Thousands of Northumberland’s lowest-paid workers could get a pay rise after a new union leader made securing a living wage her priority.
Beth Farhat, the new regional secretary at the Northern TUC, has said she intends to meet council chiefs to press home the issue of low pay.
Only one North East council, Newcastle, so far has a living wage policy which sees the lowest-salaried staff handed a wage above the nationally-agreed minimum.
Northumberland County Council last night indicated it would be prepared to hand thousands of its staff at the lower end of the scale a pay rise, but only if unions do not use the scheme as a way of hiking up other salaries.
The move would help out families who have faced more than two years of public sector pay caps.
Last year Newcastle introduced a living wage of £7.20 an hour, seeing more than 2,200 employees receive up to £1,100 extra a year after tax.
Raising wages above the £6.19 minimum wage added £1m on to the council’s costs.
Mrs Farhat, who last month took over from Kevin Rowan in the region’s top union job, enters the role at a time of growing frustration at pay freezes and below-inflation wages rises, particularly in the public sector.
She said: “We need more employers in the region paying a fair wage, a living wage. At the moment Newcastle is the only one, but we’re on a working group with South Tyneside and Gateshead are in discussion. There is nothing definite yet but movement.
“We are also inviting all the Labour local authority leaders to a meeting with the TUC to have that initial discussion about the benefits, the business case, the wider economic benefits. It’s definitely an area I want to prioritise.”
Northumberland County Council leader Grant Davey has told The Journal he is keen to see a living wage introduced, but that the cash-strapped authority had to be careful not to bust its pay budget for other employees. Pay is just one issue facing 33-year-old Mrs Farhat.
Another will be the role of the union and how it works with local and national Labour party figures.
Mrs Farhat said that while there were rightly strong links between the two, she was not afraid to say where the party had gone wrong.
She added: “I do think there are some policy areas the Labour party could be more public about policy alternatives, but I think leading up to the General Election we will see more of that.
“It’s a difficult area. They could have been more vocal about some issues that are happening, but I understand they are in a Catch 22 situation limiting how much they can criticise without just looking petty.
“The job though is to make clear where the Government is causing the most pain.”
Mrs Farhat said that until the next General Election, there were obvious difficulties facing the region and its attempt to seek influence with the majority Labour MPs in opposition.
“It’s not a burden as such, but yes, there’s a North-South divide here, all the money is in Westminster and not a lot is devolved to the regions, that’s something we have to deal with for now.”