UNISON warns of a growing working poverty crisis among low-paid public service workers as the union ballots members for strike action over pay row with Government.
Every week, UNISON’s welfare charity There for You gives out more than £13,000 helping 3,230 public sector workers* facing hardship, a total of £700,000 a year, according to new figures released today.
The union’s charity, set up 21 years ago to offer support to its members in financial difficulty, saw a 75% rise in payments for those in emergency crisis, many of whom could not afford to buy food, bus fares or other daily essentials.
In 2011, the charity spent £7,000 in emergency crisis payments rising to £12,300 in 2013. Individual payments started from £20 for workers who had no food to feed themselves, no money left on electricity meters or not enough to afford their transport to work.
Last year, more than one fifth of the charity’s spending was dedicated to workers in need of some extra cash to make ends meet from one week to the next. **
Payments to support members struggling with increasingly expensive utility bills rose by 25% since 2011, reaching £55,000 last year. The report also shows a two thirds rise in grants for funerals, from £27,000 in 2011 to £45,000 last year. **
Dave Prentis, UNISON General Secretary said:
“These figures are a damning indictment of the Government’s pay freeze and squeeze on the lives of public service workers and their families. It is a disgrace that members delivering vital services to some of the most vulnerable people now face the biggest cut in their living standards since Victorian times. It’s unfair and unacceptable that the poorest are paying the price of this Government’s austerity measures.
“Some of our members in the public sector are struggling so much that at the end of the month they can’t afford to feed their children or pay for their transport to work. Many rely on foodbanks. They often find themselves having to make very difficult and heartrending choices.
“All it takes is one unexpected expense such as a broken washing machine, an illness, being made redundant or the death of a family member and cost of the funeral to tip workers over the edge.
“The rise in cost in energy bills, childcare, transport and the overall high cost of living is pushing them in a vicious cycle of debt and despair. Some of our members find themselves in difficult and distressing personal circumstances which can leave them at the mercy of loan sharks and payday lenders.
“With earnings stagnating or rising slower than inflation, public sector workers find themselves having to pay more than they earn and their financial situation easily spirals out of control. Workers simply don’t have enough money for it to stretch until the next paycheck.
“There is a real poverty crisis developing among working people. This Government must start lifting pay caps and give public sector workers a decent pay rise.
“Every year, we support thousands of workers who have been let down by this Government’s policies and who without the help of the union would fall into a debt trap that can feel impossible to escape.”
For some public service workers who have been on a virtual pay freeze since 2010, inflation has cut 16% out of the value of their pay packet since 2010.
And this year, the Government ignored the PRB recommendation and announced an unconsolidated payment for only a minority of staff in England. This offers means 70 % of nurses and midwives will not get a pay rise.
Quotes from UNISON members:
A refuse collector said: “My wife left the family home and I’ve since been on sick with anxiety, depression and work related stress. I went down to half pay a few months ago.
“I am very concerned I will lose the family home and at the moment I cannot afford to buy myself food as money spent is to ensure I care for my children. I am also concerned that if I don’t return to work soon I will lose my job.”
A Housing Officer said: “I can only manage my bills with the help of borrowing money every month. In fact I can’t even cover all my outgoings and anything else I need to pay for ie clothes I just don’t get as I have no money.”
A Leisure Assistant said: “My wife left and since I have been trying to cope with the mortgage, debts and kids alone. I have struggled until now by getting some help from my family and find it really difficult with paying debts and continuing to ensure mortgage is paid.
“I will probably lose my home if I cannot pay all or some of the debt off and this is very worrying as I only ever want to give my kids a good home and a chance in life.”
A Teaching Assistant said: “My biggest worry is paying the rent and council tax, people banging on the door scares me, I don’t want to lose my things.”
A Domestic Assistant said: “I have been affected by the benefit system changes and have to pay bedroom tax. My child and working tax credits will go down as my wages will change as I have had a slight pay rise in my wages.”
A Lunchtime Supervisor said: “My daughter’s school has just changed uniform colour from yellow to purple which is not available at Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury etc so I can’t buy cheaper versions.
“My older daughter got in trouble at school for having ‘non approved’ black trousers on! So I need to buy through the school which is unfair.”
A Healthcare Assistant said: “I have to move as tenancy up, can’t afford to renew, and desperate to find somewhere to live. My biggest worry at the moment is having nowhere to live and not being able to afford anywhere. Also not having enough money coming in each week as my working tax credits have now stopped. Can’t afford to food shop”!
A Nurse said: “I am pregnant, my relationship broke down and I had a month off work due to pregnancy related illness. I have found myself in difficulty because I have been paid SSP this month which I wasn’t aware of until I received my wage slip.
“My biggest worry is not being able to buy food or get to work for the next month. I have not been employed for 12 months so by the time I had 11 weeks to go I was getting 90% of my wage for 6 weeks then £138.78 for 33 weeks. I am worried I won’t be able to pay my rent and provide for my baby. My mum is trying to help all she can but I feel very down and stressed.”
A Radiology Department Assistant said: “Since having quadruple heart by pass and valve repair I went on to no pay.
“My car, which I rely on to get to work, broke down. Due to my illness, I have difficulty walking long distances, which would be the case if I had to use public transport.
“I need the car to be able to get to work and so keep paying my bills. If I can’t work I will be unable to pay my bills and will lose my home.”
A Healthcare Assistant said: “I am in difficulty because I had a breakdown due to work. I have been diagnosed with depression and receiving treatment for this.
“Shortly I will be going on half-pay and this will probably add to my condition and may affect my family and future and where and how they live. Presently, I am managing my debt problems but I don’t know for how long when I am on half pay.
“I am concerned that I will lose my house or be unable to pay for essential bills such as food, gas, electricity and water.
“I am extremely concerned about not getting better and not working again.
“My treatment is not working the way it should. My wife and family depend on me and currently I am unable to provide for them and help them”.
Notes to Editors:
* UNISON’s welfare charity helped 3,230 members who were struggling to make ends meet. Its origins date back to 1910.
** Overall spend: £708,427.
Short-term weekly assistance: £134,378
Funeral: £44,868 in 2013
UNISON’s charity There for You provides advice, information and assistance to members at times of hardship or personal difficulty such as redundancy, bereavement, illness or relationship breakdown.
The charity relies on a network of 800 volunteer welfare officers across the UK who act as first point of contact for members in need.
In the year ending 31 December 2013, 86% of There for You expenditure was spent on charitable activities.
Financial assistance granted based on need (in unanticipated difficulty such as household bills, goods, disability aids, property repairs, clothing and breaks.)
Holidays/Wellbeing breaks for members in difficult circumstances. Debt advice service for members needing help and guidance to achieve long-term sustainable financial solutions. Credit Union Network – working with 70 credit unions across the UK.