From next year, low-paid employees who choose to go on strike will not receive working tax credits for the period they are not working, the government has announced.

Staff paid £13,000 or less per annum get the credits to top up their income – even if they are on strike, while other workers lose a day’s pay. However, the change will mean that there will be no income coming in at all for time they are not working.

Commentators have said the move will not bring in much money for the Treasury or make a massive difference to the workers themselves but it appears to have been made by the coalition to send a message to unions, one they have interpreted as being mean-spirited.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said: “Striking is a choice, and in future benefit claimants will have to pay the price for that choice, [because] under Universal Credit we no longer will.”

Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne, who famously left a departing note telling the coalition there was no money left, said: “Britain needs a plan for jobs and growth and a government which will take a sensible approach to industrial relations. Instead, David Cameron’s government, not content with creating panic at the pumps after mishandling the fuel dispute, are talking about starving people back to work.”

The TUC’s head of economics Nicola Smith told the BBC: “I think it’s important that the government… doesn’t move ahead with this mean-spirited change that means for a few families things will be even tougher than they have to be at what will already be a very difficult time.”

And Unite said: “This is gesture politics aimed at putting fear into vulnerable, low-paid workers to stop them from standing up for their rights against poor working conditions.”