UNISON / New Policy Institute report warns local government workers are facing poverty

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A report by the New Policy Institute for UNISON shows that local government pay has been slashed to 1990s levels by below inflation pay settlements, a two-year pay freeze and the employers’ failure to pay the £250 promised to low paid workers by the Chancellor.

It has declined by 13% in the last three years alone. Additional cuts to pay and conditions at local level are making a difficult situation even harder for many local government workers.

More than a quarter of the workforce – 75% of whom are women – now earn less than the Living Wage of £7.20 per hour. Many are forced to rely on benefits and tax credits to keep their heads above water, and any change in their family’s situation can drag them into poverty. Meanwhile, Chief Executive pay in local government has risen by a massive 59% between 1998 and 2007.

Ahead of a pay meeting with the local government employers tomorrow, UNISON is calling for a substantial increase in pay to make up for the decline in living standards. Local government workers are currently in the second year of a pay freeze – including the lowest paid workers who did not get the £250 minimum increase promised to them by George Osborne in his June 2010 Emergency Budget. 69% of NJC workers earn less than £21,00 – the Chancellor’s ‘low pay’ threshold.

The union is warning that low and diminishing pay not only has damaging implications for local government workers and their families, but also for local economies and for the quality of vital community services.

UNISON head of local government Heather Wakefield said: “For many local government workers and their families, it’s a daily struggle to stay out of poverty. They’re doing vital work caring for the elderly, the vulnerable, for young children. And as job cuts hit, they’re picking up the pieces doing even more, for ever diminishing wages. It’s bad news for families, local economies, and for community services.

“Hundreds of thousands – especially women – are being hit hard by the Tory-led coalition’s unfair pay policy. This unprecedented squeeze cannot continue – low paid families have suffered enough. The local government employers must come forward with a decent offer on pay this year.”

Report co-author, Dr Peter Kenway, from the New Policy Institute, said: “Local government workers are portrayed as part of a pampered public sector.  With two thirds of them in manual or clerical jobs, doing important and sometimes essential jobs, this report shows what a distortion that picture is.  A quarter of them earn less than the Living Wage.  Since the last time pay went up, in April 2009, prices have risen 13%. Everyone is feeling the pinch but a fall in living standards this big is much more than that.”

Key Findings 

1.7 million people worked in local government in England and Wales in 2010, around a quarter of the 6.9 million working in the public sector.  Three quarters are women and well over half work part-time.

Two thirds of the jobs in local government are manual or clerical jobs, almost exactly the same proportion as in the private sector.  In the rest of the public sector, only one third of jobs are manual or clerical.

Eight per cent of full-time workers and 38% of part-time workers in local government earned less than the Living Wage of £7.20 an hour in 2011.  This is a quarter of the workforce.

High inflation coupled with a pay freeze that began in April 2010 slashed the real value of earnings in local government by 13% between April 2009 and February 2012.  A fall this big is unprecedented. Continuing high inflation means that earnings will fall further still.

Thanks to the pay freeze and inflation, typical full-time hourly earnings in local government have sunk back to the levels of the early 1990s. Typical part-time hourly earnings have fallen back to 2002 levels.

Low paid local government employees usually need benefits and tax credits to keep their household out of poverty.  The higher but still modest minimum income standard is rarely reached.

Low paid local government workers and their families are in a financially precarious position.  A reduction in hours, a child leaving school or a partner whose eligibility for contribution-based social security ceases can all take the household to the edge of poverty. This is despite the fact that the local government employee continues to work.  Pay for these workers is poverty pay.

Quality of service considerations – and in the case of care workers and others in personal service occupations, considerations of the human rights of clients – are grounds for improving the pay and conditions as well as the training of local government employees.  The pretence that jobs such as caring for elderly, frail or otherwise vulnerable people requires but little skill is a symptom of our society’s inability to recognise and value some of the things in life that matter most.


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