Low paid workers vulnerable to continued cost of living crisis as only 30% of British firms plan above inflation pay rises this year

a female cafe worker using a coffee machine. She is wearing a red shirt and a black apron and is concentrating on frothing milk in a small jug. © Adobe images

More than 60% of senior business leaders believe British employers have a ‘substantial responsibility’ to help their employees with the cost of living but only 30% plan to award pay rises above inflation this year, a new survey reveals.

Data from a recent poll of more than 1,000 businesses, commissioned by the Work Foundation at Lancaster University, suggests pressures facing UK firms have eased slightly over the last 15 months, but this isn’t being translated into additional support for workers.

A new Work Foundation report, published today, suggests 38% of employers have introduced new support financial wellbeing measures since the start of 2023 such as pay rises, and which could include extending benefits packages, offering overtime or offering one-off cost of living payments. However, 34% of employers say they were unable to provide financial wellbeing support in 2023.

With interest rates at their highest level for 16-years and the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicting that real wages will not return to 2008 levels until 2026, the Work Foundation warns that many low-paid workers continue to struggle to make ends meet with sustained higher prices and rising housing costs.

The think-tank is calling on organisations to invest in targeted financial wellbeing measures for their most vulnerable staff members – including above inflation pay rises.

Ben Harrison, Director of the Work Foundation at Lancaster University, said: “Inflation may be coming down but it’s wrong to think the cost-of-living crisis is over – the truth is it has evolved.

“Interest rates are at a 16-year high, inflation is still above target and there are groups of people who have been suffering more than most with the acute effects of financial hardship. A third of businesses were unable to any support their staff in 2023, and that will hit the lowest paid workers most.

“In a world where wages are worth less, it is vital that employers continue to support workers with long-term financial wellbeing support and focus on providing pay rises which match or exceed inflation wherever possible.”

The Work Foundation and the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business at Lancaster University commissioned YouGov to poll 1,052 senior business leaders in March 2024. Respondents were asked about their experiences of worker shortages, the cost of living and their approaches to financial wellbeing. This follows a YouGov survey of 1,009 senior business leaders that was completed in December 2022.

Responses suggest rising costs and worker shortages are still impacting businesses, but pressure on firms is easing

Over a third of senior business leaders (35%) said their production costs have increased, compared to 41% in December 2022. Nearly half of employers (46%) reported no issues with recruiting or retaining staff, up by 16% on the year.

Larger organisations (250+ employees) are much more likely to face staffing issues than SMEs – 47% report they struggle to recruit (vs 35%) and 38% are struggling to retain workers (vs 16%).

Despite these slight improvements, over a third of senior business leaders (36%) state their organisations are finding it harder to implement pay rises above inflation since the start of the cost of living crisis. The number of businesses that say they have considered redundancies this year (18%) remains roughly the same as in 2022.

“Our data suggests there continues to be a gap between what senior leaders think and feel, and the actions they take,” Harrison continues. “Two thirds of employers still agree they have a major responsibility to support their staff through the cost of living crisis, yet only 38% have introduced new financial wellbeing support over the last year.

“As Government support is also due to recede, the pressure on low paid workers could increase significantly this year.”

Findings from the poll also reveal:

  • Only three in ten (30%) of employers surveyed say they have committed to pay rises above inflation rate (inflation was 4% at the time of survey)
  • The most popular forms of support for workers planned in 2024 included facilitating choice and flexibility (17%), offering overtime (15%) and extending benefits package (15%)
  • In 2022, 17.7% of employers were offering one-off bonuses and it was the second most popular form of cost of living support. However, this has now dropped to 13%.

Commenting on the report, Professor Jan Bebbington, Director of the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business at Lancaster University, said: “These findings raise concerns in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals – which should be acting as a north star for businesses.

“The Goals highlight the importance of poverty reduction, improving health and wellbeing and increasing access to an income that can support people’s needs. Responsible businesses are - and more should be - proactively seeking opportunities to support the financial wellbeing of their workforce now and into the future.”

The Work Foundation at Lancaster University recommends:

  1. The UK Government should extend the Household Support Fund to at least April 2026 when the OBR forecasts real household disposable income per person to recover to its pre-pandemic peak.
  2. Senior leaders should prioritise at or above inflation pay increases, especially for lower earners, and review employment contracts to prioritise job security.
  3. Senior leaders should take an engagement first approach and work with employees and trade unions to build a financial wellbeing strategy to deliver long-term inflation-proof wages and wider support for the workforce.

You can read more in the full report – Shifting Priorities? Employer responsibility in the year of the cost of living crisis – available on the Work Foundation website, here: https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/work-foundation/publications/shifting-priorities

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