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Emergency Workers Need a Proper Pay Rise

Today, hundreds of 999 call handlers are on strike against poverty pay. Their dispute sums up modern Britain: lives are being risked because bosses won’t even discuss pay rises for key workers.

Workers on the picket line at Shrewsbury's Comms House, 6 October 2022. (CWU / Twitter)

I have been a 999 call handler for 44 years, and in case you’re in doubt, it can be an extraordinarily stressful job. As you pick up the phone to people who are upset, distressed, frantically trying to get help, you have to be in a state of professional calm. You have to be composed and reassuring as parents scream at you fearfully about their children, you have to keep people away from their own anxieties as they suffer heart attacks and strokes.

In this emotionally volatile environment, I always say to new starters that you have to just let the call go. If you get fixated on the intensity of a previous call, there’s every possibility it will affect your standards in another call. If you keep on worrying and thinking about it, you’ll never sleep again in your life. Though I must admit this advice became harder to follow during the pandemic, when our members worked with an intensity nobody had experienced before—and all for an annual wage of £21,500.

Yet despite the role our members played during this international crisis—where we were designated key workers and went above and beyond what was expected of us—we never received any pay rise. In the first year following the outbreak of coronavirus, the company gave every full-time worker a lump sum of £1000 which wasn’t pensionable but was taxable. For starters, many couldn’t accept the money because it would impact benefits they need to top up their low pay, and no alternative arrangements—like including the money in supermarket gift cards—were made.

Then a £1500 ‘pay rise’ was imposed, which, depending on where you are in the company, was a differing amount for everybody. Our union has been clear for years that it wanted a serious change in BT’s low pay culture. This was seemingly recognised by management, who agreed to give some of the lowest-paid workers almost £1000 this January to bring pay up. However, when it came to the £1500 pay rise, BT took the £1000 they’d already agreed to pay the lowest-paid workers and included it as part of the £1500, meaning that only £500 in real terms was offered—and incredibly low-paid workers stayed being incredibly low-paid workers.

The union thought this would be resolved when everybody would get back around the table. But this never happened—and the company has refused to talk since. Suddenly, people were raging. Some felt so despondent that they quit, seeing no way out of their poor pay situation—what a very strange society that values the work of emergency services so little.

It’s hard to blame them. These are workers on £21,500 a year. Often, they’re using food banks, they’re on Universal Credit. Many are single parents, paying high rent, struggling to find a work-life balance. There’s too much month at the end of the money, and they are completely reliant on overtime, which isn’t always available. But then they end up having to pay childcare, which is a vicious circle.

These situations are intolerable to accept any longer. When our colleagues in BT Group voted in unprecedented numbers to take strike action, we accepted the decision of our union to stay in work. It was difficult, because people were serious about showing their anger in strike action, but it was accepted that as a show of good will, we would stay in and take the calls.

But good will doesn’t top up the heaters, and we didn’t even get that—management refused to talk to us. They clearly thought they’d be best sticking two fingers up at us instead, deciding they got what they wanted in seeing off 999 disruption and they could now ride the situation out.

But now we have walked out. And if anything happens, that is on BT. Managers are trying to tug on people’s heart strings, asking them why they wouldn’t want to help someone needing an ambulance. At the end of the day, we don’t want to be on strike, but as workers we have been provoked, mocked, disregarded, and even starved. If lives are put at risk, it’s not on my colleagues—it’s on managers who can’t give them one jot of dignity.

At the moment, they are trying to goad those same managers to come in, giving them a day or two’s training before putting them into some incredibly serious conversations. They start off high-fiving each other and laughing away, before they very quickly realise how intense it is and how unsuited they are to the work. Some managers are quitting after a single shift or two—it’s bad enough they’re scabbing, but they can’t even hack it!

All Philip Jansen—or Foodbank Phil, as his workers nickname him—had to do was come back, get into meaningful negotiations with us over pay, and I doubt we would have been out. But he has been completely missing in action since this dispute began. He’s not someone who travelled on public transport to go into a crowded office and take calls from worried, sick, or dying members of the public, and went home worrying about whether they were going to take this disease back to their family.

He doesn’t seem to care about or understand the work we have done, but I hope that working people across the country will understand our reasons for coming out one strike. It is not something we want to do, but like millions of you, we are coming out and saying ‘enough is enough’. We all know what value we have. We deserve far better for ourselves and our families, and we will never shirk from fighting for that if we’re forced to. That is why we are out today.