Earnings in private sector jobs fell by 7.7 per cent to £463.50 a week in the 12 months to February, while rising in the public sector by 3.2 per cent to £442.90.

Numbers which National Statistics describes as “experimental”, although it has been compiling them for eight years, showed that average earnings across the economy fell by 5.8 per cent over the year to February to £459.10.

This was the sharpest fall since this statistical series began in 2001 and represented a sharp turn for the worse after a year-on-year decline of 1.9 per cent in January.

“Many private sector companies have been implementing wage freezes to help them ride out the recession and ensure they can keep on as many staff as possible,” said Neil Carberry, head of employment policy at the CBI.

“Given inflation is now in negative territory, public sector bodies, which have been more insulated from the recession to date, need to start showing real restraint on pay.”

A spokesman for NS pointed out that these numbers are the weekly equivalent of all wages and salaries – not confined to the minority still paid weekly.

The abrupt fall in February, therefore, probably reflected much lower bonuses this year for people working in financial services.

David Yeandle, head of employment policy at the EEF, agreed.

He rejected the suggestion that the recession might be taking a heavier toll of high-paid jobs.

In manufacturing, he added, average earnings have come down only very slightly, to £499.80 a week this February from £502 in February last year.

“That was due to a mix of low pay increases and the introduction of short-time working,” Mr Yeandle said.

Bonuses always loomed large in January, February and March, ahead of the end of the financial year. The fall had been very marked this year.

“Bonuses in February 2002 came to £97 a week in the private sector, and only £49.80 in February, 2009.”

The EEF is due to publish its monthly review of manufacturing pay deals this morning. They are expected to show a growing number of pay freezes and a further slowdown in the average rate of increase – but not cuts.