Workers in dire need of decent wages, says Dave Watson
Austerity affects us all. Public services in Scotland are half way through a £6 billion cuts programme. Workers across the public sector experience pay cuts, endemic low pay, stress and some employers running roughshod over agreed bargaining structures, No Unison members’ meeting goes by without mentioning the fact that “good colleagues” are losing their jobs.
The worst-hit of all sectors is local government which, in Scotland, has suffered the double whammy of UK government austerity and Scottish Government’s seven-year council tax freeze. That’s why Unison has been balloting its members in councils over pay.
Local government is the only sector to experience a real cash cut. We have seen 50,000 jobs lost across the public sector in Scotland. Almost 40,000 of these have been in local government. Local government pay has been reduced by 14 per cent in real terms and they had a 1 per cent pay increase forced on them for this and last year.
The problem is that austerity does not cut our need for public services. In fact this is just when vulnerable people need public services most. Our members tell us they are doing more work for less pay.
Unison Scotland’s recent survey of cleaners in the public sector, Dishing the Dirt, is a case in point. It uncovers a picture of part-time workers (mostly women), on low wages, working long hours, who struggle to maintain their own high hygiene standards because they are forced to clean twice the area in less time, with cheaper cleaning products and old mops. If you stop to think how vital hygiene is, in the NHS or the care sector or nurseries or many other areas of local government, you start to realise why this matters.
It forces us to ask whether we really desire the world-class public services we continually tell the pollsters we do.
Pay and conditions are central to fighting austerity.
We need to rebalance our economy by creating good jobs and promoting fair levels of pay for everyone – not just those at the top. But of course this does not just happen. It takes groups of workers to stand up and say it.
The Child Poverty Action Group tells us that six in ten children in Britain who live in poverty have at least one parent in work. The TUC points out that gender pay gaps are because women make up three -quarters of the low-paid, part-time workforce. The Resolution Foundation tells us three in ten young people are now low paid. Poverty and Social Exclusion in UK Project reports that 800,000 Scots are too poor to participate in social activities, and one in three Scots cannot afford to heat their home in the winter.
This is not just morally wrong, it’s economically illiterate. Austerity has allowed the rich and powerful to rebalance the economy in their favour. They have forced the share of wages in national income to decrease. Workers, and particularly poor workers, have less to spend, meaning demand and consumption decrease.
Private sector investment can never fill the investment gap because they chase ever higher profits on ever lower wages, meaning their investment is never enough to offset the negative effects on domestic demand. And all we have is a global race to the bottom on wages.
What we have been living through since 1979 is the big shift, from wages to profit. In order to maintain consumption levels in the absence of decent wage increases, households turned to debt and that contributed to the Great Recession we are now living through. The recent recovery looks to be built, once again, on the shaky ground of household debt instead of wage growth.
We need to strengthen collective bargaining, increase the minimum wage, enforce pay ratios, end public sector pay freezes and restore progressivity into the tax system. In short, better pay and conditions mean a stronger economy and world-class public services to boot.
The pay ballots in local government and elsewhere are motivated in part by workers wanting to look after their families. But it is also about building a stronger economy based on wages not profit. British workers need a pay rise, more say in the work place and an end to low pay.
So if workers decide to start the fight back now, then it would be in all our interests to support them.
• Dave Watson is the head of bargaining and campaigns at Unison Scotland www.unison-scotland.org.uk