Yesterday’s unemployment figures make grim reading: the last quarter has seen 39,000 public sector jobs cut, bringing public sector employment to its lowest point since 2003, small overall reductions in unemployment do little to mask the harsh reality for public service workers.
It might come as little surprise then, when more than three quarters of UNISON members are reporting that they have received no pay increase, and 12% reporting a pay cut, that workers are struggling to make ends meet.
UNISON’s charity arm – There for You – provides grants to UNISON members who are experiencing financial difficulties. There for You paid out more than £750,000 in grants last year, an increase of 11% on the year before, so it stands to reason that yesterday’s unemployment figures will be cold comfort for many, many public service workers whose jobs are under threat.
The grants being paid out highlight just how desperate the situation has become for many of our members: since 2010, emergency crisis payments that include grants for food have risen by 10%, health and medical grants have leapt by 45%, and clothing grants have soared by an enormous 509%. The Government’s cuts are taking the shirts off the backs of UNISON members.
And it doesn’t stop there. Soaring fuel prices are adding further pressure to the already stretched budgets of public sector workers, and are having a destructive effect on their quality of life. Members applying for fuel grants have revealed the very real sacrifices they are having to make to their lives just to keep their homes warm, with some being forced into measures as extreme as putting the heating on only when the temperature drops below freezing, or are going to bed early to keep warm.
Utility grants paid out by There for You have increased by 34% since 2010, despite members taking drastic measures to reduce their outgoings, including selling the family car, and giving up even small luxuries such as cinema trips. One member told us that she only put the heating on at the weekend, when her grandchildren were visiting, a particularly poignant reminder of just how bad the situation had become for some people.
It is a damning indictment on the Government’s austerity agenda that workers in the public sector are having to take such steps to keep food on the table, clothes on their backs and their homes warm. These are basic human needs – not luxuries to cut back on when times get tough – and the Government should be ashamed that cutbacks are being made by some of the lowest paid workers in our society.
It is perverse when bosses in the FTSE 100 enjoy 10% pay rises, as well as telephone number salaries and bonuses, workers who provide vital public services are struggling to keep their homes warm and food on the table. The Government should remember, and remember fast, that public sector workers are the backbone of our society, and that this inhumane treatment will not be endured, and will not be allowed to continue unchallenged.
Our members are rightly very worried by the downward spiral that the quality of their lives is taking. UNISON is there for them, but rest assured, we will take on the Government to make sure they are not left to suffer from being underpaid in an overpriced market that threatens to crush them.
Dave Prentis is the General Secretary of Unison. This post forms part of our coverage of Unison Conference 2012.