As a South African, one is used to industrial action, so it was strange to see the UK up in arms over a public- sector strike recently.
Some two-million public-sector workers, including teachers, healthcare professionals, university lecturers (including myself) and other civil servants, refused to work as government sought to cut pensions and force workers to work longer. The unions described the strike as the biggest in a generation. Government felt it was futile.
I do not wish to rehash the views of the unions and government, but rather highlight the split in opinion on the strike between public-sector and so-called ordinary private-sector workers such as retailers and workers in companies.
The argument from the private sector was simple: public-sector workers still have pensions, so why are they complaining about cuts and having to work slightly longer to get their, relatively speaking, generous payouts. Private-sector workers generally have no pensions, or their pensions were cut years ago. Currently, the mean average public-sector pension is about £7 000 a year, whereas in the private sector it is £5 000.
But what is mystifying about these arguments is that they somehow imply that what has happened to private-sector workers is right, or that if one sector of society is going to be screwed by big business and the pension companies, then everyone should. Two wrongs do not make a right.
The rich, of course, remain immune to all this. The annual pension of 346 directors from 102 of the UK’s top companies will be £200 000, compared with the average workplace pension of £8 100, a study found recently.
The current pension fight is also the thin edge of the wedge. A recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that, by 2080, the average person will have to work to 74 to get a pension. Further, figures suggest that the public sector may lose 490 000 jobs in the next few years. This will play itself out in the lives of ordinary people.
As the public sector shrinks, for example, waiting times in hospitals and teacher-to-pupil ratios will increase. Despite attempts to portray the public and private sectors as separate, they are also integrally linked. An enormous number of people in the private sector is dependent on the public sector for contracts.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the average family in the UK will lose £2 500 in annual household income, compared with three years ago.
So this is not about the public sector versus the private sector – this is about government choosing to support the very rich at the expense of ordinary people.
Bankers, who caused this crisis, continue to steal from taxpayers unashamedly. Directors’ pay rose by 40% last year. A total of £4.2-billion will be paid out in bonuses to bankers this year in the UK.
The Royal Bank of Scotland, now 84%-owned by taxpayers, is still intending next year to pay its top bankers £500-million in bonuses. Last year, the bank made a loss of £1.1-billion and paid out £950-million in bonuses. The top 100 bankers received over £1-million each.
Taxpayers are paying for these bonuses. So when nearly five-million people are told their pensions are going to be cut, including teachers, social workers, soldiers, firefighters and the police, it makes perfect sense they are angry, especially when they have been paying their contributions to pension schemes in good faith.
Now is the time to work together. But instead of the working public uniting to say enough is enough, different sectors of society are hurling abuse at each other. This is akin to having an argument on the deck of the Titanic about who is going to be affected the most when the iceberg hits, while the super-rich row off in the lifeboats.
This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 16 December 2011 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.