UK strike levels soar as public sector workers face worst pay squeeze

Wage growth continues to lag behind rising inflation as unemployment rate rises slightly

The number of working days lost to strikes in the UK has risen to the highest in more than a decade as pay growth in the public sector falls behind the private sector at the sharpest rate on record.

The Office for National Statistics said more than half a million days were lost to industrial disputes in August and September as annual wage growth fails to keep pace with the soaring cost of living.

In the final snapshot of the jobs market before the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, delivers his autumn statement on Thursday, the figures suggested public sector workers were bearing the brunt of the cost of living emergency thanks to much weaker pay growth than the economy at large.

The annual rate of pay growth, excluding bonuses, in the private sector rose to 6.6% in the three months to September, compared with 2.2% for the public sector. Excluding the Covid pandemic, when economic data was distorted by furlough and changes in the workforce, the ONS said this was the biggest difference it had experienced.


Responding to the figures, Hunt said he appreciated that “people’s hard-earned money isn’t going as far as it should.”

He added: “Putin’s illegal war has driven up inflation – a hidden and insidious tax that is eating into paychecks and savings.

“Tackling inflation is my absolute priority and that guides the difficult decisions on tax and spending we will make on Thursday. Restoring stability and getting debt falling is our only option to reduce inflation and limit interest rate rises.”

The figures come amid rising tensions between the government and public sector unions, as nurses, teachers and other workers prepare to strike over sub-inflationary pay offers. Rishi Sunak and Hunt have criticised nurses pushing for above-inflation pay deals, saying they are not affordable.

Nurses in England and Wales have been offered an average increase of 4.75% next year but are asking for an above-inflation pay deal, arguing they have suffered from years of wage offers that come in significantly below the rising cost of living.

The health secretary, Steve Barclay, rejected nurses’ requests for an average pay rise of 5% above the retail prices index, which is running at 12.6%, as “neither reasonable nor affordable”.

The dispute comes as wage growth across the economy fails to keep pace with the highest rates of inflation since the early 1980s, as soaring energy prices and rising cost of a weekly shop put intense pressure on households.

Darren Morgan, the director of labour and economic statistics at the ONS, said the increase in working days lost to strikes was primarily driven by the transport and communication sectors. “With real earnings continuing to fall, it’s not surprising that employers we survey are telling us most disputes are about pay,” he added.

The ONS said that in real terms (adjusted for inflation) over the year, pay including bonuses fell by 2.6% and regular pay fell by 2.7%, among the largest falls in growth since comparable records began in 2001.

During the latest three-month period, the ONS said an increase in economic inactivity was driven by those who are long-term sick, who increased to a record high of 2.5 million.

The unemployment rate rose slightly in the three months to September to 3.6%, up slightly from 3.5% in the three months to August, although still remains at among the lowest levels since the 1970s. It comes amid a sharp rise in economic inactivity – when working age adults are neither in a job nor looking for one – driven by rising levels of ill health and older workers leaving the jobs market.


The chancellor said unemployment near record lows was “testament to the resilience of the British economy even in the face of severe global challenges”, but added that he recognised that people were coming under pressure from the rising cost of living.


Richard Partington Economics correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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