image from London Museum

London is a shameful tale of two cities.

Whilst wandering around the London Museum, I was drawn to a simple poster bearing the legend: ‘Waiting for the Living Wage.’  This 1913 poster, designed by suffragist activist Catherine Courtauld, refers to the oppressive situation of powerless women employed as ‘sweated labour’. This poster is poignant and the parallels with the inequality we see in the workplace in London 2011, are striking.  Why do we have such a gulf between the rich and poor within this city?  ‘The Dispossessed’ campaign of the London Evening Standard has exposed shocking tales of poverty in our City, including unmarked communal cemeteries with four to a grave, revealing that 650,000 children in London live in poverty and how a teenage boy couldn’t apply to university because he couldn’t even afford the UCAS registration fee.  It’s simply not sufficient for an employee on minimum wage of £5.93 to get by in London.  How is it that men and women can be living in London today, and still be working in exploitative conditions?  This ought to belong to a Dickensian tale, not reality.

Grass-roots change

But people are organising and are doing something about this.  It is not right that cleaners at an international bank struggle to put food on the table, whilst the bankers gain millions in bonuses.  The Citizen UK’s Living Wage campaign began in 2001, when a group of East End residents launched a ‘listening campaign’, speaking to thousands of local people about what they wanted to see change in their community.  The same concern was raised repeatedly- that the demands of working life made it impossible for parents to spend the time they would like with their children and families.  The reason? The minimum wage was simply not enough to live on and parents were often forced to work two jobs just to make ends meet.  So, 1000 local people came together and voted to launch a campaign calling on employers to recognise their responsibility to end poverty pay.  In 2011, this campaign has lifted out 8000 working families out of poverty and has put £50 million into the pockets of working poor.

What is the living wage?

The London Living Wage is the hourly rate of pay that the Living Wage Unit at the Greater London Authority calculates each year.  Currently, the rate is £7.85 per hour.  It takes account the higher cost of living in the capital and the rate of inflation, which is needed to pay someone to allow them an acceptable standard of living above the poverty threshold.  According to the GLA Economics, it is “a wage [that] achieves an adequate level of warmth and shelter, a healthy palatable diet, social integration and avoidance of chronic stress for earners and their dependents.”  Significantly, leading organisations like KPMG, Barclays, HSBC, the Olympic Authority have gone Living Wage and have become influential advocates.  Academic research shows that it makes good business sense and increases productivity.

Politicians realise the momentum this cause has.  Support for the Living Wage Campaign was a key component of Ed Miliband’s Labour Leadership campaign.  On 15th January, Ed Miliband discussed at length in his keynote speech to the Fabian Annual Conference of his desire to implement the Living Wage, receiving rapacious applause.  The Tories are also getting in on the act.  Boris Johnson has long endorsed this campaign explaining, ‘I look forward to the day when we can say that no Londoner is paid less than the living wage.  During Citizen UK’s General Election 3rd May Assembly, David Cameron said of the Living Wage, ‘An idea whose time has come’.  This begs the question, why haven’t they done more then?

KCL: still not paying the Living Wage

The symbolic aspect of the Living Wage campaign is that it formed at a grass-roots level, and is a perfect example of ordinary citizens contributing towards the good society.  Most notable has been successful campaigns across Universities, including: Queen Mary; LSE; SOAS; Birkbeck; Goldsmiths; Institute of Education and more recently UCL and University of East London, being part of the Living Wage Paying Community.  This is the ‘Big Society’ in action.  This can be seen in the example of our very own Living Wage campaign at King’s College London.  Since 2008, members of the KCL community including students, academic staff and cleaners have been organising and pushing for its implementation.  I interviewed Diego, an ex-cleaner of KCL.  His story of how he managed moved me very much.  He explained that whilst working at KCL he had to take two jobs just to pay the bills.  He lived on the other side of London, but because he could not afford to pay for a tube, he had to get a bus that took double the journey time.  Despite having two jobs, waking up at 6 am and getting home at midnight every day, it was not enough for him to even buy a coffee.  His most powerful comment was that, ‘I’m not living, but surviving in London’.  Since leaving KCL his life has changed.  Diego now works for TFL and gets a significantly higher salary, enabling him to study English at college in the evenings.  Stories like this shows why we at KCL have such a high staff turn-over rate.  This is counter-productive.

We are trying to change this, and support all those that belong to the KCL community.  Petitions have been signed, campaign films have been produced and meetings have been held.  At last, on 13 December 2010 an announcement on the College Council’s website announced its decision:

‘At its meeting on 30 November, the Council of King’s College London endorsed a proposal for the College to work with providers of its outsourced services towards implementing the London Living Wage among their staff.’

This is clearly a significant step, and a proposal to work towards it is welcome.  Yet there is still much to do.  The fact is that in 2011, we are still waiting for a Living Wage.  To have people within the KCL community on inadequate wages goes against the College commitment of ethical business.  It’s important for us as members of a community to rectify the injustice that we see.  And the fact that UCL could commit to be a Living Wage employer before KCL means that this cause is even more urgent. This poster shows that a campaign for a Living Wage has existed much longer than most people have thought, and that it has as much relevance now as it did in 1913.

It’s that time of year: boxes ticked, application forms submitted, brushing up for those verbal/ non-verbal/ competency/ psychometric and what-not tests, fortunate ones sprucing up for interviews. And think of all those managers, clicking their knuckles awaiting the summer to see all those eager students and graduates willing to take the voluntary unpaid work.  Or internship, to you and I: the established stepping-stone to employment.

This is a subjective matter and clearly depends upon all the variables involved: the organisation, the staff, the type of work, your plans and your character.  If an internship means I’ll have to struggle financially in the short term for a couple of months yet gain long term benefits – I’ll take it.  It’s an investment.  The right internship can provide invaluable experience and the networks, knowledge and skills gained can take the place of a credit card.  Demonstrating that you have the edge on your CV goes a long way when wooing potential employers.  Of course, this is based on my experience of embarking on a full time, two-month unpaid internship last summer.  It was a drain, I was skint but I was open-minded, was clear and determined in my intentions that I needed to improve my skills and genuinely wanted to get a better insight into how politics work.  I met some of the most inspiring people, who genuinely care about society.  It helped that I was shown gratitude and was taken out for lunch a couple of times.  I developed my skills and became a more confident person.  Having already spent summers working in retail and made to feel lousy, uninspired,  and knowing that the minimum wage was all I was working for, I knew that I had nothing to lose in taking an unpaid internship.  Money really isn’t everything.

Let me be clear: ‘unpaid labour’ is just that. It’s exploitation, and it’s unethical.  It’s important to provide the legal definition of what constitutes work.  It refers to a set number of hours in which a person is engaged for an extended period of time and being given a defined role, rather than just observing.  The law says that anyone working at the age of 22 or over needs to be paid the national minimum wage.  In contrast, a volunteer is under no obligation to perform work, has no contract or formal arrangement and has no expectation of and do not receive any reward for the work they do besides having their expenses reimbursed.  The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills set up the Graduate Talent Pool, ( wouldn’t be surprised if it has now been axed)and the major concern is that graduates from less well-off backgrounds and those burdened with thousands of pounds of student debt are affected most.  I am that poor graduate and the fact of the matter is everyone else is taking unpaid internships anyway.  There’s a demand for it, especially when it has recently been announced that more 16-24 year olds are out of work right now than at any other time since records began.  Paid internships are gold dust, and having an unpaid internship under your belt will enhance the chance of getting a paid one.

Quid pro quo, or ‘something for something’- that’s what internships are about.  The unethical aspect of some internships is not the fact that they are being unpaid.  The unethical aspect is that the intern did not know what to expect and are exploited instead.  So being an unpaid intern should not mean that you have nothing to do, except refilling the coffee-machine.  I think it’s important for the individual to assess whether the internship is ethical or exploitative, but helpfully the Chartered institute of Personnel and Development has produced these guidelines:

  • Interns should be recruited openly, in the same way as other employees.
  • Interns should be given as much responsibility and diversity in their work as possible.
  • Interns should be allowed time off to attend job interviews.
  • Interns should have a proper induction.
  • Organisations should allocate a specific individual to supervise interns, mentor them, and conduct a formal performance review to evaluate the success of their time with the organisation.
  • On completion of the internship, organisations should provide interns with a reference letter.

Internships offer more than volunteering and random paid jobs.  What is important is that the employer is clear right from the beginning what will be expected, what will be accomplished, and what won’t be on the agenda.  They are supposed to make sure the intern will gain something genuinely useful.  If not, it’s not an internship then.