The wages of some community and youth workers have barely risen in the past 20 years.
Durham university lecturer Jean Spence has seen correspondence between Sunderland city council and staff which shows that part-timers are little better off than in 1985.
"Then, they were paid pound;16.58 for a two- to three-hour session - usually two and half," she said. "Part-time qualified workers now get pound;6.84 per hour. Some are paid more if they've been there longer. But if you take a new session, you're paid pound;6.84 hourly."
Ms Spence, a lecturer in the university's department of community and youth work, is on the management committee of the city's Southwick neighbourhood youth project.
"It's shocking," she said. "It wasn't a brilliant wage in 1985 - it's indicative of what's happened to youth and community work.
"I think the only reason people accept it is that they're committed to young people. There's a good case for taking some sort of action.
"A great job is being done by a lot of youth workers, but with this sort of wage there's bound to be a recruitment crisis."
At a recent rally organised by the Community and Youth Workers Union, general secretary Doug Nicholls said that across the country staff frequently earn less per hour than their charges.
"They're doing twice as much work as they used to - with twice the demands," he said.
"No one came into it for the money. But no one came in it to be exploited either."
A spokesman for Sunderland city council said: "We have no way of checking 1985 levels. We pay by the hour - and the average length of a session is 2.5 hours."
The spokesman said rates rose from pound;6.03 in 1998-99 to pound;6.90 in 2002-03, with a supplementary rise in March 2003.
He added: "Other rates paid, depending on level of qualification, range from a trainee at pound;6.38 to pound;12.72 for a senior with national qualification. "Sunderland employs some part-time qualified youth workers who had contracts in the early 1990s and were paid pound;7.57 per hour.
"That was frozen, and they've remained on that until new rates catch up.
But this doesn't apply to new work - someone could be on more than one rate."