The Oxford Living Wage Campaign
Some questions and answers…
What is the Oxford Living Wage Campaign?
The Living Wage Campaign aims to build an alliance of workers and students to campaign for a living wage for all employees of Oxford University. It has the support of OUSU and an increasing number of JCRs across the university. The campaign is still in its early days, and we need as much enthusiastic support and assistance as possible!
But isn’t there already a national minimum wage?
Yes. Employers are legally required to pay a rate of at least ?5.35 an hour to all workers over the age of 22. However, there are key differences between a minimum wage and a living wage. For a start, the minimum wage takes no account of regional variations in the cost of living. In areas like London and Oxford, where the cost of living is high, the minimum wage is grossly inadequate. And secondly, the national minimum wage is the outcome of complex political bargaining between the government, employers, and trade unions. The current rate is based on what is politically feasible. It is not the outcome of detailed social or economic research and does not reflect the minimum requirement for a basic standard of living.
So what’s a living wage then?
A living wage is defined as the minimum level of pay and conditions that enables a full-time worker to make ends meet for themselves and their family.
To determine a ‘living wage’, statisticians first perform a series of calculations incorporating the costs of housing, council tax, transport, childcare and other necessary costs (‘a regular shopping basket’). This produces a ‘poverty threshold wage’. However, a ‘living wage’ must yield a secure margin ensuring that the person involved does not fall to the level of poverty wages. A figure of 15% is therefore added to the poverty threshold wage. Benefits and tax credits are also taken into account.
In May 2006, a report published by the Greater London Authority estimated that a living wage in the London area would be ?7.20 per hour. The cost of living in Oxford is marginally lower than in London. However, Oxford is still an expensive city – we therefore anticipate that a living wage for the
Oxford area is likely to be substantially higher than the national minimum wage.
For more information on calculating the living wage, see ‘A Fairer London: The Living Wage in London’ (GLA, 2006) at www.livingwage.org.uk.
Do we know what workers are currently paid in Oxford University?
Partly. Last Easter, the Oxford Living Wage Campaign sent freedom of information requests to all the colleges, asking about wages of low-income staff like cleaners and caterers. We have also spoken directly to workers in colleges and departments. In most colleges, the wage rate is around ?6 per hour, but there is no uniform standard rate and, where cleaners are contracted out, there are differences between the wages paid by individual companies.
Is it all about pay?
No. It’s also about improving working conditions more broadly. This includes factors such as sick pay,
paid holiday, consultation mechanisms and access to trade unions.
But my scout seems happy enough… Is a living wage campaign really needed?
It could well be that staff throughout the university are content with their current pay and conditions. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that there may be a real need for a living wage campaign. We have met workers who are genuinely struggling to live on their wage, have housing problems and are taking on second and third jobs. That’s why it’s important to talk to as many workers as possible, to find out about their experiences of working in the university, and whether they are in favour of a living wage campaign.
But isn’t all this a job for the unions?
Yes. We’re trying to work as closely as possible with local unions, particularly Unison (which is the union with the biggest presence in the university). However, only a very small proportion of scouts
and catering staff are unionised and the unions don’t have the resources to run a big campaign in the
university. We must involve the unions at every step, but we can’t expect them to lead the campaign.
Where are the workers in all this?
It goes without saying that workers are central to the campaign. If we win a rise in wage rates but without worker involvement and participation, then we have achieved nothing. Developing a close relationship between workers and students is not a means but an end in itself. We want workers to come to meetings and be active at the forefront of any campaign. At the same time we must recognise that we are in a more privileged position than workers, for whom speaking out is not without risks.
Have there been successful living wage campaigns elsewhere?
Yes! There have been a number of high-profile successes in America, including at Harvard University. In April 2006, Queen Mary’s University, London, became the first university in the UK to adopt a living wage policy (see a report at www.education.guardian.co.uk). There is also an ongoing but
successful campaign at the London School of Economics.
What has happened so far?
The aims of the campaign so far have been twofold. Firstly, we have tried to raise awareness about the issue among students. We have held a number of meetings, with speakers including UNISON representatives and successful living wage campaigners from America. We have also had some recent coverage from the student press.
Secondly, and most importantly, we have tried to build a relationship with workers and find out what their views are on the campaign. We have achieved most success in Balliol, where we have talked to scouts, distributed leaflets, and had some fruitful discussions with the Head Housekeeper (who is strongly supportive of the campaign). We have also produced a questionnaire to distribute among Balliol scouts and made arrangements to attend the next scout meeting. We hope that we can replicate this success at other colleges, but we need as much help as possible!
So what can I do?
We need as many people as possible to talk to their scouts and other workers about their views on the campaign. We need to know how they are treated by the college; what they think of current pay and conditions; whether they have to take another job to make ends meet; what their attitudes are towards unions; what are the good and bad aspects of their job; and whether they think a living wage campaign would be a good thing. E-mail Liam Taylor (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a list of
suggested questions and a sample leaflet to give to workers.
It is important not to be patronising or intrusive. It is also important not to ask leading questions and to note down the positives as well as the negatives. You may feel nervous about asking your scout these sorts of questions, but in our experience they are more than happy to give their opinions. Perhaps you could suggest that you interview them in place of them cleaning your room one week.
How do I get more involved?
Come to Oxford Living Wage Campaign meetings in the Massey Room, Balliol, at 5.30 on Wednesdays.
You can sign up to an Oxford Living Wage Campaign mailing list (with information about meetings, events etc.) at http://lists.riseup.net/www/subrequest/oxlivingwage.
Who do I contact?
Emma Clossick (Queen’s): email@example.com
Kieran Hutchinson-Dean (Wadham): firstname.lastname@example.org
Liam Taylor (Balliol): email@example.com