'One crisis and I will be homeless': view from the civil service picket line

CSW visited the Cabinet Office picket line, where PCS members are striking over pay amid the cost-of-living crisis
Ellie, 31, a civil servant in the Government Communication Function

By Tevye Markson

01 Feb 2023


“Everybody is suffering,” says Ellie, 31, a higher executive officer at the Cabinet Office, when asked if she knows any colleagues struggling with the cost of living.

Ellie, who works in the Cabinet Office’s government communication function and is a PCS rep for the department, is one of tens of thousands of civil servants striking today as part of the union's 1 February one-day all-out strike action.

HEOs in the Cabinet Office earn between £32,000 and £39,0000, according to the department’s own figures. Amidst a cost-of-living crisis and more than a decade of real-terms pay decline, Ellie is, like many others, struggling to keep afloat.

Standing with two dozen other civil servants on the picket line outside the Treasury, Ellie leads a call and response: “What do we want? 10%! When do we want it? Now!”

As well as a 10% pay rise, PCS is calling for an end to pensions overpayments, job security, and for planned cuts to redundancy terms to be scrapped.

As the organiser of the Cabinet Office's strike ballot, which got a 61% turnout and a yes vote of more than 90%, Ellie says she called up members quite a lot, listening to their concerns and hearing about their very tough circumstances.

“There were so many times that I was calling up members and they were basically crying on the phone to me and saying ‘I don’t know how I’m going to make rent, I don’t know how I’m going to feed my children, what happens if the car suddenly goes or we need to buy shoes? There is just nothing left, there is no fat left to trim’,” Ellie said.

“And it’s really scary to be in that position.”

Ellie understood their predicament.

“Everybody is suffering. I’m in exactly the same position,” she said.

“My rent is over half my salary every month. I'm in my overdraft every month. It is only going to take one crisis and I will be homeless. That is not a situation anybody wants to be in, especially not when we work full time. Many of us work full time. It's crazy that we're in this position.”

'It is a real crisis': Foodbanks and low morale

“A lot of my colleagues are relying on food banks at the moment just to survive,” Ellie says.

One in 12 civil servants who responded to a PCS survey last year said they were using foodbanks. Meanwhile, 35% said the cost-of-living crisis was having an effect on their physical and/or mental health and 38% said they were applying for jobs outside the civil service.

Morale has so low and dissatisfaction over pay so strong in recent months that cabinet secretary Simon Case, wrote a memo to civil servants about government's annual staff poll, the People Survey, acknowledging anger over pay and falling scores in “all the main themes”.

Mark Serwotka, the union's general secretary, says the civil service is seeing "a real crisis, of low morale, of people who are struggling to make ends meet".

“Imagine you're going to work and you've got to make a decision on an asylum claim or Universal Credit and you have not been able to have breakfast that morning – or you want to be longer in the office because it's warmer than your house"

Visiting the picket line this morning to encourage members and praise their efforts, he explains: “Imagine you're going to work and you've got to make a decision on an asylum claim or whether somebody should get Universal Credit and you yourself have not been able to have breakfast that morning – or you yourself want to be longer in the office because it's warmer in the office than your house.

"That's the reality of what our members are telling the government and that I think is the reality of the civil service today.”

He says 47,000 staff in DWP and HMRC received an email last week telling them their pay would go up by 9% on the first of April in line with the upcoming minimum wage increase.

“47,000 civil servants on the minimum wage,” Serwotka repeats for emphasis.

“They were not minimum-wage jobs 10 years ago. That's the effect of the government's driving down of pay. Do you think it's right that people making asylum decisions and universal credit decisions are on the minimum wage? I think that’s a scandal.”

Civil servants should be ‘proud to do work people rely on’

PCS expects around 100,000 civil servants to strike today, which is around a fifth of the central government workforce.

“It takes a lot to go on strike and they should be proud because they're standing up for themselves and their family and their colleagues, but also for the services that we deliver,” says Serwotka, who worked in a benefit office in the South Wales Valleys after leaving school at 16.

“The civil service is consistently the most undervalued part of the public sector. If you think about it, we affect every single person from cradle to grave: from the first child benefit, to the state pension and the funeral grants and everything in between. So people should be proud that they're prepared to go on strike, but they should also be proud of the work that we know so many people rely on.”

He picks out a few examples of civil servants' work during Covid lockdowns: three million claims to Universal Credit; delivering the furlough scheme; keeping the justice system running; the Health and Safety Executive working to keep people safe in the workplace.

Today’s fight is not only about pay but also “decent services”, Serwotka says.

“We want fair pay, but we also need more civil servants, not less,” he says. And he takes the opportunity to slam the former government efficiency minister, who not only advocated for job cuts but recently inflamed tensions by responding to reports of civil strikes by saying: "if they are not in the office will anyone notice?"

Serwotka responds: “There are delays at the minute because there's not enough people, so we could do far less of having Jacob Rees-Mogg’s opinions and far more people recognising that to have proper services you need well trained, properly paid and enough public sector workers to deliver them.”

‘You don’t get anything if you don’t fight’: Ellie’s message to civil servants

Asked by CSW what her message is to her fellow civil servants, Ellie urged her colleagues to get involved in the industrial action.

“I know that this is an incredibly hard time right now and it is really not an easy decision to make to have to lose a day’s worth of pay, especially not when we are in the position that we are in,” she said.

“But we don’t get anything unless we stand together so I would urge other civil servants to join PCS union, to get involved in this dispute. We need you. I know that a lot of other civil servants are suffering behind the scenes, and that they also need representation and they need a voice and I realise that it is very, very hard to sacrifice a days’ pay to go on strike but you don’t get anything if you don’t fight.”

‘There is a misconception that we’re all very well paid’

Civil servants have been part of a very one-way and public fight in recent years, regularly finding themselves the subject of criticism in the media by ministers and MPs, including being accused of being woke, political, interfering and office-shy.

How does Ellie think the public views the civil strikes, given the way the sector has been discussed in public? She says there is a misconception about what officials do and how much they earn.

“I don’t think that we are not supported by the public, but I think it's often difficult with civil servants to know what we do because a lot of our work is behind the scenes rather than on the front lines,” she says.

“It is very easy to know what a nurse does because they save your life when you are in trouble. And I mean 100% solidarity with nurses and their dispute that they're going through, those guys are complete and utter heroes.

“But it is also true that we are key workers; you just don't see us on the front lines as much. So I think it's hard to know what we do and I think sometimes there might be maybe a little bit of a misconception that we're all very well paid and that just is absolutely not the truth.

“A lot of my colleagues are relying on foodbanks at the moment just to survive. And it's not all Whitehall; the civil service is right across the country, we have colleagues in Glasgow, Liverpool, you name the city, we've got people there. So I think it's important to get that message out.”

But she says she thinks “overall, the public are supportive of the strikes at the moment because we are all in the same boat and we are public servants, but we are also members of the public”

And the mood on the picket line? “We're happy, we’re jolly,” she says. “It's lovely to see other union members come out, we're all supporting each other. You can hear as the cars go past, they’re beeping us there, cheering us. This is a happy, jolly sort of place to be.”

A government spokesperson said: "We greatly value the work of civil servants, but the PCS union’s demands would cost an unaffordable £2.4bn at a time when our focus must be on bringing down inflation to ease the pressure on households across the country, protecting the vulnerable and rebuilding our economy.

“That is why public sector pay awards strike a careful balance between recognising the vital importance of public sector workers, while delivering value for taxpayers, not increasing the country’s debt further and being careful not to drive even higher prices in the future."

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