The disparities are apparent across corporate Britain, from Barclays in the City and Asda on the high street to Blue Circle and National Power in the industrial heartlands.
At United Biscuits, Sir Robert Clarke, chairman, earned pounds 751,000 last year, more than twice his salary in 1990. Over the same period the average salary of his staff rose by less than half as much, 44 per cent. Shareholders fared even worse - the value of their investment fell by 10 per cent.
According to the survey by Datastream, the City financial information group, 20 of the largest 100 companies paid their top executive more than twice as much last year as they did three years ago.
Ten of them paid salaries of more than pounds 1m, including the pounds 18.5m earned by Peter Wood, head of Royal Bank of Scotland's Direct Line insurance subsidiary. The heads of the top 50 companies all earned more than pounds 500,000 each, with only two of the top 100 companies earning less than pounds 250,000.
Lord Hanson earned pounds 1.36m last year, and Sir Geoffrey Mulcahy was paid pounds 1.31m for heading Woolworth and the Superdrug owner Kingfisher. The heads of the drugs giants Glaxo and SmithKline Beecham, and the merchant bank SG Warburg, all earned between pounds 1m and pounds 2m.
The survey will intensify calls for greater pay restraint in the boardroom, which recently received the backing of Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade.
Shareholders' returns, which are measured by the rise in value of their shares together with the income received from dividends, have fallen well behind many of the largest pay rises.
At Sainsbury's, the best-paid director has enjoyed a 115 per cent pay rise compared with a 19 per cent rise for the average worker. Shareholders fared little better, with a 23 per cent return.
The heads of the privatised utilities came out of the survey poorly. While shareholders have seen a healthy 116 per cent return from their investment in National Power over the past three years, the salary of the chief executive, John Baker, has almost tripled.
Some of the largest companies gave shareholders - if not their workforce - a better deal. At Marks and Spencer, Sir Richard Greenbury settled for a 33 per cent pay rise over three years to pounds 779,000. Although higher than the 18 per cent given to staff, it was less than the overall return for shareholders of more than 60 per cent.
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