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Heather Wakefield: Public sector pay is now poverty pay

Heather Wakefield
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Concern about public sector pay has generally focused on NHS and emergency service employees.

But wages for more than a million school and council staff have been kept down for longer, and started from a lower base. Now more than ever, it’s clear a pat on the back is simply not enough.

Proper funding will be critical to a fair outcome for national joint council (NJC) workers, 75% of whom are employed by local authorities. Devastating budget cuts of between 40% and 70% since 2010 have left councils reeling, forced to cut non-statutory services, pay and conditions just to keep afloat.

The Treasury will have to put its hands in its pockets to fund the local government pay claim. If local government or Theresa May’s reign is to have a future, there’s no option but to give fair pay to the employees that keep services, and communities, running smoothly.

People working in local government and schools should not be facing the prospect of a further 2.9% cut in basic pay next April, when the current two-year pay deal comes to an end. But another big cut it will certainly be, particularly if the government’s 1% public sector pay cap is all that’s on the table.

Inflation is currently 3.9% and it’s forecast to remain above 3% until 2021. With that in mind, Unison’s push to secure the real living wage rate for those at the bottom of the pay scale, and a 5% increase for all employees, is modest indeed.

Since 2010, 1.3 million school and council employees who come under the umbrella of the NJC have suffered a three-year pay freeze. That’s a year-long ‘freeze’ more than other public sector groups and equates to an overall, real-terms cut in basic pay alone of 21%. Seventy-eight percent of this group are women.

During that time, the lowest pay rates fell so low they had to be upped by more than 1%, just to keep them above statutory national minimum wage (and national living wage) rates. Had that not happened, councils and schools would have been breaking the law. In 1999, the lowest NJC pay rate was 24% higher than the minimum wage, but by 2016, there was just a 0.3% difference. NJC pay is now poverty pay.

The need to raise the lowest pay to ensure legal compliance means the bottom of the NJC pay scale has become ‘squeezed’, obliterating job evaluated differentials and pay rates. The consequence is the threat of a new wave of equal pay claims, workplace disharmony and calls from local employers for a restructuring of the pay spine to restore fair differentials and pay transparency. A joint NJC pay spine review is under way.

It’s not just basic pay that has been hit. Wage packets have withered as conditions at work have been eroded by local councils and schools, as they react to the Westminster pinch of austerity.

A recent Unison survey revealed that more than three-quarters of council staff had seen their sick and overtime pay, car and unsocial hours allowances cut.

It leaves local government and school staff, who are dealing with the continuing fallout from spending cuts – from the Grenfell tragedy to homelessness and broken families – with the lowest pay in the public sector.

Only probation support workers, denied a pay increase since 2013, and a relatively small number of school support staff are paid less than the NJC’s £7.78 an hour.

The lack of parity and comparability in public sector pay is an issue not being aired in the vital debate about the pay cap. But with 71% of councils facing recruitment and retention problems, 750,000 fewer local government workers than in 2010, and widespread over-work and stress, NJC pay can no longer be ignored.

Heather Wakefield, head of local government, Unison

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