Unions have responded angrily to chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement of a pay freeze for swathes of public sector workers yesterday with Unison general secretary Dave Prentis saying: ‘This is austerity, plain and simple.’
Much of the criticism centred on the view that the public sector as a whole played its part in keeping the UK running during the pandemic crisis, not only the health sector.
Although about one million frontline NHS workers and many lower paid workers will receive pay rises, about 1.3 million public sector employees will see promised pay rises frozen. These include teachers, firefighters, armed forces personnel, police, civil servants and local authority workers.
National officer of the GMB union Rehana Azam said the freeze would “hit key workers who have risked everything during the pandemic”.
He added: “This attempt to divide and rule will put him on a direct collision course with public service workers, and he should know that we fought the public sector pay cap before and we busted it,” he said.
“GMB will not accept more pay cuts for our members at a time when the whole country is relying on them.”
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), also saw the differentiation between public sector workers as divisive and ill-founded. He said: “Civil servants and other public sector staff will feel a deep sense of betrayal at today’s pay freeze.
“Despite keeping the country running during the Covid crisis, supplying Universal Credit and helping businesses access the furlough scheme, the chancellor has justified a pay freeze by pointing to lower wages in the private sector.”
He said the news “has intensified long-standing anger at a decade of pay restraint and increased the likelihood of industrial unrest in the public sector.”
Education union leaders were dismayed at Sunak’s decision to freeze pay for school staff earning over £24,000. Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said keeping schools open had left leaders “frayed and exhausted”.
“Undoubtedly the costs of Covid have been significant, but hard-working public sector workers, who have been on the frontline of the pandemic response should not be forced to pay for the recovery out of their own pockets,” he added.
General secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Geoff Barton said that “a decade of pay austerity” had already seen experienced teachers and school leaders experience a real-terms cut of 13%. “The government asks more and more of teachers and leaders, and then effectively cuts their pay. It should not be surprised if staff decide to leave the profession,” he said.
Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, described Sunak’s announcement as a “body blow” to school staff. “Education workers are key workers who have kept the country going during the pandemic, but pay cuts are their only reward from this government,” she said. And Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT union, said the pay freeze was “out of step with public opinion” at a time when teachers had been “serving on the frontline, risking their own health to maintain education and support for children and young people”.
TUC leader Frances O‘Grady described the chancellor’s public sector cuts as a breach of his pledge to level up jobs and pay across the country.
She said: “After a decade of standstill pay, yet another pay freeze is a kick in the teeth for the key workers in the public sector who kept the country going in this crisis.”
Paul Griffiths, the president of the Police Superintendents’ Association, said the freeze came as police officers were being called upon to protect the public, “at significant risk to their own health, during the greatest health and economic emergency of our lifetime”.
It has not been confirmed that the previously stated government aim of increasing teachers’ starting salaries to £30,000 during the course of this parliament will be met but commentators expect that ministers will fulfil the pledge announced in January.
Sunak made lower paid private sector workers the priority in his spending review. This group will benefit from a 2.2% increase in the “national living wage” to £8.91 an hour from April 2021, helping about 2 million of the lowest paid, according to the chancellor.
Sunak said: “A full-time worker on the national living wage will see their annual earnings increase by £345 next year. And compared to 2016 when the policy was first introduced, that’s a pay rise of over £4,000.”
But Rain Newton-Smith, the CBI’s chief economist, sounded a note of caution: “Many lower-paid workers have been the heroes of the Covid crisis, and business supports government’s ambition of ending low pay. But unemployment is rising in lower-paying sectors and these increases will be tough for some firms afford, so caution is justified to protect jobs.”