Public sector workers are being treated with no respect

Commentary icon15 Feb 2013|Comment

Sarah Glenister

National Development Officer, Institute of Employment Rights

15 February 2013

By Sarah Glenister, IER Staff

The public sector category on the Coalition timeline focuses only on employment law issues, including redundancies and pay, and yet even this small section of what has been a broad attack on state-employed workers shows a persistent lack of respect shown for hard-working staff and a poor example shown to other employers.

At first it was public sector workers’ so-called ‘gold-plated pensions’ that hit the newspaper headlines, with the Coalition managing to spin enough bad press against state-employed workers that they were able to cut their pensions by £83 billion (according to the government’s own figures) when their retirement savings were linked to CPI rather than RPI in April 2012. At the same time, public sector workers were told to contribute more to their pensions and stay in their jobs for longer before they could access the funds, leading to a situation where they are paying and working more only to take out less.

But the attacks did not just concentrate on pensions. Public sector workers have also been subject to reduced redundancy benefits through the Superannuation Act 2010, passed in December of that year, which made it cheaper for the government to make the thousands of dismissals it had planned for the sector. Despite this, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles felt the need to complain in November 2012 that the severance packages of senior public sector staff were still too large.

Among the huge cuts in the workforce have been the thousands of jobs slashed when Regional Development Agencies were closed in 2010, the planned removal of up to 1,000 employees from the Department for Education, and the upcoming redundancies of over 5,000 British troops and army medical workers. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, the extra year of austerity that will be required to give George Osborne’s failing economic plans even a hope of improving growth will see public sector job losses reach 1.1 million – hardly surprising taking into account Pickles’ recent announcement that councils will see yet another budget cut of 1.7% in 2013.

Even for those who manage to stay on in the public sector, there is further bad news. In 2010, their wages were frozen and a series of salary cuts planned out for the coming years. The harshness of public sector wage cuts were illustrated in all their brutality by some recent news stories, including the advertisement of a barista job in the House of Commons that offered a wage higher than for police officers and even soldiers risking their lives in Afghanistan. While baristas were being offered a fair wage at £20,173 per annum, some members of the police force take home just £19,000, while troops are given £17,500. Previously, it was also reported that a survey of MPs showed they felt they deserved a 32% pay rise at a time they were slashing the wages, benefits and jobs of most other public sector workers across the country. Tory party members were the most likely to have this view, with 47% saying they felt they were due an increase in salary.

Away from the headlines, a more insidious destruction of the public sector is also ongoing, highlighted by John Medhurst on our blog. The so-called ‘mutualisation’ of public sector departments is seeing a slow privatisation of the state, hidden behind government spin of “employee-led” deals.

The Coalition’s lack of respect for public sector workers, who diligently serve the public in frontline occupations every day, is reflected by the right wing press, and in such a climate it is important to remember who our public sector workers really are. They are the nurses and doctors that save our lives, the teachers that educate and nurture our children, and the soldiers that risk injury and even death overseas. These are not penny-grabbing, nor lazy or entitled workers as the government wishes us to believe. They are an important part of helping our country run smoothly and keeping our communities protected.

Additionally, and from an employment law perspective, the way the Coalition treats its own staff is very telling as to how it may view UK workers in general. What kind of example is the government setting when it ensures redundancy payments are lowered before dismissing thousands of staff? Or when introducing pay freezes, cuts and changing pension agreements for employees engaged in difficult and often dangerous jobs while complaining that they want more money for themselves? Seen in this light, it is hardly surprising that the government has made some of the most drastic and regressive changes to employment law in decades.

Click here to visit the Timeline. In order to see just public sector stories click the spanner in the bottom left of the timeline, select ‘categories’, then select ‘public sector’.

Click here to see more articles from this series

Sarah Glenister

Sarah Glenister Sarah Glenister Sarah Glenister is the Institute of Employment Rights' IT Development and Communications Assistant.