County Council staff announce further strikes in pay dispute with Serco

Staff in the West Sussex County Council Contact Centre are escalating their strike action in their pay dispute with Serco plc.

UNISON members took strike action on Tuesday 2nd April after long-standing pay negotiations between Serco plc failed to result in anything more than an offer of a one-off (non-consolidated) £65 ‘bonus bond’.

The turnout for the strike ballot was 78.4 per cent and the majority in favour of action was 90 per cent.

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No improved offer has yet been made by Serco plc and they have announced two further strike dates on Monday April 15 and Friday April 19.

The West Sussex County Council Contact Centre is the first point of contact for residents and businesses wanting to get in touch with the County Council. It deals with thousands of contacts from the public each year, ranging from the reporting of potholes to enquiries over the allocation of school places.

Serco’s operating profit during 2012 was £287.6million, up eight per cent on 2011. The company reported to the Stock Market on 5th March 2013 a ‘record level of contract wins and excellent operational performance’, ‘an exceptionally strong conversion rate of profits’ and a 20 per cent increase on dividends paid to investors.

Dave Johnson, UNISON National Secretary for Business, Community and Environment, said “The cost of living is soaring in every respect and our members’ pay has not kept up. The offer of £65 does not even cover the cost of a loaf of supermarket bread each week of the year. Our members are worth more than this and they deserve not to have to scrape by from month to month worrying about how they will make ends meet.”

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Sarah McGreal, UNISON Regional Officer for its Sussex Team, said “Our members do not want to have to escalate their action to two further strike days.

“But it is completely unacceptable for a multi-million pound profit-making company like Serco to seek to maximise those profits at the expense of its staff in West Sussex. They deserve a fair pay rise – not to be offered a derisory £65.”

As a result of rising prices and below-inflation or non-existent pay awards public service workers are facing a living standards crisis, with many being dragged into financial hardship and poverty. The full impact of rising prices, particularly on the lowest paid staff, are often under-estimated. The Institute for Fiscal Studies published a report in 2011 which found that because low income households had to spend a higher proportion of their income on basic essentials it meant, on average, they had higher inflation rates than higher–income households. This means in reality low paid staff like the West Sussex Serco workers have taken a bigger cut in their real terms pay then either the CPI or RPI measure of inflation would imply.

The hike in utility bills in 2012, with gas prices up by 10.6 per cent and electricity by 5.7 per cent, has further eroded the personal finances of Serco staff. A recent UNISON survey of its members found that 73 per cent had been forced to reduce their spending on food, with one in four describing their financial situation as ‘struggling to survive’ or ‘difficult’. A situation set to get much worse as the government’s changes and cuts to ‘in-work’ benefits start to bite in 2013.