According to the Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) most recent labour market overview, 843,000 working days were lost in December 2022 due to labour disputes alone.
This was the highest figure in more than a decade, since November 2011, and reflects a period in which numerous employers across both the public and private sectors, most notably in transport and the NHS, commence industrial action in disputes over pay.
Darren Morgan, director of economic statistics at the ONS, said: “The number of working days lost to strikes rose again sharply in December. Transport and communications remained the most heavily affected area, but this month there was also a large contribution from the health sector.”
Jonathan Boys, senior labour market economist for the CIPD, added: “Unemployment remains low so fewer people are available and looking for work. This imbalance is tilting power towards the employees, driving up pay and emboldening industrial action.”
However, Sharon Graham, general secretary for Unite, told Benefits Expert: “The latest record strike figures announced today are a warning to the government and employers. The wave of industrial action across the UK isn’t going away. In the face of the cost-of-living crisis workers now have no option but to fight for better wages.
“Meanwhile, the Prime Minster, Rishi Sunak looks more like the captain of the Titanic day by day – rearranging the deck chairs in his latest Cabinet reshuffle while he is posted missing on resolving strikes in the NHS.”
Ann Swain, global CEO of the Association of Professional Staffing Companies, said: “The labour disputes are evidently having an impact on public sector working hours, with over 800,000 working days lost in December alone due to the strikes.
“The discontent across sectors including healthcare and education is a significant concern for England’s public sector, with no resolution seemingly in sight. While we hope that the upcoming Spring Budget will reveal additional finances for these under-resourced sectors, a lot can still happen in four weeks, and we expect strikes to remain a hot topic for the foreseeable future.”
Despite continued unrest regarding compensation, pay growth rates in the last quarter of 2022 were found to be the strongest outside of the Covid-19 period. Growth in average total pay, including bonuses, was 5.9% and excluding bonuses was 6.7%.
Average regular pay growth in the private sector was 7.3% from October to December 2022, and in the public sector this was 4.2%. This was the largest private sector growth rate seen outside of the pandemic period.
However, when adjusted for inflation, pay growth both including and excluding bonuses in fact dropped by 3.1% and 2.5% respectively. This was not the most extreme drop on record, with the period of February to April 2009 seeing pay growth dip by 4.5%, but the ONS reported that this was among the largest falls since 2001 when records started.
Morgan said: “Although there is still a large gap between earnings growth in the public and private sectors, this narrowed slightly in the latest period. Overall, pay, though, continues to be outstripped by rising prices.”
Boys added: “Regular pay growth of 6.7% would normally be a welcome sight for workers but in the face of inflation running at 10.5% this increase won’t stop living standards from falling for most working people.
“When candidates are in short supply and even bumper pay rises can’t compete with inflation, employers need to consider the whole package they offer to staff. The big increases in inactivity which we saw over the pandemic, and which continue restrict labour supply, were driven by people for whom the current world of work does not work.
“With one in five people being economically inactive, employers need to think about these groups and design better-quality jobs. This includes flexibility in all its guises, not just home working. Flexibility is particularly valued by the over 50s, helping people get into and stay on at work.”