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7 August 2008

The fight for a living wage

Campaigns for fair pay are fast gaining strength, attracting the kind of supporters Labour should be

By Catherine Howarth

New Labour desperately needs to adopt ideas which not only embody its commitment to social justice but also unleash fresh political enthusiasm and grass-roots activity in communities across the UK. Championing the Living Wage movement would fulfil both these critical needs.

The minimum wage is often cited by ministers and party members as one of Labour’s great achievements. Introducing it required primary legislation and the creation of a statutory enforcement agency, based at the Inland Revenue.

The living wage is a different beast. The drive for it comes from organised communities that hold accountable employers in their local area to adopt “socially responsible” labour standards, particularly in supply chains of services such as cleaning, catering and security. The core element is a wage level based on local living costs and calculated to bring workers above the poverty line. While the minimum wage is the same throughout the UK, the living wage varies regionally. A higher rate in London reflects the realities of living costs in the city.

It is essentially a fair-trade campaign for the domestic economy. Its focus is the care workers, cleaners and caterers who supply essential services to the nation’s offices, old people’s homes, council buildings and transport systems. In getting behind the Living Wage movement, Labour could make the link between its clear commitment to making poverty history in the poorest parts of the world and the party’s historic commitment to do so at home.

In the seven years since the campaign was launched by the London Citizens group in Walthamstow, east London, the movement has produced scores of dedicated workplace and community leaders such as Clara Osagiede (interviewed here). Political parties need to attract people of this calibre. A powerful lesson of Barack Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton was the huge political advantage he enjoyed as a result of a better-organised grass-roots base. Many highly effective Obama supporters have been activists in the energetic living wage campaigns that have rippled across American cities and states over the past 15 years.

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The Tories have already recognised the political capital to be gained from the living wage. Late last month, Boris Johnson launched the new living wage figure for London (£7.45 an hour) at Barclays. The bank has introduced living wage standards for more than 1,000 cleaning, mailroom, security and catering staff across 370 branches in London. Barclays cites the business arguments in favour of doing this.

Wage inequality has grown under new Labour despite the minimum wage. In supporting the diverse local institutions behind Living Wage campaigns, new Labour could make fresh connections with the communities it so urgently needs to convince if it is to win another term in office.

Catherine Howarth is director of FairPensions. Osagiede bursts into the room flapping a piece of paper, her dark eyes flashing. “We’re basically being paid the same as we were 16 years ago!” she says, brandishing the yellowing payslip. “The situation is outrageous.”

Two mobile phones continuously interrupt her. This is not surprising, given that she is trying to live two lives. By day, she volunteers for the national transport union RMT, making speeches, attending conferences and giving interviews. From 9pm to 5am, she works as a cleaner for London Underground.

“I work five nights a week but I still have to share a two- bedroom flat with five others and sleep on the floor. We’re so scared of the bailiff coming in and taking away what little we have that we can’t even open the door.”

Despite working the night shift, Clara is paid £6.10 an hour. According to the payslip handed to her by an old colleague, this is barely a 7 per cent increase on what cleaners were paid in 1992, despite the huge rise in the cost of living. It is well below the estimated living wage of £7.45 an hour the mayor’s office estimates London workers need to be above the poverty line.

Working on the minimum wage doesn’t just mean receiving a low salary. As Clara explains: “I have 24 days’ holiday a year. I have no benefits and no pension. There are no sick days – even if you have to take time off because you’re assaulted on the job. The deal is: if you don’t show, you don’t get paid.”

As a trade union activist, Clara spends her free time visiting city stations and depots, collecting workers’ stories. “Conditions are terrible,” she says. “Cleaners are forced to clean up vomit and rubbish without decent protection. When one cleaner refused to work without the proper equipment, she was asked to leave.”

Clara, and hundreds of cleaners like her, are beginning to make their concerns public. Last April, 397 out of 400 RMT cleaners voted to take strike action, demanding the living wage and an improvement in conditions. Since then there have been two strikes – one on 26 June for 24 hours and one from 1 July for 48 hours. Since the action began, says Clara, she has hardly slept.

Making an impact

Clara was born and educated in Nigeria. She studied architecture at university and was a prominent student activist. Now, she is using her skills on behalf of the Underground’s cleaners and is getting results. Following the second strike, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, announced that all cleaners employed by Metronet would be paid the living wage.

The “living wage” concept originated in the United States and was introduced here about ten years ago; the idea has been gaining currency in British politics since. In 2004, the campaigning group London Citizens managed to get the London Olympic Committee to commit to paying the living wage to all those working on the 2012 Games. Now, the movement is gaining ground in Scotland, led by a coalition of anti-poverty groups. In Oxford, university students are supporting their college cleaners in the fight for a pay increase above the statutory minimum, which will run at £5.73 an hour from October.

“The biggest obstacle to change is division among the cleaners,” said Clara, who explains that a large proportion of the people she works with are women of African origin without indefinite leave to remain in the UK. These groups have much to gain from collective action, but it is perilous. Their immigrant status makes them vulnerable.

“They are worried about victimisation; employers have succeeded in putting the fear factor into them,” she says.

In a competitive global labour market, companies can afford to be hard on trade union members. “I’ve just had this faxed to me,” says Clara, waving “another” notice for a disciplinary hearing. “I have to go to one every other day. Because of my activist nature, my bosses don’t like me.”

Regardless of obstacles, the cleaners will continue to fight for the living wage across the London Transport network. The mayor’s proposed pay increases do not cover cleaners working on the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly Lines, where the employer is a different company, Tube Lines. The union has unanswered concerns about unhygienic working conditions, third-party sackings and poor employment benefits.

But the campaign is having an impact, which can be seen in Barclays decision to pay the London living wage to its support staff across London, setting a precedent for the private sector.