Nearly 6 million British workers earned less in 1979 than the average wage earner did 100 years ago, in terms of purchasing power, charges one of the leading welfare agencies in the United Kingdom.
The Low Pay Unit, a social research organization that produces regular reports on living standards in the United Kingdom, has said that 5.9 million employees -- 34 percent of the total work force -- are existing below the poverty line set by the government's supplementary benefits commission. Many of these workers support families on less than the $:60 ($134) weekly earnings recognized by Whitehall (the government bureaucracy) as a minimum figure required for basic needs.
According the Low Pay Unit, another 500,000 work people escaped the official poverty classification by working overtime.
With the current level of inflation running at 18 percent and expected to reach 20 percent by mid-summer, in addition to the growth of the value-added tax on many household goods and services, large numbers of wage earners in the lower income bracket are facing a grim financial future. The Low Pay Unit, which frequently accused previous Labour governments of failing to give adequate help to needy families, has said the Thatcher administration's policies will reduce the living standards of the poorest workers.
Defending the Conservatives' record in relation to small wage earners, a Tory party official in Glasgow stated that the Heath government had provided these workers with social-security subsidies in the early 1970s. The Conservative spokesman expressed surprise that nearly 6 million workers are currently classified as living in poverty, but the official observed that many families get rent and municipal tax relief from local authorities.
Refusing to be drawn into trade-union charges that many workers are humiliated by having their wages supplemented by the state, the Tory organizer said the question of pay should always be directly settled by management and workers. The party official said that time nine months of Conservative government had resulted in 2 million lower-paid employees exempted from paying income tax and had produced a substantial increase in the old-age pension.
Furthermore, stated the Conservative spokesman, the promised cuts in public expenditure had enabled the Thatcher government to keep the value-added tax at 15 percent -- and food is exempt from VAT -- whereas a leading Labour politician had recently admitted that the continuation of the Callaghan administrations's high spending would have meant 20 percent more on many goods and services. Questioned about a recent 1 1/2 pence increase on a pint of mil -- a substantial outlay for a low-income family with four or five children -- the Conservative official attributed the rise solely to Common Market support for the farmers.
Despite Mrs. Thatcher's repeated statements that the Conservative government will take care of the needy in the current economic squeeze, the Low Pay Unit and many trade unionists charge that lower-paid workers are having to make the greatest sacrifices. The welfare agency has been particularly concerned that the government may be planning to abolish Whitehall-sponsored wage councils which protect employees mainly in shops, catering establishments, and clothing factories. (A Trades Union Congress organizing team has recently been trying to recruit large numbers of Asians who work in small London factories and have very low incomes.)
It is widely accepted that the 150 officers in the wages inspectorate of the Department of Employment cannot possibly supervise the 500,000 establishments that come under legally enforceable wage rates. The Low Pay Unit has maintained that one-third of the so-called "sweat shops" regularly break the law by ignoring standards laid down by wage councils.
Despite requests by the welfare agency to the Wilson-Callaghan government to increase the Employment Department supervision of the "sweated" industries, there appears to be no fundamental change in the checking system. Indeed, the Low Pay Unit has alleged that the Thatcher administration has been considering a reduction in wage inspectorate staff as part of its overall plan to cut down on civil service employees.
The government's recent decision to add another 400 officers to the 600 already investigating rising social-security frauds has deeply angered the Low Pay Unit, partly because the organization feels that Mrs. Thatcher is trying to concentrate public attention on those who cheat on state relief, thus diverting the nation's gaze from the plight of several million low-paid workers.
There is strong evidence of a substantial increase in welfare cheating. Yet many social workers fear that some infirm and elderly people will join the large numbers of needy folk who appear to have been frightened away from claiming justified benefits as a result of a sustained antifraud campaign in the media. Some Conservatives accept that the government is never overanxious to talk about the millions in unclaimed relief, and these Tories seem genuinely concerned about the overall effect of the Thatcher administration's anti-cheating campaign on sensitive potential claimants.
The Tory spokesman in Glasgow, after defending the government's economic policies for an hour, said that the future strength of hte United Kingdom depended on the Conservatives' belief that each family unit should try to stand on its own feet and not look to the government for help.