"Pillars of society.” “Heroic.” “The best carers of anywhere in the world.” These are just some of the terms used by senior ministers as they thank public sector workers for their ‘incredible efforts’ ‘ day in, day out ’ over the last few months.
Every Thursday evening, the Health Secretary, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister himself have appeared on their doorsteps, like clockwork, to lead us in applause for the public sector workers who have kept the country going through its worst crisis since World War Two.
So it beggars belief that the government would consider freezing the pay of these same workers in order to pay for the costs of the crisis. Yet a report leaked to the Telegraph suggests freezing public sector pay for two years in order to raise £6.5 billion to pay off the public debt.
Taking £6.5 billion out of their pay packets is no way to reward the key workers who have put their lives on the line to keep the country going through this pandemic.
A pay freeze would be worse than hypocrisy – it would be outright contempt.
It’s not as if public sector workers went into this crisis feeling flush. For more than a decade, they’ve had to put up with having their pay cut and their work devalued.
Across the public sector, average pay is £900 lower than it was in 2010. Many of the workers we have relied on most in this crisis have lost out even more. Nurses’ pay is £3000 lower than it was in 2010, pay for ambulance drivers is £1600 lower, and 7 in 10 care workers earn less than £10 an hour.
Workers have left the sector in droves, causing staff shortages in key areas and increasing the workload and stress levels of those that remain. At the same time, fragmentation and privatisation undermined the ability of the public sector to respond to the crisis and eroded its resilience.
In short, austerity severely weakened our public services just when we have needed them most. Only the dedication and resilience of public sector staff that have got us through.
Public sector workers have worked around the clock, often without breaks or at the price of seeing their family, to keep the country going through this crisis. They have put themselves and their loved ones at risk by going to work without suitable protective equipment or access to testing.
They have gone above and beyond the call of duty, holding the hands of our loved ones so that they don’t die alone, finding the time to arrange video calls, so we have a chance to say goodbye, and even helping dying patients to marry.
Some have even made the ultimate sacrifice and lost their lives in service. 275 health and social care workers, over 50 public transport workers and 65 education workers are known to have died from Covid-19.
Our public sector workers are heroes, but that doesn’t mean the government should treat them like cannon fodder, sent to fight on our behalf and then discarded as soon as they become expendable.
As a bare minimum, our gratitude should be expressed in the form of pay rises that start to make up for what public sector workers have lost over the last ten years.
Beyond that, we owe it to them to learn the lessons from over a decade of austerity and make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
Ministers may like to stand with public sector workers on Thursday evenings, but trade unions stand with them all the time.
If the government thinks it can introduce a pay freeze when this crisis is over, we won’t let them get away with it.
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