LIVING WAGE: NOT AN ACT OF CHARITY

by Katy Quigley, UEA Unison Equalities Rep

Over the last six weeks a campaign has slowly taken shape for the Living Wage to be introduced at UEA. Whilst this mainly affects the trade union Unison’s members, the two other trade unions on campus – UCU and Unite – as well as the Union of UEA students, have all begun to work together to ensure that those at the lowest end of the pay scale are paid a fair wage.

With the minimum wage set at £6.50 for those aged 21 and over, many people are confused about the point of a Living Wage campaign, or even what the Living Wage would mean in real terms. The reality is that the minimum wage simply does not pay enough to provide what members of the public, according to research undertaken by the University of Loughborough, deem an ‘acceptable standard of living’. At the moment this is set at £7.85. The Living Wage is not an act of charity: paying workers a fair wage for their living gives them dignity, reduces sickness and absence rates, and improves staff retention rates.  When a business does not pay the Living Wage it is local support groups, council services, and national welfare that pick up more of the bill to top up the worker’s income.

Employers who do not pay the Living Wage are therefore asking people to earn their poverty, and the University of East Anglia is unfortunately one of the culprits.

Those who are amongst the lowest paid members on the university’s payroll, the cleaners and catering staff, currently earn 40p under the Living Wage. Whilst this may not sound much, this adds up to nearly £15 a week and could make the world of difference when replacing worn out school uniforms becomes a necessity. In a meeting with Trade Union representatives the new Vice Chancellor David Richardson stated that any extra money given to staff would be take money away from the ‘student experience’. However UEA Student Union motion 1515 supports a living wage at UEA and is itself already a Living Wage certified employer. It is also estimated by Unison that it would cost less than £20 per student to introduce it at the university. With nearly 700 signatories already supporting our campaign from students and staff it is clear that this excuse is simply unacceptable.

Employers who do not pay the Living Wage are therefore
asking people to earn their poverty, and the University of
East Anglia is unfortunately one of the culprits.

Another reason given was the suggestion that the cost of living in Norwich was cheaper than other towns across the country so implementing the Living Wage was unnecessary. This may well be true if you are purchasing a house, but renting is on a par with, if not higher than, other parts of the country and the cost of basics such as food and energy bills does not change depending on where you live. In addition to this, for those wanting to leave Norwich, a trip on the train to London will cost well over £50.

With the Vice Chancellor earning in the region of what it would cost to introduce the Living Wage to over 280 members of staff at UEA, around £200,000 excluding bonuses such as a pension and a house, this argument is completely discredited. The ridiculous doctrine that higher-paid members of staff need to be incentivised with inflation-busting pay rises, whilst lower-paid staff should be paid the minimum rise possible to increase ‘efficiency’ seems to be in operation here at UEA.

Higher Education suffers from pay differentials higher than that in other areas of the public sector. If university heads reduced their pay to £140,000 (the pay rate of the current Minister for Higher Education) that would collectively be enough to raise all Higher Education staff on minimum wage to the living wage. A study by the Fair Pay League confirm that there is no correlation between salary rates for university heads and their university rankings. What that means is that pay inequality in universities is not being directed by some invisible hand of the market: it is simply the result of institutional decisions and biases.

Higher Education suffers from pay differentials
higher than that in other areas of the public sector.

The decision to implement the Living Wage has already been made by many local institutions; Aviva, Norwich City Council, City College Norwich, and Anglia Ruskin are all accredited Living Wage employers, and the Living Wage is supported by both Norwich MPs and the prospective candidates. UEA is damaging its reputation both locally and nationally, and it is embarrassing itself by refusing to implement the Living Wage.

Unison, Unite, UCU and the Union of UEA Students believe it is immoral and irresponsible for the university to expect support networks and benefits to compensate workers low wages: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has confirmed that in the UK most people in poverty are in paid employment. Staff such as cleaners and caterers are a crucial and hardworking part of the UEA community, working unsocial hours to provide essential services, cleaning up after students on a messy night out, or serving them their hangover cure of choice the next day. Yet many of them are not given the self-sufficiency that the Living Wage would provide. This has to change.

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