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Local government workers must not be forgotten

They have kept everything from our schools to our roads open — so why is their current pay offer more like a slap rather than a clap, asks PAT RAFFERTY

THIS week the Scottish trade union movement meets, albeit virtually, for our annual congress.

Being able to ensure the business of driving workers’ rights forward is absolutely essential, particularly as we are on the verge of Scottish Parliament elections.

A few weeks ago I wrote in the Morning Star about the need to value our social carers and for that to be properly recognised and rewarded by politicians.

Social carers have rightly been held up for the heroic work they have done throughout the pandemic, but we need to ensure that other groups of workers are not left behind or are picked off by politicians and the media as being less deserving.

This is exactly what is in danger of happening to our local government workers, which is why the trade union movement needs to show a strong united front.

And who are these workers? They are our cleaners, cemetery workers, refuse workers, janitors and craft workers — and many more.

It’s the workers who have kept our streets clean and our children and grandchildren safe and educated.

It’s the workers who have opened our schools, kept the homes of the vulnerable safe, workers who have kept our roads open and maintained and workers who have provided care for our loved ones when we have been unable to visit and hold them in care homes — critical jobs which have allowed our country to operate on a level to something what we know to be as “normal.”

Last year, Unite Scotland launched our Imagine Life Without Us campaign, which focuses on the essential roles of local government workers.

The campaign followed 3,000 members responding to our survey, which revealed that nearly three-quarters of local government workers are experiencing workplace stress and over half rated their workplace morale as “bad or terrible.”

Our survey also found that local government workers were regularly working beyond their contracted hours (41 per cent). And nearly one in four said the additional hours worked were unpaid. Some 84 per cent said low pay was the key issue.

Yet the current pay offer is more like a slap rather than a clap for local government workers: an £800 increase for those earning less than £25,000 while those earning just above to be offered a 2 per cent increase.

The disgraceful reality is that more than half of all local government workers earn less than £25,000 — the majority of those are women. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Around three-quarters of local government workers earn less than Britain’s average wage.

It’s also particularly galling that social care workers covered by the local government pay structure are not being recognised.

These are some of the lowest-paid jobs within local authorities — again the vast majority of whom are women — heroes who have, day in and day out, provided health and social care to the vulnerable in communities at times without adequate PPE. All at huge risk to themselves and their families.

However, when it comes to the Scottish government, most of it is warm words but minimal follow-through. They are masters at the sleight of hand.

The reality is that local authorities have been starved of around £1 billion of funding over the past 10 years — and this isn’t exclusively Westminster’s fault.

The real-terms change between 2013-14 and 2019-20 for the local government revenue settlement decreased at more than twice the rate (-4.7 per cent or -£517.7 million) than the Scottish government’s revenue budget (-2.2 per cent or -£684.9m) in real terms.

This is a totally unacceptable situation which is why Unite and other local government trade unions are currently balloting their members. We are determined to make local government pay and funding one of the major issues facing government ministers after May 6.

Local government workers have stepped up and gone beyond the call of duty, many of them literally putting their lives on the line.

It’s time for our politicians to step up too and if they do not, then we must hold them to account.

Pat Rafferty is Unite Scottish secretary.

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