Cleaners Need You: Campaign for the Living Wage

The Campaign for the Living Wage has attracted national support.

The ‘town’ versus ‘gown’ divide between local residents and students in Durham is pretty clear. An informal survey of friends will most often indicate that students here are disproportionately wealthy and affluent, many coming from the very best schools and, in general, backgrounds that have thankfully allowed them to avoid serious financial concerns. As we know, however, the same cannot be said for many of the residents of Durham, where poverty and unemployment rates continue to remain notably higher than the national average.

This term, campaigning at Durham University Labour Club (DULC) has been focused on the Living Wage. The ‘Living Wage’ is the name given to a rate of pay above the minimum wage, which has been calculated at £7.20, outside London, by Loughborough’s Centre for Research in Social Policy. This wage is calculated as the minimum necessary to provide for the essentials of life. Our campaign has been focused on getting the University Living Wage accreditation in a commitment to pay all university employees (which should include employees of colleges) at least the Living Wage of £7.20 an hour, the current minimum wage for over 21s being £6.08 an hour.

Such a commitment would make a very real difference to the 500 of 4000 university staff who are paid less than £7.20 an hour, according to our most recent Freedom of Information request in November 2011. At the same time, our Vice Chancellor’s total salary for 2009–2010 was a staggering £211,000. We think there is cause to ponder this discrepancy. Those individuals receiving less than the Living Wage (and possibly employed by the University only during term time) are the people who clean after us, cook for us and keep us safe. We believe we owe it to these people to give something back and ensure they can provide their families with the essentials of life.

Though now receiving a great deal of political interest, even from the likes of David Cameron, the concept of a Living Wage is certainly not new. To date, all colleges of the University of London are committed to paying the Living Wage as the minimum, whilst Manchester Students’ Union has very recently succeeded in getting Manchester University to do the same. The Living Wage has also been shown to make real business sense, and is also paid by KPMG, Linklaters and Barclays.

Last month, our motion mandating the D.S.U. to campaign for the University’s commitment to the Living Wage on a non-partisan basis was passed through council, but with some surprising opposition. The next step for us is to get as many people on board as we can, getting the endorsement of colleges to put pressure on the Board of Trustees to make the change; and, for this, we need your help.

We spend much of our time in the grand auspices of a World Heritage site – but how many of us have wandered about the housing estates on the outskirts of the city, the areas with crippling unemployment and poverty? Part of healing the divide between the University and the town is to show our awareness of these issues and do something positive to remedy this. Particularly with tuition fee rises next year, the University is certainly not struggling financially. We are convinced, therefore, that the University is in a position to make this commitment to its poorest employees. Furthermore, the university is one of the largest employers in the area, and, as such, has a moral responsibility to take the initiative regarding the implementation of the Living Wage.

And this makes sense not only for the institution, but for our reputation as students. Let’s not forget that Durham University was the site of an ‘anti’ protest to the protest against rising tuition fees: i.e. students who endorsed increases in tuition fees. Apparently, that’s the kind of backward and reactionary institution of which we’re part.

But we know better. We know that the University has many progressive students who strive to improve the University’s reputation; to make it appeal to a broader cross-section of students; to rid it of the social exclusivity that seems to be inherently associated with it. And we believe that Living Wage accreditation will help us take a big step in this regard. Showing commitment to the poorest people, who work to make our time at university the way it is, would be a commitment to progressive thinking.

To conclude, perhaps we should think of it this way: we should remember that, as university students, at Durham of all places, we are in a minority. We are the well-educated and the well-looked after, and, for most of us, living and providing for a family on a minimum wage is something we’ll never have to experience. But, because we are in that minority, we have a responsibility to open our eyes and fulfil our obligation to the people with whom we share this beautiful city.

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