21 August 2009
London is a city that sells itself to the world as a financial powerhouse. With the high cost of living and accommodation it is also an expensive city in which to live and work.
The scourge of low pay, however, makes it almost impossible for some workers to keep their heads above water.
This is why we are bringing together activists to launch a London Living Wage campaign to tackle income inequality and poverty, particularly for our members who work in the private sector.
The campaign recognises that the current national minimum wage, which will increase by just 7p to £5.80 an hour from October, is far from sufficient for workers and their families to live on.
Former prime minister Tony Blair once said that if New Labour didn’t raise the living standards of the poor it will have failed. But our society is more unequal now than at any time since the 1960s, with the gap between rich and poor growing and more children and pensioners living in poverty.
We need to redress the imbalance which allows City bankers to rake in massive bonuses while the country is still in the grip of a recession caused by their greed, and while the people who clean their offices are struggling to survive. Those who clean and guard government buildings often fare no better.
Mayor of London Boris Johnson has recently raised the London Living Wage to £7.60 an hour but research by the Greater London Authority shows there are still 900,000 workers in London who earn less than this.
Of the 4.5 million workers in the capital, 15% in full-time employment and 47% of part-time workers earn less than £7.60 an hour. These workers will include cleaners and security guards who often work part-time and unsocial hours.
Part of the campaign will be to find out how many of these workers are either already PCS members or would be eligible to join us. Where we need to we will recruit and organise new members to campaign for better pay and conditions.
Activists met for a London Living Wage forum in June to kickstart the campaign and agree our main objectives for taking it forward within our own union, with other unions and campaigning organisations.
We want a commitment that all employers will pay the living wage of £7.60 an hour. We are putting pressure on civil service managers to ensure the contractors they use pay this as a minimum to their staff.
We need to ensure that all workers in our workplaces are members of PCS, or their appropriate union, and we hope to be able to establish trade union rights in at least five new workplaces as part of the campaign.
Such levels of poverty pay ought to bring shame on employers, and on the civil service departments who contract work to them. Not only this, the negative impact of low pay is massive – not just on those who experience it but also on society as a whole.
Work by the Equality Trust, who report some of their findings on page 17, shows the impact of poverty is huge in terms of health, family life and education. This is made worse in societies like ours where income inequality is higher now than ever.
Our campaign will point out the benefits for staff, in terms of improvements to their quality of life, and the benefits to employers of having a healthy and motivated workforce in terms of better recruitment, retention and sickness absence management.
We know campaigns like this can be successful. The examples of the Justice for Janitors campaign in the USA and, closer to home, the London Underground cleaners show what can be achieved when low-paid and exploited workers stand together to fight for their rights.
On page 16, Janine Booth of the RMT’s London Transport regional council outlines what the cleaners campaign has done so far and how the union plans to take it forward.
For this campaign to succeed we need as much information as possible about our workplaces, our members and the potential for recruitment.
We are in the process of gathering bargaining information about rates of pay for contracted-out staff across civil service departments, agencies and non-departmental public bodies. This will be used to target our campaign on specific employers.
We also want to gather information and case studies from workers who are surviving on poverty pay in our workplaces and encourage them to get involved and take the campaign out to other workers.
Many of these workers are exploited and vulnerable and we recognise that many might feel unsure about speaking out. All we would say is that there is power in a union, and the more people who join the fight the more chance we have of winning.
Our union does not stop at the boundaries of individual employers, of course, and we will be working with activists and members who work in the same buildings and workplaces to build support.
As well as raising our issues through negotiations we will be asking for political support through our parliamentary group, by members writing to their MPs and meeting them in their constituency surgeries to ask for their backing.
This is an important and timely campaign, and one which we hope members will get behind to give us every chance of success.
“As a cleaning supervisor for ISS I work 12 hours a day. It’s a very difficult job and very stressful.
“I have to make choices all the time about what I can afford and what I can’t. I haven’t bought any new clothes for a long time, and I have to decide between feeding myself, getting transport to work or paying my rent.
“Even in the recession the rich are getting richer; it’s people like us, the cleaners, who are suffering.
“The people I manage are all struggling. One man, who is married with children, has worked as a cleaner in the same building for 14 years and is still only paid £6 an hour.
“I don’t like having to discipline people who refuse to work, but sometimes I have to. If they were paid more they would be happier to work – it’s simple.
“ISS doesn’t care how much people get paid; they just want the job to be done and that’s it.
“We need to stand together and be strong and fight for our rights.”
“I work for Mitie as a security officer in a London court. It is extremely difficult on a low income to look after your family and buy all the essential things you need, particularly now with the recession, it’s very hard.
“Sometimes it is difficult to see what you can do about it. If you complain to Mitie they cut your hours and it’s really hard to cope on the money I earn. If I work less than nine hours a day, then I really can't make ends meet.
“I think it’s really good that we are campaigning on this issue to increase the pay of people like me."
For more information about the campaign, to get involved or discuss organising in your workplace, contact PCS London and south east regional secretary Tom Taylor on firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7801 2764.
More in our Living Wage special: