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More than 1 million public sector workers struggling with low wages

1 Mar 2019 By Emily Burt

Real Living Wage charity calls on organisations to pay more in bid for a ‘decent, caring society’ 

More than a million public sector workers are earning less than the ‘real living wage’ in the UK, new data has revealed, with experts warning many directly employed and outsourced workers are struggling with in-work poverty. 

According to the findings, calculated by the Smith Institute for the charity The Living Wage Foundation, 1.2 million public sector workers do not earn the real living wage, a figure calculated by the foundation as the minimum needed to meet the basic cost of living.

More than one in 10 (13 per cent) workers directly employed by the public sector earn below the real living wage, with a breakdown of figures citing as many as 42,000 members of the civil service and 204,000 NHS staff earning below the real living wage. 

A total of 464,000 outsourced workers across the public sector were also found to be earning below the real living wage, with Unison assistant general secretary Christina McAnea warning many were being pushed into taking on additional jobs. 



The real living wage currently sits at at £10.55 in London and £9.00 elsewhere in the UK. It is a separate measure from the legally binding national living wage, which is currently calculated at £7.83 for workers aged over 25 and is due to rise to £8.21 from 1 April 2019.

The national minimum wage, for those under 25, is currently £7.38.

“Last year’s NHS and council pay deals saw the lowest-paid workers’ wages go above the real living wage. But colleagues on outsourced contracts in care, cleaning and catering weren’t so fortunate and many are still on the legal minimum,” said McAnea. “In a decent, caring society no one should be struggling like this. Dedicated public servants deserve better.”

According to a recent poll from Survation, 64.3 per cent of the public agree public sector workers should be uplifted to the real living wage, over the national living wage. 

“It’s simply wrong that our teaching assistants, cleaners, carers and catering staff, paid on public money, are struggling to keep their heads above water on wages that don’t meet basic living costs,” said Lola McEvoy, campaigns and communications manager at the Living Wage Foundation. “The public support this, politicians support this, the treasury would benefit from this. There’s no reason not to do it.”

Almost 5,000 UK businesses voluntarily pay staff the real living wage, including Ikea, Nationwide, Google and more than 100 local authorities and councils. According to the Living Wage Foundation, 75 per cent of living wage employers have seen an increase in staff motivation and retention as a result. 

The news follows a report from the TUC that more than five million workers put in a total of two billion unpaid hours in 2018, with UK companies claiming £32.7 billion in free labour. 

More than 5 million people worked an average of 7.5 hours a week in unpaid overtime during 2018, with TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady calling for bosses who “steal” time to face consequences. 

“Lots of us are willing to put in a few extra hours when it’s needed, but too many employers are taking advantage,” she said. “Overworking staff hurts productivity, leaves workers’ stressed and exhausted and eats into time that should be spent with family and friends.”

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