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.

Protester, UCL Living Wage Campaign

 

The fact that UCL have agreed to pay the Living Wage before KCL is shameful for us.  Malcolm Grant, Provost of UCL, gave a firm commitment to pay the London Living Wage to all contract staff at University College London on September 28th. Approximately 200 cleaners and catering staff are due to benefit from the introduction of the London Living Wage of £7.85 an hour, many of whom are currently paid £5.80 an hour (the national minimum wage). The decision follows the humiliating coverage that UCL received in the Evening Standard the week before, for initially rejecting to pay the Living Wage whilst Malcolm Grant earned an annual pay package of £404, 742, and the decision of UCL academics to write publicly to Mr Grant urging him to pay the Living Wage.

UCL is the latest London university to sign up for this higher rate of pay – with commitments already made by Queen Mary, London School of Economics, Birkbeck, Goldsmiths, School of Oriental and African Studies, London Business School, Institute of Education and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.  It is a travesty that King’s College London has not joined the community of Living Wage employers yet.

I was at the CitizensUK Youth Assembly when I saw competing universities of KCL being acknowledged as LW employers. It was frustrating for me.

 

Students and staff at KCL have been campaigning for a Living Wage since 2008.  It is a disgrace that some of the staff at our university are not earning the basic wage needed to survive in London.  It makes good business sense and it is the right thing to do.  If our university wants to live up to being an ethical institute and ‘creating a healthy society, in every sense of the word – body, mind and spirit’, the first place to start is within the university walls.

 

You would think that with the increase in tuition fees, travel costs and high levels of redundancy, students would be the first ones at the polling stations.  It is hardly unreasonable to claim that KCL students have every right to express their wrath with regards to the MP’s expenses scandal.  How many normal people would be able to claim for the expenses of clearing a moat, as Douglas Hogg did?  What ordinary Joe Blog would be petulant enough to make a ridiculous claim for a duck house or Hobnobs?  Whilst the Government bails out the bankers, universities are forced to make cuts.  KCL students in particular ought to know what this means- just talk to any student or staff from the engineering department.  However, despite all of this, there is political apathy and lack of student activism, with regards to the Strand Campus in particular, which I find disconcerting.  We had the student elections a couple of weeks ago: how many people bothered to vote?  In fact, I am not aware that anyone handed me a leaflet to vote for them, I don’t recall anyone with badges or rosettes and megaphones.  In fact, were there any hustings or a platform for us to actually engage and question candidates over their manifestos?  Of course, there have been fantastic posters and campaigning via facebook and twitter.  I am fully aware that voting online has made the process far more practical.  Yet the worrying thing for me is that many students hardly care.

Perhaps this is because the British population as a whole are indifferent to politics.  The common reasoning being that ‘they are all the same’ anyway.  When we hear interviews that politicians give, like the infamous one by Sir Nicholas Winterton who claimed that MP’s had the right to claim for first class rail travel, because people in standard-class carriages were a ‘different type of people’ who would ‘peer over his shoulder’, it is not churlish of people to think that politicians are unrepresentative.  Being sceptical of politicians is a thoroughly British sentiment anyway: we’re all wandering how convenient it is that Samantha Cameron is pregnant during her husband’s election campaign, or how Gordon Brown became all sentimental in that Piers Morgan interview, and well, sceptical of Nick Clegg in general.

Nevertheless, it can be argued that there is so much at stake on May 6th.  Recent polls are close and there is a growing possibility of there being a hung parliament.  It is hard to miss the extra effort that the main parties are putting in to pull in the voters and sway the floater voters.  It won’t work, but it’s a good try.  Whether it’s the first American style television debates, or through the ‘alternative elections’ via twitter, Facebook and YouTube or the commentary on the frocks of the wives, it is impossible to ignore the elections.

So what I cannot fathom is why students are so indifferent?  This will be the first General Election that I will be voting in, as is the case for most undergraduates.  At the time of writing this, the main parties have announced their manifestos- all of which will probably affect us now or in the near future.  Surely that’s an incentive?

On the other hand, perhaps the student population have been made to be apathetic by the politicians themselves.  For how long should we endure those damned lies, broken promises, illegal wars…the list of deception goes on.  In addition, perhaps the rosy days of a vibrant and active student population are over.  Yes, we are no longer in the 1960’s and some of us need to part-time jobs, and simply do not have the time to go to meetings or campaign.  But if that is the case, that is a dire indictment of society.  It won’t resolve anything if we sit in a bubble and do nothing!  The youth are meant to be the movers and shakers and initiating change.  It was the youth in South Africa that challenged Apartheid in the Soweto uprising, June 16th 1976.  It was the students that made the first public protests against the Vietnam War.  And yes, at KCL we also have the capability to be active and make a stand against injustice, as was seen last year when students protested against the War in Gaza.

Earlier this year, I was in Chapters and a guy who wanted to be a student councillor asked me what issues are concerning me.  I explained that I was worried that there was not enough accountability- there ought to be frequent meetings with the Sabbatical Officers.  Annual General Meetings are not enough.  Students from different societies and clubs should be able to interact and engage more, so perhaps we ought to have stalls on a Wednesday afternoon in the car park to provide a vibrant atmosphere.  Also, there should be hustings.  His only response: ‘Oh, you know what hustings are?’  I think that sums it all.