“It is very difficult to see my son… sometimes he leaves notes saying ‘Mum, where are you?’… I work such long hours because I want to make a better future for my children,” said a cleaner in the Social Sciences Library.
In the UK, where over half of those in poverty are in a family where somebody works, working poverty is the daily reality for thousands. But the problem is particularly acute in Oxford. The Centre for Cities recently found that Oxford is the most expensive place to live in the UK, with the average cost of a house thirteen times the average salary and rising.
When the minimum wage is too low to meet the basic needs of workers, the burden falls on employers to ensure that hard work is not met with poverty. This is where the Living Wage comes in. The Living Wage, which enjoys cross-party support, is independently calculated to reflect the cost of living in the UK. It’s currently £7.85/hour – £1.35 more than the minimum wage. The difference, according to Professor Jane Wills from the University of London, has been enough to lift over 10,000 families out of poverty.
A number of Oxford colleges pay all their staff the Living Wage, alongside another 1,020 accredited Living Wage employers across the UK.
But despite these gains, there remains a basic problem: even among the colleges that do pay the Living Wage, none has committed to accrediting as a Living Wage employer. Neither has the central University. To become an accredited Living Wage employer, the institution would be tied to updating their base level of pay to reflect the rising cost of living. Since the Living Wage is itself raised every year, many colleges that now pay a Living Wage will not in just a year’s time.
Without accreditation, the security the Living Wage gives employees is still not guaranteed year on year. As long as colleges and the University resist accreditation, the gains of student and staff campaigns are still precarious, and the employees’ standard of living is still on the edge.
The number of accredited Living Wage employers around the country has doubled in the past year, with seventeen universities making the change. Oxford is in a good position to join them: accrediting now would make us the first Russell Group university outside London to do so. And this isn’t just a pipe dream. In June, following calls from the OUSU Living Wage campaign, the University’s Planning, Resources and Allocation committee called for the University to accredit by May next year.
Most staff work for colleges rather than the central university, though, and it’s here that students can make the most impact in the push for accreditation. It’s not all about which colleges have the greatest assets: Mansfield’s bursar Allan Dodd, speaking when his college decided to pay the Living Wage earlier this year, acknowledged that the college did not have an enormous endowment but characterised the move as “an ethical issue”. Some of the richest colleges, meanwhile, still aren’t paying the Living Wage.
Accrediting as a Living Wage employer makes sense for employers as well as staff. An independent study in London found that more than 80% of employers believe that the Living Wage has enhanced the quality of the work of their staff, while absenteeism had fallen by approximately 25%. After consulting giant KPMG accredited as a Living Wage employer, their staff turnover dropped by 40%. According to Head of Facilities Guy Stallard, “the actual cost of the KPMG’s Facilities operation decreased.”
Progress is happening with the Living Wage and it is happening fast. What we now need to do – as students who benefit every day from the work of these low-paid staff – is to make it clear that we stand not only for paying the Living Wage, but also for the university and colleges accrediting as Living Wage employers and giving our staff the security they deserve. It’s time for our University and our colleges to become accredited Living Wage employers.