British workers furious at radical pension reforms

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Public sector workers set to stage the biggest strike in Britain for decades on Wednesday argue the government is trying to make the low-paid carry the can for a crisis not of their making.

Unions expect more than two million are expected to walk out, leaving schools shut, hospitals understaffed, local authorities paralysed and international travellers to London's Heathrow airport facing chaos.

Workers have reacted with fury to the proposals unveiled by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, arguing the rights of the most vulnerable in society are being eroded to pay for its deficit reduction strategy.

"The coalition government is trying to rob more from the working class to bail out people who should be paying," said Martin Foster, an official for the GMB union representing council workers in Bedfordshire, eastern England.

The proposals involve bringing the retirement age for public sector workers into line with the state pension, meaning most employees will have to work until the age of 66.

The government is also asking that workers contribute more towards their pensions, starting from April next year.

And from 2015, the finance ministry wants pensions to be linked to average earnings over a worker's entire career, instead of the salary at the end of their career.

It would be a dramatic benefits cut in a public sector criticised for handing out "gold-plated" pensions, but whose workers argue the generous schemes are a quid pro quo for earning less than in the private sector.

The government is however determined to stick to the plan as it battles to reduce a record deficit by the end of this parliamentary term, in 2015, and to reduce outgoings amid the eurozone crisis escalating on its doorstep.

But they will have a fight on their hands to get them past enraged unions.

Julie Whitehouse, a receptionist at Wolverhampton Hospital in the state-run National Health Service, insisted her pension was far from "gold-plated" and in fact worse than one she received working in the private sector.

"I think it is completely horrendous," said the 47-year-old, adding she would have to work longer to receive the same benefits under the government's plans.

"I was planning to retire at 60 but I was planning to go part time around 55," she said.

"I planned for most of my working life but that is going to be chucked out because of what the government is doing."

She said she felt the government was unfairly targeting state employees in its bid to slash its debts: "They should not throw it on the public sector pensions, they should throw it somewhere else."

"What isn't broken, don't fix it. Leave us alone and increase everyone's taxes," she urged ministers.

© 2011 AFP

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