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THE government is facing the threat of industrial action if it attempts to freeze the wages of millions of public sector workers, unions warned today.
Their stark message came as Chancellor Rishi Sunak was reportedly preparing to announce a new freeze on public-sector pay in next week’s spending review, in response to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
A freeze would be a kick in the teeth for key workers clapped by ministers for keeping the country running during the pandemic and a provocation to unions representing NHS workers such as Unison, GMB and the Royal College of Nursing, which have called for pay increases to reflect years of real-terms decline.
The spending crackdown comes just after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced £16 billion in extra spending on the armed forces, with boasts including plans to despatch an aircraft carrier group to East Asia next year in an attempt to intimidate China.
There are about 5.5 million public-sector workers, representing around 17 per cent of all workers in Britain.
Unions and campaigners had been calling for a pay rise for key workers, many of them in public services, who have been going beyond their duties to protect the public from Covid-19.
Between 2011 and 2018, most public-sector pay was either frozen or capped at 1 per cent under the government’s austerity measures, meaning that salaries lagged behind inflation rates.
Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “Civil servants along with millions of other public-sector workers have kept the country running throughout this pandemic and the last thing they deserve is another pay freeze.
“Our members have been providing universal credit, collecting tax, securing our borders and prisons in this unprecedented pandemic and have already suffered 10 years of pay restraint.”
Private companies have been “allowed to secure lucrative Covid contracts to the tune of £17 billion,” Mr Serwotka argued.
“Yet ministers are not prepared to reward their own staff for all the incredible work they have done this year.
“If Rishi Sunak fails to pay public-sector workers properly, there will be widespread anger and industrial action cannot be ruled out.”
National Education Union (NEU) joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said the plans were the “very last thing” the economy needs to recover.
He said: “This isn’t about fairness at all. This is a con job.
“The government will argue this is about holding down public-sector pay because private-sector pay has gone down, but it makes no sense economically.
“Public-sector workers spend their pay rises in private-sector retail and private-sector hospitality.
“This is a predictable attempt at divide and rule in the middle of a pandemic. Police officers, prison officers, school support staff, teachers, head teachers, DWP workers, hospital ancillary staff, have all put their lives on the line this year and they all deserve a pay rise.
“So should the delivery drivers for big supermarkets. We are supposed to be all in this together as working people.”
Mr Courtney warned that a pay freeze would also worsen recruitment problems in education, which the government promised to tackle through salary increases.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said pay restraint would be a “cruel blow” to employees but would also “backfire badly with the public.
“The government must do what's right next week and announce the wage rise all staff have more than earned,” he said.
Roger McKenzie, a candidate to succeed Mr Prentis, said: “So we have £16.5 billion to spend on weapons of war but hard-working public-service workers are supposed to put up with a pay freeze for three years to pay for it and the government’s mishandling of the pandemic?
“This is just not on. Especially when the same public-service workers are still trying to keep us safe from the virus.”
Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy said a further pay freeze would be “seen as an insult and have a devastating impact.”
“The government needs to rethink,” he said. “If they want fairness across the economy they should heed our call for an independent pay-review body and stop public-sector pay being a political football.”
Labour’s shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds called the plans “irresponsible” and warned it would leave people worried about making ends meet.
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