“Who stole the pay from my pay packet?” was my friend’s reaction as she looked at her payslip and worked out how much money she had to survive on that month.
From one end of the social scale to the other, many people are being affected by pay that is not keeping up with inflation. People on benefits are being forced into low paid jobs and are having to try to pay for the basics including food, housing, transport and utilities from wages which are not enough to live on. People in professional jobs in the private sector and public services find their terms and conditions are being chipped away.
How do people lead a happy life given the insecure and temporary nature of work in austerity Britain? I spoke to four women about how life was for them. From the professional worker to the care worker, they were all experiencing a fall in their wages, whilst for two of them their benefits and housing costs were blurring the line between working and living on benefits, pushing them over the edge into the world of unemployment and poverty.
Charlotte Hughes is a single parent with 2 grown up children, who are disabled and living independently, and an 8 year old who lives with her. Over the years she has both worked and signed on for benefits and has now decided that the life of the self-employed worker is the only one that will give her some independence.
“I could live on benefits but it is like being in servitude. The constant hassle from the DWP made me ill. I have chosen to become self-employed even though I still cannot pay my all my living costs. Each week I get £70 working tax credit and might earn another £20 on top of that.”
She still has to pay Bedroom and Council Tax. “I have to pay the BT otherwise I might lose my house. The worst thing that can happen over CT is that they will take you back to court.”
Figures produced by the TUC show that one in seven workers, 4.55m, are now self-employed.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Self-employment accounts for almost half of all the new jobs created under this government. But these newly self-employed workers are not the budding entrepreneurs ministers like to talk about. Only a tiny fraction run their own businesses, while the vast majority work for themselves or another employer – often with fewer rights, less pay and no job security.
“While some choose to be self-employed, many people are forced into it because there is no alternative work. The lack of a stable income and poor job security often associated with self-employment makes it hard for people to pay their bills, arrange childcare, plan holidays or even buy or rent a home”.
But, like Charlotte, many of these people cannot get enough work with nearly two-thirds, 1.29m, working part-time.
Charlotte is not sure what the future holds for her and her children. Recently she stood for the Green Party at the local elections.
I am going down fighting. I might only be a single parent scraping by but every time they throw something at me I will throw something back
For people in work the picture is also grim. According to a report by the National Housing Federation “one working person every five minutes is (having) to turn to the Government for housing benefit to keep the roof over their heads”.
Sharon Moffat, a care worker, has had to juggle her work and for the first time claim Housing Benefits to pay her rent.
“I work for an agency and get paid £7 per hour but that is paid on a zero hours basis. I get paid for the time I am with the client, which for many is only 15 minutes. I do not get paid for the time spent walking to each client.”
Sharon has not had a pay rise for five years and yet all her living costs have increased, particularly housing, transport, and utilities. She now works part-time, 22 hours a week, whilst claiming HB and working tax credit.
“I work to survive. I love the work with the elderly people. But after all my bills are paid I have £10 per day to buy food and the basics of living. There is no incentive for me to work full-time.”
Is life any better for people in professional jobs? I spoke to A (she did not want me to use her name as it might affect her job prospects). She left University recently after completing an MA in newspaper journalism. Working life has not been a positive experience for her.
“In my first trainee reporter job I worked incredibly hard. I was contracted to work 830-5pm but never left the office before 630pm, for which I did not get paid. After six months I was made redundant, I believe unfairly, and I did get support from the National Union of Journalists, but it had a damaging effect on my confidence.”
She thinks that the way that work is nowadays is having a negative effect on her generation.
“For lots of people my age it is the job insecurity and the effect it is having including anxiety and mental health issues. It is also the cost of living, the level of debt that we have, and the reality that for many people they are not getting a living wage but just earning above the national minimum wage.”
A has now got a better job, working in a job where the National Union ofJournalists has negotiated a proper training programme for trainee journalists and hours of work are reflected in the salary. She feels that some of her friends need a union.
‘’Many are on zero hour contracts in telesales, bar and retail work with little protection over their rights at work. But hardly any of them are in a union but they really need one!”
For people who work in the public services, particularly experienced professional workers, their lives have been changed for the worse. B has been a Mental Health social worker for nearly 20 years.(She did not want to be identified, fearing victimisation). She works in a northern town and has seen growing uncertainty in her life at work and witnessed the effect of cuts on the service.
“We have seen year on year cuts to the service. Staff leave and do not get replaced, every year there are staff reorganisations and everyone, including the managers, do not know if they are going to keep their job.”
Since 2010 her pay and terms and conditions have been cut. This year public sector workers have been offered a 1% pay rise. Unison her trade union said; With inflation currently running at 2.8% (RPI) this is a further pay cut on top of the 18% real-terms cut in wages since 2010 and the continuing local cuts to pay and conditions.
B says, “Three years ago we were forced to take 3 days unpaid leave, they then tried to cut our sick pay, and the payments we get to do the job including payments towards the cost of using our car. You have to have a car to go and visit the clients.”
She works in a unionised work place, so the staff got Unison involved and balloted for industrial action. It was a partial victory; “We achieved something and people did feel strongly about the issues. “But she feels that over the last five years her job has changed beyond recognition.
Originally the job was concentrating on peoples’ needs, now it is about how much will everything cost. I don’t feel valued or respected, everyone has huge caseloads and it is like the whole system is in meltdown
B’s response has been to get involved in the union.”I have just become a shop steward and will be going to conference, for the first time, this month. We need to make the union more relevant to the staff, only half the workforce are in the union, we need to do more campaigning.”
These stories are replicated in many people’s lives across this country. Recent research has shown that women have suffered more from the cuts than men and this injustice is reflected in the growing number of women active in single issue campaigns, in the Green Party and in trade unions. The history of this country is one of resistance to injustice and inequality: perhaps through some of these women we are seeing the beginnings of a new era of political activity.