“Just holding my head above water” – the true picture of life for the public sector worker
26 June 2012
In recent years the rhetoric from conservative politicians and commentators seems intent on driving a wedge between public and private sector workers. Public sector workers are accused of leading "gold-plated" life-styles at the expense of those toiling in the "wealth-creating" sectors of the economy. No matter how spurious the research, nor how inappropriate the comparison, anyone peddling the "private good, public bad" mantra can be assured of a good hearing in parliament and the media.
To give just one example, in May 2011 a report by the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange claimed that public sector workers were paid 30-40% more than those in the private sector. Even a cursory reading of the report would have prompted suspicions about its independence and accuracy, but that did not stop it receiving extensive coverage both in the press and television. Unsurprisingly the subsequent debunking of the report received virtually no attention whatsoever.
This is, of course, classic divide and rule stuff. Setting public sector worker against private is intended to divert attention away from a cuts only economic policy which has starved the UK of growth. The divisive tone of so much of the media’s coverage has left many convinced that the public sector worker is somehow immune to the impact of the recession.
The truth is that economic hardships are not confined to either public or private sector. New research published by UNISON last week finally gives the lie to that view.
The Impact of Austerity on UNISON Members 2012, carried out by the Working Lives Research Institute, shows that public sector workers have been taking a huge share of the pain. The results show that more than one in four UNISON members have experienced an effective redundancy situation at work over the past year. On average, UNISON members’ personal debts were around £4,000 and more than one in five reported personal debts of £10,000 or more. Eight in ten respondents expressed worries about their finances, and 42% said that concerns over debt had increased over the last year.
Three years of freezes mean that public sector workers have effectively had their real-terms pay cut by approximately 15%. Government promises to ensure that the lowest paid workers receive a £250 pay rise have often failed to materialise. Behind the statistics contained in the report are a number of personal testimonies from UNISON members which show how the government’s public sector bashing has caused misery for them and their families.
Echoed throughout the report is one female worker’s description of her financial situation: "I’m only just holding my head above water - I feel like I’m on a sinking ship."
And the impact is being felt not just in terms of pay. With the number of public sector job losses expected to top 730,000 those left behind are dealing with the huge stress of a depleted workforce. As Melissa, an NHS ward housekeeper in the West Midlands for 18 years says, "It is a fairly large ward with 27 patients and it gets very stressful … there seems to be more added on to the job I do. It gets physically demanding and very tiring. It affects the whole team … Sometimes you feel very angry and you just take a deep breath and you have to deal with it. You do the best you can for the patients – they come first, but sometimes it doesn’t help their own [patients’] health."
Anyone interested in seeing the true picture of life as a public sector worker in 2012, should familiarise themselves with this report. The real picture bears little resemblance to the gross distortions put about by some. Public sector workers care deeply about the services they provide and they work incredibly hard to provide them.
They don’t see themselves as the opponents of private sector workers and they wish the government would stop saying they are. Their working lives today are dominated by top-down re-organisations, worries about redundancies and desperate concern about how to make ends meet at home. There’s nothing gold-plated about that.
Gavin Edwards is a National Officer at UNISON