pay rises.
Since the government’s cap on public sector pay in 2010, nurses in Britain have been suffering from a 14 percent pay cut in real terms, according to the union. The RCN pins part of the blame for tens of thousands of unfilled nursing posts on the low levels of pay.
On June 27, the RCN hosted a “Pay Champions Day” that launched a summer of protests within the nursing profession. The protesters hope to lobby support from politicians to fight for fairer pay for public sector workers.
Earlier in the year, a poll of more than 50,000 RCN members revealed that almost four out of five nurses support strike action in order to lift the 1 percent pay rise cap.
The outcry comes at a time when the Health Foundation published a report saying nurses will see their pay fall by 12 percent during the next decade, and the impact of wage restraints in the profession could lead to a staffing shortfall of 42,000.
A Health Foundation report shows that the 625,000 health service employees in Britain who earn at least £22,000 will witness their pay fall by 12 percent between 2010-11 and 2020-21.
The report found that since the Conservative coalition came into power in 2010, midwives have seen a pay cut of 6 percent, doctors have been hit by an 8 percent pay drop, and health visitors have suffered from a 12 percent real time cut in pay.
With stories surfacing of nurses being forced to use food banks and teachers being left homeless as their pay falls in real terms, many hope the ‘summer of protests’ can generate enough public outcry that politicians sit up and listen. So far, that hasn’t been the government’s response.