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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

On the wages front

by New Worker correspondent

DESPITE the pandemic, which has forced trade unions to focus on saving jobs and secure safe working conditions, the struggle for decent pay continues. According to London based “human resources data provider” XpertHR, workers in the private sector said recent pay deals in the three months to July for the private sector offer a median annual pay rise of 0.5 per cent, drastically down from 2.2 per cent in the previous three readings. Pay freezes were the result of 40 per cent of settlements.

That means workers are getting a real-terms cut. So far this year, and including the public sector, the median basic pay settlement was 2.2 down from 2.5 over the year to last December.

XpertHR (who on earth thinks up these names?) also said: “We also expect many of the pay reviews currently on hold to ultimately result in a pay freeze for staff, making 2020 the worst year for pay awards since 2009.” It is up to trade unions to see that workers do better.

Last Friday a major health sector union lodged a pay claim to the Government for an increase of at least £2,000 for every NHS employee. This would be £1 per hour more for staff.

Unison, which represents NHS staff including healthcare assistants, radiographers, porters, midwives, paramedics, nurses, engineering and ambulance staff, say this will take minimum wages in the health service to above £20,000 per year for the first time. £2,000 would be worth eight per cent for a newly qualified band 5 worker such as a nurse, paramedic or IT manager, and would take their annual salary to £26,907.

The claim, delivered to 10 Downing Street, reminded Boris Johnson of his own battle with COVID-19 – and his recovery thanks to the care he received from the NHS. “They are now looking for you to reflect that in their pay. So, Prime Minister, why wait?” it said.

The union says its pay demand, on behalf of staff currently on “Agenda for Change” contracts (whose three year deal ends in March), is fair and reasonable and is the least the government can do to show it values everyone working in the health service.

All 14 trade unions representing NHS workers are fighting for an early and significant pay increase, claiming they have strong backing from the public for the demand.

Sara Gorton, the union’s head of health, said: “Government ministers claim NHS staff are a ‘top priority’. The Prime Minister must not miss the opportunity to show they really mean it.

“Health service employees have made their expectations clear – that their pay will reflect the work they’ve done during the pandemic. This is also the overwhelming message from the public.

“The claim is straightforward, can be brought in quickly and would ensure everyone in the NHS is recognised.

“There’s a tough winter ahead and a pandemic that shows little sign of disappearing. Giving health staff a morale boost now is much-needed ahead of any good news about a vaccine.”

One of those who would benefit is Northern Ireland ward assistant Colette McAlinden, who worked long hours during the pandemic including delivering a baby in her lunch hour in the hospital car park. She said that during the pandemic: “The workload increased. It was hectic, working on wards in extreme heat. Sometimes my lips cracked with thirst. But we had to put that all aside because the patients and their family are the priority.”

Not to be outdone, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which is actually a trade union, has launched a campaign to demand a 12.5 per cent pay rise for nursing staff across the UK.

Although initially focusing on an immediate pay rise for NHS staff, it also aims to raise the bar for nurses who work for independent employers.

Dame Donna Kinnair, the RCN’s chief executive, said: “Our Fair Pay for Nursing campaign is about recognising the skill, experience and responsibility demonstrated every day by members of the profession. This is about more than the profession’s response to COVID-19 – it is about increasing the attractiveness of the profession, to fill tens of thousands of unfilled nursing jobs and reach safe staffing levels. It is time to pay nursing staff fairly.”

A rise is also essential to attract staff to remedy dangerous staff shortages. In Scotland alone there were over 3,600 nursing and midwifery vacancies within the NHS.

To make matters worse, a recent RCN survey showed that 38 per cent are thinking of leaving the profession this year, with almost 60 per cent citing pay as a factor.

Norman Provan, associate director for Royal College of Nursing Scotland, said: “The nursing profession has been in the spotlight like never before. But if Scotland is going to retain and attract the workforce it needs nursing staff must be paid fairly for the work that they do. Through this campaign we will put pressure on the UK and Scottish governments to stop claiming to value nursing staff and actually demonstrate it.”

Another NHS union, the GMB, said that the average healthcare worker has lost about 15 per cent of their wages in real terms since 2010. This needs to be made good urgently according to Rachel Harrison, the union’s National Officer for health. She said: “At a time when we are relying on our health workers more than ever, we can’t expect them to swallow another real-terms pay cut. Our NHS and its workers were at breaking point before COVID-19, with 100,000 vacancies, privatisation running down services and removing loyal NHS staff from the payroll, a culture of bullying and a looming staff mental health crisis.

“The pandemic has exacerbated the situation. Staff put their own lives on the line, attending work to care for others, whilst being in fear for the safety of themselves and their families.” She added that “Now is the time for the Government to make amends” for having failed at all key points during the crisis – particularly when it came to pay, PPE and testing.

In addition to a hefty, well deserved pay rise, the union is also demanding unsocial hours enhancements that staff used to get when off sick be reinstated.