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Public service strikers are standing up for the real Britain

David Cameron and Nigel Farage want to change the subject, but austerity and privatisation are slashing earnings

After years of real pay cuts, public service workers are striking back. Up to a million public sector employees walked out in July in protest against continuous cuts in living standards. On Monday, hundreds of thousands of health service workers went on strike after the government refused them even a 1% pay award.

Midwives took action for the first time. On Wednesday, they were joined by low-paid workers from courts and job centres to airports and driving test centres – some of whose take-home pay has fallen by 20%, courtesy of year-on-year wage freezes, pay caps and rising pension contributions.

There’s bound to be more of this. For all the government’s talk of pay restraint saving jobs, hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs have been lost under the coalition. And however much coalition or Ukip politicians try to change the subject or shift the blame – from hailing recovery to blaming migrants – falling living standards and rising job insecurity is the reality for most people in David Cameron’s Britain.

British workers have had the longest and deepest fall in real earnings since the 1860s: an average 8% cut since 2007. Even as inflation has fallen to 1.2% – and the rate is double that for the low paid – pay is still lagging behind, as rising inequality in the UK has outstripped the other leading economies.

When you add in four years of sweeping cuts in benefits, the impact is severe. You can see it on the streets of a town like Blackpool, where each working-age resident will have lost £900 a year as a result by 2015. Ministers trumpet the drop in unemployment, but the swelling number of involuntary part-time, self-employed and zero hours workers tells another story.

Among those resisting this government-driven race to the bottom are 70 former NHS care workers for the disabled in Doncaster, who have taken a total of 85 days’ strike action after their jobs were outsourced, holidays cut and take-home pay slashed by up to 35%. Care UK, which won the contract by underbidding the NHS, blames Doncaster council and George Osborne’s cuts. John Nash, chairman of the company, which is owned by private equity firm Bridgepoint Capital, was made a peer after donating £247,000 to the Conservative party.

Bridgepoint’s European advisory panel is in turn chaired by Alan Milburn, former New Labour health secretary. Those care workers taking industrial action include former miners who went on strike 30 years ago to defend their jobs and communities against Margaret Thatcher’s government.

In that string of connections, the battle at Care UK encapsulates the world that Cameron and Osborne champion – as well as how we got where we are today. It also underlines the role of privatisation, not only in extracting wealth from public services, but in driving down pay and conditions for those at the sharp end of the labour market.

Privatisation undermines unions, the only organisations holding the line against that downward spiral – which is of course part of the Conservatives’ intention. They have weakened protection for outsourced workers and now plan to put most industrial action outside the law if re-elected.

The combination of privatisation and austerity is especially toxic – reflected in the Tories’ ever-closer union with their City, corporate and oligarch funders. Health and social care are its frontline. But the Tories are restless to go further. Having privatised a slice of Royal Mail far below market price, they plan to sell off our stake in Eurostar.

Put to one side the disastrous record of rail privatisation – its fragmentation, costs, low investment, high fares and exorbitant subsidy – or the miserable performance of one privatised corporation and contract after another, from energy and water to G4S and Serco. By selling off Britain’s share in Eurostar, which made £19m profit last year – unthinkable for their French counterparts – they are exchanging a strategic public asset with a long-term stream of income for a windfall that will barely dent the public debt.

It’s ideologically driven, of course, but also a form of the short-term fiscal irresponsibility Cameron and Osborne are supposed to oppose with every fibre of their being. Which, in practice, they don’t. In fact, the Eurostar sale is all of a piece with their announcement of one unfunded tax cut after another aimed at the well-off – scheduled for well before the deficit they made their lodestar is due to be paid off.

That at least has the advantage of opening up room for economic manoeuvre if Labour wanted to take it, and of eroding the fetishisation of the deficit, which is only a reflection of wider economic failure. Despite all the talk of recovery, the economy is simply not delivering for the majority – even if it’s still filling the pockets of the wealthy.

The credit-fuelled recovery is already showing signs of faltering and the budget and balance of payments deficits are both growing, while investment and productivity are stagnating. In fact, one of the key reasons Osborne has failed to hit his borrowing and deficit targets is because the new jobs are so low-paid they are squeezing tax receipts.

Turning round the living standards crisis demands a radical programme of public intervention and investment, not a slower programme of austerity. But this week’s strikes – and the TUC’s pay march at the weekend – offer a chance to shift the political focus from Westminster infighting and the arch privatiser Nigel Farage, to the crisis actually faced by the majority. It’s Care UK, health and public service workers who represent the real Britain.