Low pay – the Devon way?

A quick glance at the property sections of local newspapers will reveal fairly modest flats, houses and beach huts being touted for ridiculous sums of money – £200,000 here, a million quid there. This might suggest there is a lot of money in Devon – and there is, in the hands of the mainly middle and upper class types who treat Devon as a holiday break or retirement area. The rest of us who are live and work here all the year round make do with rather more modest wages that certainly pale in comparison to the cost of housing we have to endure.

The reasons for the cost of housing in this part of the world are many and varied. The selling off of social housing, the re-emergence of landlords colluding with rent increases, profiteering private house builders, not enough houses being built and the role of second home owners, are some of the most significant. They are all linked in one way or another, united by their common heritage of Thatcherism, starting with Thatcher, then Blair and now Brown, with a hostility to and the attendant attacks on the public sector and welfare state putting into effect the neo-liberal economic policies that have led to the ever-widening and grotesque gaps between the poor and super-rich.

Average wages

But it’s pay that concerns this article, and the high cost of housing only exacerbates the problem. So what are the figures? Well, according to Office for National Statistics, the national average (median) wage is £23,580 per year. The average (median) yearly wage for Devon (excluding Plymouth and Torbay) is £20,518. For Plymouth it is £22,560, and for Torbay it is £19,410. For the areas covered by the district councils for Mid Devon, North Devon and Torridge the average annual wages are £18,846, £18,848 and £16,574 respectively. Even Exeter, with a large hospital, a university and local government offices doesn’t beat the national average wage. No district in Devon does. However, that is only part of the picture.

Part-time work

The figures I have just given you are for full-time work. A significantly higher proportion of jobs in Devon are part-time compared to the UK as a whole (29% versus 25%). The average annual wage for part-time workers in Devon is £7,301. Nationally, the average is £7,501 per year. In North Devon, where 36% of all jobs are part-time, the average annual wage is £6,437. The figures for Torbay and Plymouth are £7,282 and £7,355 per year respectively. This is a problem in Plymouth where 28% of jobs are part-time. It’s an even bigger problem in Torbay where 35% of jobs are part-time.

Hourly pay

The same pattern emerges for hourly pay. The national average hourly rate for full-time jobs is £11.12. It is £9.28 for Devon (excluding Plymouth and Torbay). But as we have seen, part-time work is more significant in Devon than elsewhere. Do the figures get better here? Well, yes actually, but not much. Compared to a national average hourly wage for part-time work of £6.99 per hour, Devon comes in with £6.92, Plymouth £6.72 and Torbay £6.24. Significantly, the three areas with the highest percentages of part-time work – North Devon, Torbay and Torridge – have the three lowest hourly rates for part-time work. North Devon’s average is £6.21 per hour (I never even saw anything near that, nor did and do many people I know), Torridge’s comes in at £5.54 per hour (and £7.24 per hour for full-time, again the lowest out of Devon, Plymouth and Torbay).

Types of jobs in North Devon

These data give us one possible explanation for low pay on the whole – more part-time work. This also suggests greater temporary, agency, seasonal and casual work. In North Devon, for example, according to 2001 data, 10% of employed people work in hotels or restaurants. The figure for England as a whole is 5%.

Why are these jobs lower paid

Part of the reason lies in the nature of these jobs. Working in shops and hotels or holiday parks is likely to be temporary and/or seasonal. The jobs are largely unskilled and require no qualifications, and so the employer can get away with paying a pittance, as there will be plenty who will be prepared to take the wage. Temporary or insecure work also discourages workers from organising in trade unions to fight for better pay and conditions at work. Trade union membership is considerably lower for temporary jobs compared to permanent jobs.

The benefits of trade union membership

According to the Trades Union Congress (TUC):

“In private companies the union “mark-up” is 6p in the pound for manual workers and 4p in the pound for white collar staff.”
“The average union member gets more paid holiday than the average non-member. Two out of three union members get twenty-five days or more paid leave a year. Only one in three non-members enjoy this much holiday.”
“Non-union members are twice as likely to be seriously injured at work.”

According to the ‘Oxford and Cambridge Careers Handbook’, which I came across when researching this article, “almost every improvement in workplace conditions – for example, equal pay laws, stronger health and safety legislation and statutory redundancy pay came about following pressure from trade unions.” You only need to look at countries such as those in south-east Asia without free trade unions to see what effect the lack of trade unions has.

Below is yet another table which underlines the points I’ve just made about union members being paid more, though the declining ‘trade union wage premium’ (how much better paid unionised jobs are compared to non-unionised jobs) is interesting and is probably due to declining trade union membership and a decline in collective bargaining, which helps to secure higher wages:

Levels of trade union membership

In the UK as a whole, in December 2006 (the latest figures available), 28% of all employees were members of trade unions. In the south west as a whole, 25% of all employees were members of trade unions. Nationally, trade union membership in hotels and restaurants is 6%, and in agriculture, hunting and fishing is 9%. The graph below outlines the levels of unionisation in different types of employment quite clearly:

So, the low levels of unionisation in the workplaces more commonplace in Devon is a fairly clear cause of the low levels of pay and conditions. Longer hours worked by workers in Devon is another indication of the low levels of union organisation. For example, 26% of male workers and 9% of female workers work over 49 hours a week in Devon, compared to 24% of male workers and 7% of female workers in England as a whole.

Low wages, who benefits?

Generally speaking, employers will try to keep the wages of their employees as low as possible. Bigger profits can be made two ways – decreasing the pay of workers and making the workers work more productively (either by changing work practices, investing in new technology, making them work more for the same amount of pay or a combination of these). In the public sector, employers try to keep wages down in order to satisfy budgetary constraints placed upon them by Government. Occasionally in response to shortages in certain key jobs or Government ministers messing up (the GPs’ contract comes to mind) public sector employers will willingly increase wages but these cases are the exception rather than the rule, as the current ‘pay restraint’ being forced on postal workers, nurses, civil servants, soldiers, firefighters, police officers and teachers by Brown and Darling shows. In a strange turn of events, this pay restraint doesn’t apply to MPs, Government ministers, chief executives and the heads of privatised public services such Allan Leighton and Adam Crozier of the Royal Mail.

Lower rates of union membership in Devon – why and what effect does it have?

We have seen that trade union membership, by virtue of collective bargaining and industrial struggle, results in better pay. And Devon does not have good pay, or high trade union membership. Why does Devon not have very high trade union membership? Part of the reason is the temporary and unskilled nature of many jobs, part is the size of the workplaces that are inherent in certain jobs.

There is a higher proportion of smaller workplaces in North Devon compared to England as a whole, and a lower proportion of the larger workplaces in North Devon compared to England as a whole. What difference does this make to pay? As you can see from the graph below, which pits the average yearly wages against the percentage of workplaces that have at least 200 workers in the UK as a whole, the south west as a whole and each individual local authority area, there is a positive relationship between having more larger workplaces and the average wage in the area. In other words, the higher the percentage of large workplaces in an area, the higher the wages are.

The relationship is not particularly strong, but there is a relationship all the same. Of course, it may just be that skilled workers (which are higher paid) happen to work in bigger workplaces – car plants, hospitals and universities for instance. But then there are the counterexamples of packaging plants, call centres and light industry involving basic assembly as unskilled jobs taking place in large workplaces and car repair, butchery and catering (chefs) as skilled jobs taking place in small workplaces. It may well be that it is a combination of level of skill and size of workplace influences trade union membership.

Three clear factors that influence whether a worker is likely to be in a trade union or not. Women under 24, working part-time in a small private sector workplace are not likely to be in a trade union (particularly if neither of her parents were in trade unions either, a factor that apparently is significant regardless of the politics of the parents or their offspring). The data for the south west may even overestimate trade union membership levels – the data is for the fourth quarter of 2006, so doesn’t even include seasonal work, which is far more likely to be non-unionised, due to its temporary nature and concentration in sectors of work such as hotels and restaurants and cafes which have appallingly low levels of unionisation.

Immigrants don’t lower wages, employers do

Another factor that many people believe will increasingly work to reduce wages in Devon and the rest of the country is the immigration of workers from Eastern Europe, some who are prepared to work more than British-born workers for less pay. Allied to this is the fact that more competition for jobs will enable employers to reduce wages and worsen conditions as well as making the jobs less secure due to the ready supply of potential replacements. These fears are grounded in experience to some extent but many of the recent immigrants are working in jobs where there are serious shortages such as electricians and plumbers, and the largest group – the Poles – are according to some research more minded to join trade unions and take part in militant action to defend pay and conditions than British-born workers) are grounded in some reality and experience. For decades Devon has suffered from low pay and yet has seen only a small influx of foreign workers during that time, tells us that there isn’t an inevitable link between the two. Only unscrupulous politicians and troublemakers like the BNP will spread lies like this for their own ends. Likewise, they cynically use powerless immigrants as scapegoats for housing shortages, high school class sizes and NHS bed shortages – but these things are a result of deliberate government policies, to undermine public services, introduce privatisation and line the pockets of their big business friends

Concrete steps need (and are being) to be taken to unite British and non-British workers to fight together against the bosses for better pay and conditions. This, combined with the founding of a new left party, which the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party and initiatives such as the electoral challenges planned in London and Liverpool by the RMT (transport workers) and FBU (firefighters) unions respectively, as well as the rise of local parties such as the Peoples’ Voice in Blaenau Gwent and anti-cuts campaigns, will help to cut across the support for the far-right BNP and destroy that organisation. The founding of a new party based on socialists, campaigners and rank-and-file trade unionists has to be linked to an upsurge in union membership and action.

Joining a union

Desperate to stem decreasing membership numbers, the instinct of right wing trade union leaders has been to reduce union subs and merge with other unions to form so-called ‘super-unions’. While these are not necessarily bad measures, they do tend to ignore the reasons why workers join and leave unions.

All over the country workers join unions that are active in defending and advancing their interests. Trade unions who fight for their members tend to increase their membership much more. The Rail and Maritime Transport Union has increased its membership since the election of its socialist General Secretary Bob Crow, because it has democratic structures allowing members a greater say in the running of the union and its members are prepared to take action to defend their working conditions and pensions etc. Four unions that have been involved in struggles of differing magnitudes over the past few years are the FBU, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), the Prison Officers Association (POA) and RMT unions. They all have left wing general secretaries and leaderships. They also have democratic structures and autonomy given to local branches and their members.

As we saw with the facts and figures earlier in this article, it is in the interests of all low paid workers to join a union. The evidence suggests that wages, terms and conditions are likely to improve as a result – even more so when we all stick together and refuse to be bullied or browbeaten by our employers or their mangers and foremen.

If you would like more information or advice about joining a union contact us by emailing socialistpartydevon@gmail.com.

This article was written by JL, a member of the Socialist Party in North Devon


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