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In-work poverty at shameful levels in the UK

As a new £10 note comes into circulation today, the Independent reports that, thanks to Brexit, it is “15 percent smaller, and 16 percent less valuable” than its predecessor. Worth just £8.60 compared to the £10 note being worth, well, £10 prior to the disastrous referendum, the new note features a Jane Austen design and represents a time that is still mired in austerity for Britain.

It is not just people who are on benefits or out of work who are finding themselves short of cash in these difficult times. One out of every eight people in work is skipping meals to save money, while one in six resisted turning on the heating in cold weather. The same proportion of people even pawned their belongings to get some much-needed funds and many are getting into debt.

These figures came from a survey for the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which polled 3,287 members to find out how they are coping with stagnant wages and rising prices. Frances O’Grady, the General Secretary of the TUC, told the Guardian, “When you come home from a long day at work, you shouldn’t have to worry whether you can afford to eat. Having a job should provide you with a decent life, but it’s not even covering the basics for many.

“Ten years on from the crash, working families are on a financial cliff edge. Pay packets are worth less and less, but bills keep rising and personal debt is at crisis levels. The government’s inaction must not last. Ministers can raise wages by scrapping public sector pay restrictions, investing to create great jobs across the country and increasing the minimum wage.”

What about the JAMs?

When Theresa May snuck her way into the role of Prime Minister, she delivered a speech in which she promised, amongst other things, to help those who are “just about managing”. The JAMs. But she has come under fire, since that speech, for not putting her money where her mouth is. Little, if anything, has changed and her government is doing nothing to help those who are experiencing in-work poverty.

And while the minimum wage increase that is due will do something to help the lowest paid, the Conservatives referring to it as a ‘living wage’ is misleading and unfair; the true Living Wage is far higher than what the Tories are promising those working their fingers to the bone in exchange for the smallest amount of money their employer is legally allowed to pay them.

The public sector pay cap: lifted?

In 2010, public sector pay was frozen for two years due to the austerity agenda taking force. Excepting those earning under £21,000, there were no pay rises until 2013, after which rises have been subject to a pay cap of 1%, which is below the rate of inflation.

This means that many public sector workers have essentially been taking a pay cut, year on year, for the privilege of working for the state.

The Labour Party and 14 different trade unions have called for May and Chancellor Philip Hammond to lift the cap for all public sector workers, including those who work for the NHS in roles as diverse as nurses, cleaners, physiotherapists, midwives and porters, rather than just police officers and prison officers, as is currently proposed. Police officers have had a 2% pay rise announced, while prison officers have been offered 1.7%.

Trade unions are calling for a 4% pay rise for NHS workers, plus an £800 one-time payment to make up for some of the money they have lost during the years since the pay cap has been in force.

Unison’s head of health Sara Gorton said: “Health workers have gone without a proper pay rise for far too long. Their wages continue to fall behind inflation as food and fuel bills, housing and transport costs rise.

“NHS staff and their families need a pay award that stops the rot and starts to restore some of the earnings that have been missed out on. A decent pay rise will make it easier for struggling hospital trusts to attract new recruits and hold on to experienced staff.

“Continuing with the pay cap will further damage services, and that affects us all. The Government must give the NHS the cash it needs so its entire workforce gets a decent rise, without the need for more services to be cut.”

The Labour Party proposed a motion in Parliament calling for the end of the pay cap for NHS workers and the government decided against contesting this motion, which means that MPs ultimately backed it. With her tiny majority in Parliament, it could be that Theresa May did not want to risk an awkward defeat if she had fought against the proposal.

Either way, the upcoming season of party political conferences will no doubt discuss the issue further, pushing for a resolution one way or the other.

And in a society where workers in the UK are an average of £300 worse off than they were in 2016, according to the Office for National Statistics and the Social Market Foundation, it is not just those reliant on welfare who are struggling with rising inflation and poor growth. And while those in work are no more ‘deserving’ than those on benefits, it is appalling that anybody in a modern, wealthy society should be subject to food banks or charity when the country is one of the richest in the world.

And when one of the government’s leading MPs describes the support of food banks as “rather uplifting” rather than “an absolutely shameful indictment of our society and its leaders”, we know we have a long way to go.

Photo: Rowan Gillette-Fussell/Creative Commons

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Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women's issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.