Unite has slammed the government for considering a public sector pay freeze for 5.5m workers, after reports today (November 20) suggested that public sector workers excluding frontline NHS staff may be in for yet more pay woe despite risking their lives amid the pandemic and suffering years of real-terms pay cuts.
Various news outlets today reported that chancellor Rishi Sunak was mulling over a new round of public sector pay restraint ahead of his upcoming spending review update on Wednesday (November 25) – it is understood that frontline NHS staff such as doctors and nurses would be exempt from the pay freeze but council workers, police officers, teachers, civil servants and many others could all be denied a pay rise.
The BBC noted that the Treasury refused to comment publicly on speculations over impending public sector pay freezes, but reported that it highlighted what Sunak said on the spending review in a letter in July.
In the letter, Sunak noted that in the “interest of fairness we must exercise restraint in future public sector pay awards, ensuring that across this year and the spending review period, public sector pay levels retain parity with the private sector”.
While the government is expected to highlight figures showing that private sector pay has outstripped public sector pay amid the pandemic, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) noted, “Relative to pay in the private sector, public sector pay had fallen to its lowest level in decades, likely exacerbating difficulties with recruitment and retention.”
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail slammed the government for attempting to compare private and public sector workers.
Speaking to the Radio Times, she said, “It is a perverse argument to contrast people who are sadly unemployed – foremost among them women actually – with people who have continued to work and serve us throughout this pandemic, exposing themselves to tremendous risk. 600 health and social care workers alone have died from Covid-19 as a result of being exposed in their workplace.
“Now what the IFS says is that public sector pay is now 1.5 per cent lower than in 2010 after inflation and among the lowest levels, relative to private sector earnings, in decades. We all have responsibilities, we all have to meet bills and continue to feed our families.”
It is understood that the government is using a new analysis from the right-wing think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), to potentially justify tightening its belt on public sector pay. The CPS report said that as much as £23bn could be saved in the next three years if public sector pay was frozen for all workers, while the government could save just over £11bn if it capped increases to just 1 per cent.
If NHS workers were excluded, however, the savings would total just over £15bn over three years, or nearly £8bn if a 1 per cent pay rise were instituted for non-NHS workers and a higher rate given to health service staff.
But the IFS couched savings in different terms, noting that a pay freeze for 3.7m public sector workers would generate only £3.4bn in savings. As the Mirror’s political editor Jason Beattie highlighted, this figure is “a fifth of the amount private firms have earned from lucrative Government contracts for PPE, consultancy and PR advice during the Covid crisis.”
Cartmail slammed the CPS analysis, calling it an insult to public sector workers who have sacrificed so much during the pandemic.
“For the last nine months of the pandemic, public sector workers have kept the NHS running, the schools open and refuse being collected – these are the very same workers who have had their pay held down in real terms during a decade of Tory austerity,” she said.
“Now the Centre for Policy Studies has the nerve to suggest that the public sector workforce should again bear the brunt of a three-year pay freeze, at a time when it has been revealed that ministers have been casual in the extreme over their stewardship of the public purse in how PPE contracts have been awarded.
“The CPS’ analysis is insulting to those public sector workers that have underpinned the fabric of society during this continuing pandemic.”
‘A whole array of people who we stood and applauded for’
Commenting on reports that frontline NHS workers may be exempt from a potential public sector pay freeze, Cartmail noted that there are legions of key public sector workers who have put themselves at risk amid the pandemic who do not work in the health service.
Speaking to LBC News, she said, “Many of us stood on our doorsteps, didn’t we, and we realised quickly that NHS workers – all of them, doctors and nurses, but also porters and people who provided food – were a really important defence against Covid, and they carried on working.
“But we realised there were other key workers. There were the women in the schools providing hot meals for the children of other key workers; there were people cleaning our streets; teaching assistants – a whole array of people who we stood and applauded for because we knew they were working for us in our communities.
“And then to be told now – bearing in mind there’s already been ten years of pay freezes and minimal increases – to be told now that they’re going to have to bear the cost of this second crisis really is a kick in the teeth.”
Cartmail went on to note how a potential public sector pay freeze would affect women in particular.
“It is clear that any public sector pay freeze will bear down hardest on female employees, who make up the majority of public sector workforce, such as nurses, teaching assistants and those who care for our most vulnerable,” she said.
“Already women have been badly affected by the pandemic as they juggle childcare responsibilities, their work commitments and worries about elderly relatives – and now the chancellor Rishi Sunak appears to be going to make their financial situation a lot worse which is shameful.”
By Hajera Blagg