Features | The Living Wage: it’s only fair

Features | The Living Wage: it’s only fair

The University relies on its cleaners and other ancillary workers, but often they are employed by external companies without the same rights as university staff. LS looks at the latest developments on campus.

 

Crawling into the seminar room at 10am, possessions trailing behind and brain still suffering from over exposure to high levels of Fruity, few of us probably give a thought as to why or how the University is always clean and ready for ‘learning’ every morning. The answer lies with the legions of non-academic staff who every day scrub, tend, rake, mow, mop, hoover and sweep the uninhabitable wasteland of Meal Deal sandwich wrappers and vodka scented Evian bottles that we leave lying around the place. They make sure the whole show stays on the road, which is no mean feat.

 

But while these staff may work at the University of Leeds, they do not work for the University of Leeds. Their pay slips say things like “Taskmaster Ltd” “Oltec Group” “Cofely” and “Regent Office Care”. That is to say, like most large organisations, the University outsources many of its on site services to external companies. The staff employed by these companies do their jobs on  campus, they do tasks as requested by the University and the money to employ them ultimately comes from the University accounts. And if the job’s not done properly, no doubt the University administration will have a few choice words for the contractors.

 

In other words, it would be hard to find a difference between these outsourced staff and the University’s own staff. But there is one. Whereas our University takes care, commendably, to ensure that its own staff are paid at least the Living Wage, contracted staff get no such protection. In fact, the University seems to have an unfortunate disinterest in finding out anything at all about how much they are paid.

 

After repeated Freedom of Information requests, the HR department could say only that: “The University does not hold data on the rates of pay of individuals employed by outside contractors”. The only conditions contractors must adhere to are the “legal minimum wage requirements”. The legal minimum wage is £6.31 per hour. By way of comparison, last year the highest paid person at the university received £318,083.92, which works out at £153 per hour.

 

The concept of the Living Wage has been around for some time, but only recently has it come to the fore in public debate. This may be because the recession has forced more than one redundant middle class professional to confront the hellish limbo of employment agencies that never call back, zero hour contracts and Sisyphean job application forms that await many of our generation when we’re violently propelled off the end of the educational conveyor belt.

 

Its driving theme is that workers, producers of labour, are more than abstract units on a spreadsheet. They are real people, with real lives and a requirement for real things like rent, clothing and food. Consequently, the wages they earn at work should be high enough to afford enough of these things for a decent standard of living. ‘Decent’ in this case means doing at least a bit better than barely breaking even after the food shop and heating bills. To do so would allow people autonomy, control over their own lives and ultimately, dignity.

 

While not simple, it is possible to calculate a wage that takes the cost of living account in a fair and accurate way. That task is done every year by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University. They examine the cost for a ‘basket’ of the common goods and services that are essential for life in the UK, including things like housing and transport, and calculate the hourly wage somebody would need to earn to afford these. This year, that equates to £7.45. The movement for a Living Wage began with community groups and Trade Unions in East London but in recent years it has gained significant wider support among civil society. Even David Cameron said in 2010 that it was “an idea whose time has come”, although he has since done little to encourage its adoption.

 

Paying it is voluntary but research for the Greater London Authority showed that 80 per cent of employers who did so found it improved quality of work, absenteeism fell 25 per cent and two thirds of employers saw a reduced turnover of staff. On an individual level, work by the Resolution Foundation has shown the impact on the lowest paid workers to be significant, with someone earning about the Minimum Wage seeing their pay rise by approximately £1,280 per year. Research by IPPR and Queen Mary University of London has also shown an average seven per cent rise in income for the poorest ten per cent of households and that a third of people who moved up to the living wage felt a direct benefit to their family life. Widespread paying of the Living Wage would also make a large contribution to reducing the government’s budget deficit. If it was paid by every employer, the government would save about £1.1bn on benefit payouts and take about £2.4bn more tax for a total saving of £3.6bn overall.

 

The Labour party has enthusiastically embraced the idea, signing Living Wage agreements in 15 of its local authorities. “When people are struggling with rising bills, it’s vital that an honest day’s work is rewarded with a decent day’s pay” says the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Rachel Reeves MP. “People who put in the hours and do the hard graft deserve a living wage. For a parent, that extra money could mean spending another hour each evening with their children. It’s a moral and economic argument… it also makes good business sense”.

 

On campus, the Leeds University Labour Students have also launched their own campaign to pay for the Living Wage, with a protest organised to coincide with the November 13 meeting of the University Senate. “The University have a very lopsided view of their obligations to contracted staff”, their chairperson Freya Govus commented. “They seem to think they can just buy in all the services they want and wash their hands of any responsibilities. Anyone whose job is on our campus, working on behalf of uni, should be guaranteed a fair wage”.

 

Some employers, on having this imbalance pointed out to them, respond along the lines that it is only for the contractors to decide what they pay their staff but the University can choose to use service companies that only pay Living Wages. They are completely within their right to include it in the contracts as a legal obligation. This is what Islington Council has done, with the effect that 92 per cent of their outsourced contracts now pay it, rising to 100 per cent in April.

 

Islington is not alone. 353 employers have signed the Living Wage accreditation scheme so far, with fellow universities Queen Mary’s, Huddersfield, Salford and our neighbours Leeds Trinity all agreeing to pay their contracted staff a Living Wage. UCL, Exeter, Manchester and Birmingham have all also agreed to implement it. The accreditation scheme itself is organised by Citizens UK, the nonprofit group who were among the first to campaign for a Living Wage. It would require the University to put Living Wage requirements in all contracts, in exchange for which they could proudly tout the Living Wage logo and flaunt their ethical credibility in tackling low pay.

 

The process is simple and straightforward, which makes the fact that Leeds has thus far missed the boat for eliminating poverty pay all the more regrettable. Despite the Union being mandated to lobby the University on the issue since a student referendum passed in 2012 so far there has been a conspicuous lack of movement from the University administration.

 

But with the new VC, Sir Alan Langlands, now installed, there may be brighter skies ahead. For contracted staff, a guarantee that a fair day’s work will get a Living Wage can’t come soon enough. And for our own Sir Alan, it would be a valuable symbol of the University’s commitment to ethical, as well as academic, excellence. That sounds more than fair.

 

The University says…

A University spokesman commented: “The University pays its staff according to a national pay ‘spine’ which is negotiated each year by the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association and the nationally recognised trade unions and used by the vast majority of the sector.” They added: “The University does take the remuneration of its lowest paid members of staff seriously and monitors its pay scales carefully, including comparisons with the Living Wage levels. The current position is that all University of Leeds staff, including those with ‘worker’ status, are paid in excess of the current Living Wage level once the one per cent final offer from the 2013 negotiations is added.”

 

Tom Follett

 

 

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