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By Ian Cheong
As the Oxford Living Wage Campaign gathers momentum, organisations across Oxford are massing in support as it becomes increasingly clear that student opinion will no longer accept workers struggling to live off desperately low wages.
The right of workers to take home a wage that allows them to live in dignity, rather than on the breadline, is becoming an ever more pressing issue: just weeks after we exposed the worst-paying colleges, three of them have seen their JCRs demand that scouts be paid at least a living wage.
The storm clouds of student activism are gathering over colleges which refuse to pay staff a living wage. Presure by the Living Wage Campaign Group at Univ has led their JCR to pass a motion “expressing support for the implementation of the Living Wage for all University college employees”.
Passed last Sunday, the same day saw St Hilda’s JCR vote through a motion “to mandate the President and financial VP to lobby college on our behalf to enforce a living wage policy in college”.
And the fight doesn’t end with a show of hands at the GM: after passing a similar resolution earlier this term the St John’s JCR President has now entered into discussions with the college administration, showing that JCRs can make a difference.
The past week has seen a flurry of living wage-related campaigning in JCRs, as last Sunday both Univ and St Hilda’s JCRs passed motions in support of introducing living wages. St John’s JCR President demonstrated his willingness to follow through on his JCR’s motion earlier this term as he discussed with college officials the JCR’s commitment to a living wage for all college staff. This week also saw the campaign move beyond college JCRs, as Turl Street Kitchen introduced a living wage for all its staff.
Carys Lawrie, who proposed the motion, said “We hope that it will be a positive step towards working with the college authorities as it is a strong indication of undergraduate backing for the Living Wage. A Living Wage petition circulated around the JCR mailing list has already gained more than 70 signatures, and the JCR motion was another way of demonstrating that students genuinely want fair wages for their scouts.”
JCR President Daniel Tomlinson expressed his “wholehearted support to the Oxford Living Wage campaign not just at Univ but across the whole of Oxford”. He added: “Many other universities and companies up and down the country are now paying a Living Wage and I see no reason why Oxford University should not do so too”.
Univ students launched a Living Wage Campaign Group earlier this term, following their discovery that scouts are being paid as little as £6.84, 36p under the Living Wage. Earlier this term, an Oxford Student investigation revealed that most colleges are paying scouts below a living wage, set at £7.20 by the Centre for Research in Social Policy. Other colleges, including St Catherine’s and Harris Manchester, were found to be paying significantly higher.
In an email sent to the JCR, campaign members explained: “All we ask is that the College governors reconsider the horrifyingly low rates they pay the scouts, the canteen workers and the general cleaners at Univ.”
The email continued: “that the people who clean our rooms take home less money than many students spend on a night out marks the massive discrepancy between the wealth of those who attend this university and those who live and work alongside us.”
St Hilda’s JCR passed a similar motion on Sunday: although the motion focused specifically on achieving a living wage for support staff within the college, the motion emphasized that this was “in the spirit of the OUSU Living Wage campaign”. Sarah Molloy said that although “there was some confusion caused by the original wording of the motion”, the motion “passed fairly easily”.
Undergraduate Anna Feldman explained: “There was some contention about the initial motion as it proposed that a living wage should be supported by raising JCR battles (not in line with OUSU’s Living Wage policy-it was someone separate from the campaign who proposed it…) but this was struck from the final motion.”
The motion stated: “Supporting such a just campaign is in keeping with St Hilda’s tradition and would send a good message to current and prospective students and the wider community about the ethos of the college.”
Both St Hilda’s and Univ’s bursars were unavailable for comment.
The Oxford Living Wage Campaign is not just limited to Oxford colleges and their JCRs, as Turl Street Kitchen’s decision to pay its staff a living wage has emphasized. Oxford Hub spokesperson Doireann Lalor explained that the business was set up “as a sister social enterprise to the charity Oxford Hub, which means that profits made in the café-bar-restaurant are passed on to the charity.
“The Turl Street Kitchen, as a result, shares the values of the Oxford Hub, and strives to be as sustainable as possible, as ethical as possible, and to become thoroughly embedded in the community. Our decision to pay staff the Living Wage is just one part of this commitment. Both the Oxford Hub and the Turl Street Kitchen are strong supporters of the Living Wage campaign, and believe that it is vital that our staff are paid a wage that covers the cost of living in Oxford.”
St Johns passed a motion to support the Oxford Living Wage Campaign in a meeting earlier this month, which saw the President mandated to campaign for a Living Wage for staff. The JCR had adopted a living wage motion in 2008, but recognised that living costs have increased since then.
JCR President David Messling emphasised that the campaign for a living wage at St John’s had not ended with the recent motion: “I have met with the President and the Bursar, and we are continuing discussions with the College this week. We can’t ignore the complexities of implementing a Living Wage, but at the same time do not wish for them to drown out the convincing arguments for doing so.”
He continued: “Our current action is twofold. Firstly, to continue a constructive conversation with the college authorities whilst pushing for a concrete commitment, and secondly to begin a college-wide petition. We believe that this is an issue for St John’s as a whole college and are therefore seeking to unite the entirety of the St John’s community in support of the Living Wage”.
This term an investigation by The Oxford Student found that while St John’s has a £313 million endowment, the college pays support workers as little as £6.49- one of the lowest wages across colleges. This is just 40p above the minimum wage.
Lawrie also highlighted that the JCR motion at Univ is just the beginning: “The motion is only the latest stage in our campaign and we fully intend to keep campaigning until all Univ staff are receiving at least a Living Wage. In the near future we are hoping to meet with senior members of staff to discuss how we might implement the Living Wage and we are going to send the petition to the MCR mailing list to build student support at all levels of college life”.
Louise Carey, a student at Univ, described “raising awareness of what the Living Wage and why it is important” as “crucial”. She outlined their plans to “continue to put up posters, flyers in pidges and talk to other students to keep up the campaign’s high profile around college”. She was “encouraged” that “the JCR’s reaction to campaign was very positive”: “everyone seemed to support it as a principle”.
Although Harris Manchester currently pays staff a Living Wage, the recent JCR motion supported the campaign. JCR President Winston Featherly-Bean explained: “We passed a motion last Thursday applauding our administration for offering fair working conditions. We also want to press the administration to continue to prioritise the members of our community, students and employees both. This means keeping up the things Harris Manchester is getting right and looking to improve the lot of students and employees where possible. As a start, I’ll ask the Governing Body at its next meeting to pledge to continue to pay the living wage at minimum.”
Florian Dahl, who proposed the motion, said: “I am personally quite hopeful that the college will agree with the JCR that the great achievement of paying its staff above the living wage needs to be sustained.”
Featherly-Bean continued: “Our JCR is proud that Harris Manchester, despite being perhaps the poorest college, is one of very few to pay above the ‘living wage’ to all of its employees. Our college’s endowment-per-student last year was less than one twelfth of St John’s, for example, so to beat out other Oxford colleges on fair pay is no easy matter”.
Harris Manchester Bursar Annette Duffell explained: “some colleges pay conference bonuses and other non cash benefits to scouts and kitchen staff. HMC made a decision not to pay conference bonuses but to recognize the efforts of our staff in the basic wage rate.”
Despite paying a living wage, Harris Manchester is not at present an official Living Wage Accredited college. Similarly, St Catherine’s College pays its support staff the highest wages of all the colleges that responded to the Oxford Student investigation, but has not sought official recognition. Bursar James Bennet explained that the college will continue “to pay our staff in a responsible manner whilst also being aware of the balancing responsibility of providing our junior members with a good, affordable service. We don’t feel we need the accreditation of any outside body to encourage us to do this – we want to do it.”
Chair of the Oxford Living Wage Campaign Sarah Santhosham said: “We are greatly encouraged by the momentum generated over the past few weeks on this important community issue. Currently, we are in the process of producing materials for Common Room activists to campaign more actively and this will be made available to anyone who’s interested. We are looking forward to working collaboratively with Common Rooms, and Community Groups to ensure all staff in Oxford are paid a living wage.”
Featherly-Bean said: “Most of our undergraduates are in their early or mid-20s, and many worked full time before returning to education. Of course younger students are perfectly capable of appreciating the importance of a living wage, but I do think we may be especially empathetic.”