The Covid-19 pandemic has been life-changing for millions of people. With over 60,000 deaths directly linked to Covid and thousands made seriously ill, it is a public health emergency that has touched every single person in Britain.
Many have lost relatives, many have had to work from home, socially distance in their workplaces and mass social gatherings have effectively come to an end. Yet in the midst of this pandemic, we have seen incredible dedication and sacrifice from our public sector workers.
They have kept the country running, from providing Universal Credit to millions of people to helping businesses roll out the furlough scheme so mass redundancies can be avoided. Chancellor Rishi Sunak praised civil servants earlier this year when he credited them for adapting to Covid-19 by providing services from living rooms and kitchens across the country.
And the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has invoked wartime imagery by urging people to pull together to defeat the virus. However, warm words and patriotic rhetoric will mean little to public sector workers who are once again being asked to accept a pay freeze.
The justification has similarities with those we heard for austerity following the 2008 Financial Crisis, the need to combat the deficit and reduce the debt. This time the Chancellor is trying to argue that due to all the money being spent on furlough and other Covid support packages, public sector workers must now tighten their belts for the good of the nation’s finances.
It is interesting that the private contractors run by relatives and mates of senior government advisors have not been given a similarly tight leash. £17 billion of public sector contracts have gone to private companies, capitalising on a profitable opportunity at the expense of the public.
There is no austerity for them, only for those who have kept the country going in the biggest public health crisis in a generation. Similarly, the military has seen a £16 billion cash injection while the foreign aid budget has been cut, giving you a sense of this government’s priorities for the most vulnerable outside of Britain.
In order to cement his decision to freeze public sector pay, Chancellor Sunak has also employed that classic Tory ‘divide and rule’ tactic of attempting to sow division between public and private sector workers. He pointed to lower wages in the private sector due to the pandemic and said a pay rise for most public sector workers would be unjustified.
The answer is not a race to the bottom but a levelling up of pay and conditions for both private and public sector workers. Raising wages across the board to increase spending power in the economy would aid our recovery. Instead, the Chancellor has opted to pit public and private sector workers against one another like crabs in a barrel.
What recent events have shown economically is that where there is a will, there is a way. A Tory government through pressure from socialists in the Labour Party and progressive examples across Europe was forced to abandon their economic orthodoxy of laissez-faire capitalism.
The furlough scheme and the job support scheme, although they haven’t gone far enough, have shown how the state can be utilised to aid people in a time of national crisis.
But this morning, I listened to journalists and economists saying we would be saddled with multi-generational debt. It was accepted as a forgone conclusion that the “generosity” from the state would have to be repaid in kind.
Why should public sector workers pay for a crisis that was not of their making, particularly when it is their work that has kept society functioning? By paying public sector workers properly, we will increase their spending power, which will provide much-needed funds to businesses in the wider economy.
We should be borrowing to invest in creating jobs, and increasing Universal Credit payments so people can live with dignity while they try to find work. Once we have a vaccine, there will be an opportunity to put forward an alternative vision for a humane social security system, with secure and well-paid jobs in a society which uplifts the most vulnerable.
My union PCS will play its part in that debate and with our members now facing a pay freeze we will be examining all of our options, including industrial action, to resist this government’s latest attack.
The trade union movement resisted the pensions changes in 2011 and we will need a similar spirit of unity to fight for fair pay in 2020.