The Living Wage foundation is a campaigning organisation which aims to ensure low-paid workers get a feasible amount to live on.
Instead of the national minimum wage of £7.50 (if you are over 25 outside of London) it calls for £8.75 per hour. Over 4,000 businesses and 16% of higher education institutions have signed up to this. Unfortunately, Newcastle University has failed to do so. In a disappointing written response to the Labour Society, Vice-Chancellor Chris Day suggested that the University prefers the flexibility of setting its own wage rates. The effect of this is to leave many staff on dangerously low-pay.
Across the UK, In-work poverty is a serious epidemic. Whilst unemployment has gone down, jobs are far more precarious, and many are working for poverty pay. Research from 2017 at Cardiff University suggested that 60% of British people in poverty live in a household where someone is in work. This simply has to change.
Ideally, they should be getting far more, to at least £10 per hour. For a university that earned a £27 million surplus before tax in 2016-17, this is the least it can do.
The legacy of Martin Luther King has rightly been promoted by the University. His statue on campus is engraved with the three injustices he set out to fight against: war, poverty, and racism. The failure to pay staff properly highlights our institution’s flagrant hypocrisy. Surely the best way the university can uphold the memory of the civil rights movement is through deeds not words. Now is the time to pay up.
Look close enough at Newcastle University and the sight of injustices all around you is sudden and blinding. We find ourselves fighting against savage and unjustified cuts to staff pensions, and at least some of us seek to fight against student poverty and cruelly lacking wages for the staff that make this University a reality.
Almost everyone in this country is getting poorer. Lecturers are paid 15% less in real terms than they were in 2007. Real wages across the country continue to decline in a lost decade of productivity and wage growth. The social security net is slashed and cuts to maintenance grants and a rise in tuition fees mean working class students find themselves priced out of higher education entirely.
Almost everyone. The top 1% are doing rather well. In the UK, the richest 1% control 22% of the country’s wealth, up from 15% in 1984. At Newcastle University, our Vice Chancellor is paid over £280,000 a year with an over £70,000 pension. Meanwhile, his teaching staff up to 40% of their pensions.
Simultaneously, many cleaners and support staff are allowed to languish below the wage level considered necessary for a basic standard of living. Meanwhile, Newcastle University’s net income rises 4% yearly, while we spend lavish sums on new buildings and new entire campuses in Asia and London, while new stocks and shares are bought without democratic approval and executive pay spikes yearly.
Students, staff, and workers make this a university. There are wrongs here and elsewhere to be righted, but not for long.
Everyone deserves to be paid enough to live. If you are working, it makes sense to be able to earn enough to put food on the table, pay bills and not be constantly worrying about scraping enough together if your hours are cut, or you’re ill and can’t work for a week.
The minimum age, especially for 18 – 20-year-olds (£5.60), isn’t realistically enough for many people. I’ve worked for minimum wage in various jobs, including the under 18 wage (£4.05) for McDonald’s a few years ago; being paid that little, often whilst doing the worst jobs that management didn’t want to do, felt unfulfilling and disappointing. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about stretching my pay for food shops, petrol or rent.
Some people argue that if you’re not happy with how much you’re paid, you should just ‘find a better paying job!’ People in minimum wage jobs may not have much other choice or need the flexibility of a poor paying job which often comes hand in hand with a zero-hour contract. If you’re a working parent, student, have other caring responsibilities, or are juggling multiple jobs, sometimes it’s the only option.
That’s the thing, I don’t think anyone should be working for low pay when a living wage IS possible for many employers to pay without negative consequences. The current government Living Wage scheme only applies to workers over 25, disregarding younger employees who do the same work. It isn’t enough, and I welcome any campaign that fights for all workers.
What do people from Campus and the Newcastle area have to say? Newcastle Labour Society did some research:
Chi Onwurah, MP for Central Newcastle: “It’s a terrible truth that in 21st Century Britain there are over a million people in work and in poverty. Everyone deserves a living wage and every organisation benefits from paying its staff properly. As MP for Newcastle Central I urge all large employers in my constituency to sign up to the Living Wage Foundation.”
Bruce Baker, President of the Newcastle branch of the striking UCU: “I’m excited to hear about the Living Wage campaign, and UCU would love to collaborate on that.”
Craig Dawson, chair of TUC young workers; GMB: "£8.75 is the least staff at Newcastle University can ask for. Wages have been frozen for many on the lowest pay bands for the best part of a decade. It is time to demand an end to poverty pay and move towards a real living wage.”
Anonymous, full time cleaner at NUSU: “I’ve worked as a cleaner for 7 years here full time. It would help a lot with living costs. My bus pass costs £13.50 a week which is a lot. Living costs in general are very tough”.
As you can see, our base of support is strong and growing fast.
What does the Living Wage Foundation say? To me, it seems these statistics from the Living Wage Foundation show clearly why a higher wage will not only benefit staff, but the University as an employer and a charity.
93% of accredited businesses say their firm has benefited from paying the Living Wage. Let's break that down.
86% say it improved their reputation. 75% say it improved employee motivation and retention. 64% say it has helped differentiate from others in the industry. 58% say it has improved relations between managers and staff.
Patently, a higher wage would be a sound investment for this university, as well as being the right thing to do. What do students think?
93% of uni students want to work for living wage employers. 90% of consumers think wages should reflect living costs. 87% think firms should voluntarily pay the Living Wage.
I think it's pretty clear. A higher minimum wage is a small request, with massive public support.
Responding to a Freedom of Information request in 2017, the University stated that a total of 358 staff are paid less than £8.45 per hour.’ Furthermore, ‘224 of this total number are women’. Whilst the 2018 figures for people below £8.75 are unavailable, this suggests there are hundreds of workers below the living wage. Furthermore, a clear majority of these are women. As a member of the Athena Swan Charter, the university has a responsibility to support women’s rights at work, and promote equality.
Any key political organisations and trade unions have expressed their support for the campaign. On campus, societies who back this motion include Labour, Feminist, Marxist, and Young Greens. The UCU are also happy to collaborate. Craig Dawson, chair of TUC young workers, GMB member, and student at Newcastle stated that “£8.75 is the least staff at Newcastle University can ask for. Wages have been frozen for many on the lowest pay bands for the best part of a decade. It is time to demand an end to poverty pay and move towards a real living wage”
Chi Onwurah also echoed support. She argued that, “Everyone deserves a living wage and every organisation benefits from paying its staff properly. As MP for Newcastle Central, I urge all large employers in my constituency to sign up to the Living Wage Foundation.” This mass of support demonstrates a clear mandate for change. Will the management now listen to these demands?
Newcastle University may boast a lofty status as a Russell Group member and TEF Gold institution. However, it is falling short in treating staff properly. Many higher Education institutions have already affiliated to the foundation, including Salford, Oxford, Glasgow, and the Open University. Surely Newcastle can follow in their footsteps?
A key example of a successful campaign was Cardiff University, which accredited in 2014. In a BBC interview, one worker expressed that after getting the wage rise, she no longer needed to do two jobs. This helped her gain more time at home and greater independence. I recently spoke to a cleaner in the SU who has worked here for 7 years full-time. He emphasized the constant strain on living standards, with his weekly bus pass costing £13.50. This highlights a real impact a pay rise could have. Most importantly, this change will benefit the livelihoods of hundreds of low-paid workers.
So how can you help? Firstly, please support a motion at council, which aims to lobby management to support the campaign. Please talk to staff who are affected. Ask them to get in touch with the group to start building a movement. If you have any questions, or would like to be involved, please email Newcastle.email@example.com
Why should we fight for it? On practical terms, it has a real economic benefit for those on low pay. This is an achievable goal with the moral imperative of challenging poverty and injustice.