Why we cannot lose momentum in the fight for living wage

Image credit: King's living wage campaign

From Friday 1st of August, Cambridge University will raise the pay of all its employees to at least £7.65 an hour. This will take over 100 employees out of the margin of working poverty. For the staff who this will affect, as well as the campaigners who fought for the raise, this is fantastic news. It may be long overdue, but it no less welcome all the same.

The students and staff who have been involved in the campaign are delighted. It’s hard to believe that this has actually happened. We have worked hard to keep the Living Wage issue alive for the past couple of years. Collectively, we made sure the story never went dead for long. As a result, the extent of low pay has rightfully become a major embarrassment for several colleges. The University must finally have decided that the money they were saving by shortchanging their employees wasn’t worth the damage.

Our approach was vindicated by the dramatic turn of events at King’s College earlier this year. For a long time the student campaign was met with fierce resistance from its college authorities. King’s employed 123 members of staff at below the living wage rate . A year ago, the prospect of the college giving-in seemed inconceivable. The campaign was told to keep quiet and students were threatened with disciplinary sanctions. But they kept going and their activism became ever more creative: they hung a Living Wage flag in the College Bar and picketed a college dinner for King’s wealthiest benefactors.

Then came a series of revelations about how much King's was spending on wine. At £33, 8559 in 2013, it outspent all the other colleges. There was so much outrage that the story found its way into the national press. That was in the last week of January. On 18th of February, the College Council voted to implement the living wage. There is a tendency in Cambridge to mock student activists as vainglorious or self-indulgent, particularly in the context of campaigns which do not affect students directly. It is of huge relief that our efforts have produced very tangible results, which go against the usual maxim.

But unfortunately, there are a couple of ‘buts’. No one yet knows how this move will affect the University’s outsourced staff, who work at the university both part-time and full-time, but who are technically employed by outside agencies.

Additionally, as with any attempt to make changes in Cambridge, we still have to tackle the colleges. This breakthrough ought to remove any defence for those which continue to pay below the £7.65 threshold. It is a sobering fact that there are a total of 1122 college employees still paid below the living wage (as of Nov 2013). Hughes Hall, Queens’ and St Catherine’s are the only ones who currently meet the threshold, and Murray Edwards and King’s have pledged to introduce it. Hopefully it's only a matter of time before the other colleges follow suit.

Two colleges stand out as particularly parsimonious. Clare College employs 85 members of staff at less than £7.65 an hour as of last November. It also recorded an operating surplus of £2.14 million for the financial year ending on 30th June 2013. Trinity College’s equivalent surplus was £31.9 million, despite 50 employees being paid under the living wage and thus likely to in working poverty. It is often touted that the living wage is unaffordable but in the context of several Cambridge colleges that argument is something of a bad joke.

This is never the order in which we imagined that changes would take place. We assumed that individual colleges were much more likely to ‘give in’, and that many more of them would have to convert to the living wage before the university might even consider following suit. It was only last May that Sir Leszek Borysiewicz told students that he would not introduce the threshold on the grounds that he could not “put the university into a position where it is beholden to a self-appointed group to approve its salaries". This is an abrupt turnaround, but the status quo was ethically untenable. Employees at the most prestigious university in the country, and the 13th richest university in the world, should not be getting paid below the poverty line.

It is important to remember that the Living Wage campaign aims to increase the wages of all workers and is not Cambridge-centric. The strike last January reflected outrage at pay discrepancies throughout the university. Faculty staff have had their pay cut by 13% in real terms since 2009. There has also been similar pressure on other higher education institutions elsewhere in the country. UCL, the LSE and King’s College London all pay the living wage and have all been praised by the NUS for doing so. This is even more impressive given that the Living Wage threshold for London is a good deal higher, £8.33 an hour.

The important thing is for our campaign to keep up its momentum. Clearly, there is a lot still to do. Most of the work involves raising awareness amongst students, very few of whom know about the living wage and yet actively oppose it. A much larger proportion have simply never heard of it. If we can make it a talking point in every JCR then I have no doubt that the colleges will eventually follow the university’s lead. We’re glad that Cambridge has decided that it is better to jump ahead than to get pushed from behind.


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