Cleaners will get a pay rise as Queen Mary College becomes the first living-wage campus in the UK

by Mira Katbamna for The Guardian

April 6, 2006

They are an essential part of every university. They start work when everyone else leaves, and finish before most others get there in the morning. They are poorly paid, receive no holiday or sick pay and often take on two or three jobs to make ends meet. Contracted cleaners, security guards and caterers are academia's dirty secret. But last Thursday, Queen Mary, part of the University of London, voted to abolish "poverty pay" on campus.

The college council committed itself to making Queen Mary the first "living wage campus" in the UK. This means no one will be paid less than a living wage (currently set at £6.70 an hour), or receive fewer than 28 days' holiday and 10 days' sick pay. Crucially, the change includes all staff on campus, not just those directly employed by the university. Queen Mary's cleaning staff are going to get a rise.

'Morally irresistible'

For Christine Martin, cleaning supervisor at Queen Mary for 12 years, the living wage will make a huge difference. Martin is employed by the university's cleaning contractors, KGB, and receives £5.20 an hour - the £5.05 minimum wage plus a pitiful 15 pence an hour as supervisor. "It is difficult to survive in London on this kind of money. Sometimes you think you might as well not work for what you earn," she says. "I do a second job and have to claim housing benefit just to make ends meet, so the living wage really has given me something to look forward to."

Change has been pushed through by London Citizens, an umbrella group that unites faith groups, unions, academics and anyone else from the community who wants to join. Queen Mary was lobbied by a pressure group that included almost all the organisations on its doorstep: Guardian Angels Roman Catholic Church, the East London Mosque, the London Buddhist Centre, Unison, the AUT, Queen Mary's own geography department, students and the cleaners themselves.

London Citizens has form. It was the group that persuaded HSBC to adopt the living wage at its Canary Wharf offices, and got Ken Livingstone to agree to ethical economic guarantees (including the living wage) for the Olympics. But as Matthew Bolton, project manager for the living wage campaign, explains, London Citizens sees its role as community organisers, not campaigners. "Of course, the campaigns are important, and we judge ourselves against their success, but most of all we work to build a permanent, diverse alliance," he says. "With us, you can't just say 'oh well, they would say that because they are Muslim, or pensioners, or students, or trade unions' - because we are all of those groups."

The battle has been hard won. Bolton's first letter to Professor Adrian Smith, principal of Queen Mary, requesting a meeting, was refused on the basis that pay and conditions were commercially confidential and not up for discussion with third parties. After repeated requests and a rally attended by 150 cleaners, staff and students, Bolton eventually got his meeting, but was told that while the living wage agenda was "morally irresistible", it was also "financially irresponsible".

The breakthrough came when the group was allowed to present in person and with a video letter to the college's finance committee. Convinced, the committee put forward the proposal passed last week. "The video letter was a very efficient way of saying we are lots of people, from all areas of the community, and we are prepared to run actions to raise the profile of this issue," Bolton explains. "Queen Mary prides itself on being a university of and for this community, so we pointed out the hypocrisy. But we also dangled a few carrots, pointing out that the university would become a fair trade employer, and that increased motivation and commitment from cleaning staff could actually save them money."

In fact, the most difficult part of the campaign was getting the cleaners on board. Mostly unfamiliar with unions, workers were scared they would be sacked or blacklisted. One cleaner, who didn't want to be identified, says he supported the campaign, but was worried about losing his job. "I haven't been able to participate in public, but I have given them as much information in secret as I can," he says. "I'm not ready to leave this job, so I have to be careful."

Despite the fears, Bolton managed to find individuals who could lead the campaign. June Watson, 52, who came to the UK from Jamaica in 1989, was one. "I have worked at Queen Mary for 13 years, so when the campaign started, I knew it had to be a good thing," she says. "A lot of people - most, actually - were scared. Sometimes I was the only person to turn up to meetings. But I had to stand up because there were people who couldn't take the risk."

Another important factor in the success of the campaign was the longstanding relationship between London Citizens and the Queen Mary geography department. Graduate student Lina Jamoul was involved with the HSBC campaign in Canary Wharf and says it was only a matter of time before they brought the campaign on to campus. "Most students don't think about the cleaners - they rarely see them - but the cause was so obviously just that it wasn't hard to gather support," she says. "We made the case that students want to know that tuition fees are being spent in an ethical way, but the tipping point for the student body came when we rallied. None of the cleaners felt confident to speak without reprisals, and we felt that just wasn't right on a university level."

Commercial commitments

Professor Jane Wills, whose geography department joined London Citizens in 2001, conducted much of the research on poverty pay that was used to build the cleaners' case. "Virtually every university in the UK outsources cleaning, security and catering," she says, "so the college council has been exceptional in recognizing the injustice under their noses and acting upon it." Politics lecturer and AUT committee member Catherine Needham agrees. "This is one of the most exciting things I've been involved in, not least because London Citizens actually get results."

Despite the obvious delight of everyone involved, the college authorities were unavailable for comment, instead issuing a statement saying they had committed the college "to the principal of socially responsible contracting" and that they would seek to implement the policy "as soon as is feasible, given our current commercial commitments".

It is a statement that highlights the difficulties of making the living wage a reality - the college will now have to negotiate with all contractors on campus. However, according to David Weddell, divisional director at KGB, contractors fully support the living wage. "I believe that everyone should have the opportunity and the right to a decent wage for what they do," he says, "and we are working with all our clients to implement the living wage wherever possible."

Bolton remains skeptical, but says that getting the agreement in place is what matters. "On May 1, we will be presenting Queen Mary with an award recognizing it as the first living-wage campus. It has taken them less than a year to change their policy. It's a real achievement."

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