Life in low-pay local authorities

Discussions around the low-pay, no-pay cycle and the insecurity of work have tended to focus on the behaviour and employment practices of private sector employers, but this week I came across three adverts for jobs as cleaners in a local authority and so I took the opportunity to have a closer look at them.

All of the jobs paid between £6.38 and £7.04 per hour – this was the pay band and there was no other information relating to what the actual starting pay might be. You will note that this wage, even at the top of the band, is well below the current Living Wage of £7.45. All of the jobs were part time: one was for 15 hours per week, 6:00am – 9:00am Monday – Friday; one was for 11.25 hours per week, exact times not specified, for 41.2 weeks of the year; and the last one was for 10 hours, 3:15 – 5:15pm Monday – Friday, school term time ‘+9 hours’. The latter two jobs, both in schools, were permanent and the first job advertised was for a fixed term of 3 months.

No qualifications or experience were required but the job descriptions highlighted that they involved ‘some exposure to unpleasant conditions such as toilet areas’ and ‘limited contact with, or work for, others leading to few emotional demands’ and the only mention of training appeared to relate to health and safety around ‘bending and lifting’. In summary, these were exactly the types of low-paid, low-skilled, part-time and insecure jobs that we know are a major problem in trying to help people ‘lift themselves out of poverty’, as the government calls it, through work. And they were vacancies within a public sector organisation that has a statutory responsibility to ‘put in place arrangements … to reduce and mitigate the ffects of child poverty in their area’.

There is a tension here and Hilary Metcalfe and Amar Dhudwar have previously highlighted that there ‘seems to be some contradiction between, on the one hand, government policy in respect of reducing childhood poverty, and, on the other hand, actions across the public sector as purchaser or employer which lead to low-paid, insecure employment’ but also that ‘the public sector might be expected to consider the social impact of its organisational, employment and purchasing policies and act to reduce insecurity amongst low-paid employees’ . A couple of weeks ago we posted a blog which included the following assertion from the Local Government Anti Poverty Unit:

‘The real challenge is to look at, and change as necessary, the whole of local authority activity, in direct relation to the needs of the community it is there to serve. With a focus on the community – both the individual and collective needs – it is logical to respond in an integrated (corporate) way … rather than responding in a piecemeal way.’

A round up of the JRF work on cycles of poverty published in 2010 highlighted that:

  • The issue of people moving repeatedly between work and unemployment is an endemic problem in the UK and has risen by 60 per cent since 2006, mostly as a result of the recession.
  • Entering work cannot provide a sustainable route out of poverty if job security, low pay and lack of progression are not also addressed.

I then had a look at some of the authorities child poverty documents and found that increasing the numbers of people in work was a theme of the strategy, thre was no mentiond of the quality or security of the jobs that people might be taking. So the well-known, well documented problem of in-work poverty does not appear to be an issue which the local authorities approach to tackling child poverty is well placed to address and it does not appear to be an issue of concern.

I also had a look at the pay policies of the local authority involved and was very impressed with the transparency relating to the pay of senior staff. The Chief Executive is paid between £170,000 and £174,999 – this is a slight drop following a voluntary 5% reduction. The pay policy is also available online and it includes details of pay ratios but, I would argue, there was slightly less transparency here. In a section called ‘Relationship between Senior Posts and Lowest Paid Posts’ the following text can be found:

As at December 2011, the Council’s pay multiple i.e. the ratio between the highest paid employee and the median average earnings is 8.90.  This ratio is considered to be appropriate and not represent an excessive pay gap.  The methodology for evaluating pay levels is considered to be open and transparent and the current ratios and relationships between the pay of Chief Officers and other staff is reasonable. Therefore, other than monitoring this ratio, the Council does not have a policy for maintaining or reaching a specific pay multiple across the organisation. (my emphases)

So, in contrast to the title, the relationship studied is between the highest paid and the middle – NOT the lowest paid posts. If the relationship between the highest paid and lowest paid posts on a like for like basis of full time and permanent positions was explored the ratio would be somewhere between 12.5% and 14.2%, depending of the pay of the lowest paid (taken here as the pay band of the cleaners jobs advertised above).

However, not all of the lowest paid jobs are full-time or permanent and so it seems unfair to analyse the relationship on an annual basis alone. If the relationship is explored using the weekly or monthly incomes of the highest paid and the lowest paid the ratio comes in at between 36 and 46, depending on which of the jobs advertised above are used. This, it could be argues, DOES represent ‘an excessive pay gap’.

If Peter Townsend was right in suggesting that the we should get better at making connections between the production of wealth and the production of poverty, then it would seem that some local authorities have some ‘elbow room’ to find alternative forms of action to those that they are currently pursuing.


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