Gill Hale: Inequality will create lingering issues for us all

Unison regional secretary Gill Hale says we can't reform our economy if it means widening the gulf between the haves and have nots

AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis Supporters of Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece's Syriza left-wing main opposition party attend his pre-election speech at Omonia Square in Athens
Supporters of Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece's Syriza left-wing main opposition party attend his pre-election speech at Omonia Square in Athens

As I was driving to work recently I heard a statistic that really staggered me.

Oxfam reported that, by 2016, the top 1% will possess more than 50% of the world’s wealth.

To me, this is absolutely staggering. It started me thinking about the growing inequality in our society and the increasing divide between those that have and those that have not.

The Greek election results have shown that there is rising condemnation of the austerity measures. Grassroots opposition is permeating throughout Europe, including in Italy and Spain, with growing opposition to the punishment imposed by a remote elite on working people.

We have lived with an economic philosophy for over 30 years that wealth would “trickle down” to working people. Austerity has been sold to us as necessary to build a future for the next generation that would eventually lift living standards.

The reality has been that working people have watched their wages stagnate while business profits soar. Where are the quality jobs and higher living standards we were assured would result?

Inequality is growing and it is individuals locally and the trade union movement collectively which should be pushing the debate with politicians and economists to place inequality at the forefront of future discussions on economic policies.

Reforming our economy and productivity cannot ignore the social impact of inequality. Inclusivity must be at the heart of the agenda for economic and social strategy that creates jobs, with decent rates of pay, which raises living standards, and thereby shares economic growth within our communities. Reform can both drive productivity growth and fairly share its benefits.

AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis Leader of Syriza left-wing party Alexis Tsipras
Leader of Syriza left-wing party Alexis Tsipras

For far too many in our society their reality comprises loan sharks, zero hours contracts, food banks and grinding poverty.

Through no fault of their own, they are working multiple jobs on minimum wages and suffering in work poverty. They have few opportunities of improving their employment chances.

Dependent on in-work benefits, they are seeing themselves being demonised as scroungers by the media.

The world of work has changed significantly and many are fearful of their employment status.

When George Osborne lauds that new jobs are being created and unemployment is falling, the question has to be asked as to what type of jobs are they.

The latest annual report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has highlighted that insecure, low-paid jobs are leaving record numbers of working families in poverty, with two-thirds of people who found work in the past year taking jobs for less than the living wage. As George Bernard Shaw, said, “The greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty.”

The growing sense of insecurity is having a profound effect on individuals. In the UK last year, 50 million prescriptions were issued for antidepressants, and more young men died from suicide than any other cause. This is a sad reflection on the state of our society, and a tragedy for the individuals concerned.

Inequality is not a fringe issue, politicians and governments need to acknowledge and accept that they have to grasp this as a priority.

As Guardian columnist and author Owen Jones recently wrote: “it is essential that they recognise that nurses, builders, teachers, labourers, hairdressers, shop assistants and service sector workers are as much generators of growth as bankers, investors, businesses and multinational companies.”

Together we should be debating what kind of a society we want to live in. What are our values and how can these be linked to sustainable and equitable growth? Ethics, which appears to be absent from the politics of reform, should be at its centre helping to truly enable social mobility and economic growth in the 21st century.

As individuals I think we know when things just don’t seem right, and I think there is a necessity for us to ensure that the issue of inequality is tackled as a priority.

I also believe that we want to see social justice and a fair distribution of wealth, which allows for the building of a just and fairer society for us all. This is not an unreasonable demand. People deserve to live with dignity and earn a living wage.

It isn’t rocket science to realise that if this issue is not addressed then we will be creating a huge social problem that will not go away.

Gill Hale is regional secretary of Unison

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