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Low Pay Spotlight: Public Sector

Over 1million public sector workers aren't earning the real Living Wage. 

New research out today shines a spotlight on the number of people in the public sector who are struggling to keep their heads above water.

Spotlight on low pay in the public sector:

  • Over 1 million public sector workers are struggling to keep their heads above water, earning less than the real Living Wage 
  • New data calculated by the Smith Institute for the Living Wage Foundation reveals that 1.2 million public sector workers earn below the real Living Wage
  • Not just a moral argument: from the money spent uplifting these employees, 35p in every £1 would go back to the Treasury in increased tax receipts
  • As well as broad cross-party support from voters, polling conducted by Survation found that 64.3% of people agree that workers employed on public money through government contracts should be paid the real Living Wage 
  • 75% of Living Wage employers have seen an increase in staff motivation and retention

20% of all low paid workers in the UK are employed by the public sector

New data out today shows there are over 1 million public sector workers, paid by the public purse, trapped in in-work poverty earning below the real Living Wage.  The real Living Wage rate, which is independently calculated based on the real cost of living, is currently £9 across the UK and £10.55 in London.

Paying the real Living Wage isn’t just the right thing to do but also makes financial sense. The data shows that if these public institutions uplifted all low paid workers to the real Living Wage, 35p in every £1 would be returned to the Treasury in the form of increased tax receipts.

New survey results show a large majority of the public support paying a wage that meets the real cost of living. A poll by Survation found that 64.3% of the public agree that all public sector workers should be uplifted to the real Living Wage, rather than just the government minimum. There was broad support amongst both Conservative and Labour voters.

Kevin Hollinrake, Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, Chair of the APPG on Poverty, said:

It would be an inspirational move and a welcome signal to others for the public sector to lead the way in paying the Living Wage, as defined by the Living Wage Foundation. It is unsustainable to continue to subsidise employers who pay lower wages through income support measures such as Tax Credits. The payment of a wage that people can live decently on is absolutely the right way forward.”

An anonymous public sector cleaner who earns below the real Living Wage said:

“Life below the real Living Wage means every month is a struggle to survive. I can’t afford the basics like the internet or a smart phone. Earning the real Living Wage would make a huge difference to my life.”

Kristiyan, a cleaner at a top University who is now paid the real Living Wage said:

“Before earning the real Living Wage I used to sometimes clock in over 50 hours a week at work. Now I can afford to step back and enjoy more quality social time. Due to the Living Wage I can afford to go out every once in a while, to the restaurant or the cinema, for example, without guilt and anxiety about being tipped over the edge. In the process enjoying some quality time with people I care about. The back pay of the living wage also helped me put a deposit down to move out of the sub-standard housing I was living in at the time.”

Lola McEvoy, from the Living Wage Foundation, said

“It’s simply wrong that our teaching assistants, cleaners, carers and catering staff – paid on public money - are struggling to keep their heads above water on wages that don’t meet basic living costs. The public support this, politicians support this, the Treasury would benefit from this – there’s no reason not to do it. It’s time for our public institutions to lead by example and join nearly 5,000 employers who pay the real Living Wage.”

There are around 6 million UK jobs that pay below the real Living Wage and more than 20% of those work in the public sector. According to earlier research conducted by Survation, over a third of working parents on low incomes have regularly skipped meals due to a lack of money, and almost half have fallen behind on household bills. Paying the real Living Wage helps free workers from the daily binds of rising bills and insecure work and the Living Wage Foundation calls for public institutions to do the right thing and give struggling workers the lifeline they need. [1] 

There are almost 5,000 businesses across the UK who already voluntarily pay their staff the real Living Wage, including IKEA, Everton Football Club, Google, Majestic Wines, Nestle and Unilever. There are some public sector organisations that do go further and pay the real Living Wage - currently 104 Local Authorities and Councils (including Islington Council, Bristol Council, Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and London Combined Authorities) 33 Universities (including Salford University, Liverpool St John’s University, Queen Mary’s University and King’s College London).

The chart below sets out the number of public sector workers in each area who currently earn below the real Living Wage.

Breakdown of low paid workers in the public sector


Number of public sector workers earning below the Living Wage 

Number of outsourced public sector workers earning below the Living Wage 

Total including outsourced workers

Central government and Civil Service




Local Government and Council








Health Authority and NHS









725, 000



725,000 equates to 13% of all those directly employed by the public sector.                                                 



28th February 2019
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