Let’s hear it for the workers who make a real difference

3 Dec 15

With council pay negotiations set to begin, it’s time to reflect on deteriorating wages and conditions for workers in councils and schools.

It’s some time since I wrote about the shameful pay and conditions of workers in schools and councils, but recent developments and looming pay talks have focused the mind wonderfully. So, please allow me, at the start of this – the festive season – to bring you glad tidings and update you on their ongoing descent into poverty.

The chancellor’s recent foray into poor relief has caused consternation in the downtrodden and cash-poor world of local government. On the announcement of the new National Living Wage (NLW) of just £7.20 pence an hour, the District Councils Network described the less-than-generous rate as “a new burden” and voiced its ‘concerns’ regarding affordability.

This might evoke some sympathy given the parlous and deteriorating state of local government finance and the depth of cuts that seem to have passed the Prime Minister by. The rest of us know by now that the funding gap in councils could touch the £10bn mark by 2019 and that all but statutory services might go unfunded after 2020. But isn’t it still time to ask whether government, councils and schools should further exploit those Unison members who keep local services and education going?

As it stands, the NLW from April 2016 will be 14p an hour above the current bottom rate of pay in schools and councils – so far NJC pay has fallen behind the real Living Wage of £8.25 outside and £9.40 inside London. A 2% pay increase on the bottom rate of school and council pay is needed just to hit the new statutory minimum wage in April 2016 – double the 1% public sector pay cap.

To hit the promised £9 an hour minimum by 2020 will require a 29.5% increase on the current bottom rate – hardly achievable within the scope of government pay policy. And what will be left for those above the NLW – social workers, admin workers, planners, finance officers and technicians? No wonder that a recent Smith Institute study of local government found that 89% of councils felt that the pay squeeze has had a significant impact on recruitment and retention.

The gaps between the NLW, public sector pay policy in schools and councils and their funding outlook seems to have completely passed the chancellor by. There was no mention of additional funding to meet the cost of the NLW in the Autumn Statement, let alone the real Living Wage, which is a key component of the unions’ NJC pay claim for 2016/17.

The funding gap for school and council pay is made much worse by the effect of employers having to delete bottom pay points and increase pay well above the going public sector rate just to achieve the NLW and the real Living Wage, while not being able to apply commensurate pay increases above that level.

The outcome is a serious squeeze on differentials, which can result in the genuine threat of non-compliance with equal pay legislation. Some workers find themselves being paid the same as their supervisors, who have received no more than a below-inflation 1% increase in recent years. Let’s just throw into the mix the failure of councils to re-evaluate the growing jobs of those left after redundancies and permanent re-organisations too and you can see real trouble ahead.

Despite the rise of academies and loss of local authority status, school workers still comprise a large group within the NJC bargaining group. Most of them work as learning/teaching assistants, nursery nurses, school meals workers, secretaries, admin workers, mid-day supervisors and cleaners. Although cuts are creating redundancies, there are still over 200,000 school workers – about 50% of whom are on ‘term-time only’ contracts.

Working ‘term-time only’ generally means they are not paid for some – or all – of the school holidays, unlike teachers. No acceptable explanation for such differential treatment has ever been given. Their ‘term-time only’ pay is averaged over a 12-month period for administrative convenience and to disguise the fact that many are not eligible to claim benefits during unpaid holiday periods. Despite this poor treatment, teaching assistants are required to attend school trips, put in out-of-school time on preparation, administer medicines and cover classes for absent teaches. School meals workers are frequently the eyes and ears of the teachers and cleaners

Loss of up to 13 weeks holiday pay means that our members who are fundamental to successful education are effectively deprived of 25% of their due income, while still expected to return to take up their contracts when the new school term begins. Practice varies enormously across schools and confusion abounds over the calculation of the small amount of holiday pay that some do receive. For that reason, our pay claim this year calls for a joint review of the practice and administration of  ‘term-time only’ working.

Those in local authority schools who have been ‘lucky’ enough to hold onto their 52-week status are now finding themselves under attack. Durham, Derbyshire and Southampton are but a few of the councils in which schools are looking for savings. In one authority our members will lose between £1,400 and £2,650 a year off their already-low pay – around 13.5%. In another, the figure rises to over 20% as hours too are cut alongside holiday pay.

The common feature of ‘term-time only’ workers is that they are, with a few exceptions, women. Indeed, over three quarters of all NJC employees are women and 61% of them work part-time. The assault on their pay is based on outdated presumptions about what their earnings and jobs mean to them – presumed to be ‘pin money’ and ‘that little part-time job’, when for most their pay is vital. Hardly surprising that 58% in a recent Unison survey had considered leaving in the last year. Another reason to take a closer look at what your chancellor is doing Mr Cameron.

  • Heather Wakefield
    Heather Wakefield
    National Secretary for Unison’s local government, police and justice section

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