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The Campaign for a Living Wage at UEL: Migrant Workers and Political Opportunities

July 28, 2011 Leave a comment

What opportunities exist for low paid workers in the cleaning industry, drawn largely from migrant communities, to improve their pay and working conditions? On the face of it, the current circumstances appear unfavourable. Following the financial crisis of 2008 the UK economy is currently experiencing low growth. This creates pressure on the incomes of poorer families and puts particular pressure on the wages of low paid, non-unionised contract workers. There is also little sign in the reversal of the trend towards outsourcing. Both public and private organisations continue to seek savings through outsourcing services like catering, cleaning and security.

Despite this unpromising environment there has been a number of high-profile and successful campaigns to achieve a living wage for contract staff in the last decade. These campaigns have been led by community organising groups such as London Citizens and Trade Unions (T&G, Unite and Unison). The campaigns achieved their first notable successes with Homerton and St Clements (Mile End) Hospitals in June 2003. This was followed by striking successes in Canary Wharf and the City of London when Barclays Bank, HSBC, Deutsche, Lehmann Brothers, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, KPMG, RBS, PWC all agreed to pay a living wage to their externally contracted staff, between January 2004 and September 2005. This was followed by campaigns in the HE sector with first Queen Mary, then the LSE, SOAS, Birkbeck and UCL agreeing to pay a living wage. UEL became the first post-92 university to agree to pay the living wage in November 2010 after a six month campaign led by TELCO and Unison. This was finally implemented in August 2011 with cleaning staff receiving £8.30 per hour and achieving union recognition.

Our primary concern in this research project is to gauge what social and political capital organisers were able to ‘tap into’ during the campaign. Those involved in the campaign were struck by how easy it was to ‘organise’ contract staff, to turn up to meetings, to attend actions and speak to the media. Doubtless this could be explained to some extent by their interest in increasing their pay and improving their working conditions. It also suggested that organisers were able to draw upon existing resources, possibly specific to close-knit migrant groups.

This project examines these hunches. Through questionnaires and interviews with those who were centrally involved in the campaign we explore the social and political capital of the migrant workforce at UEL. Participants are asked about their experience of migration and the membership of community groups or associations like churches and community associations. They are also asked about their experience of involvement in the campaign.

The purpose of the project is to understand the success of the campaign at UEL with a view to informing future campaigns. Insofar as the project constitutes a piece of action-research we are working closely with London Citizens and the Hidden Workforce Unit at Unison. Those involved in the research project Dr Ana Lopes, Dr Tim Hall and Dr Erika Cudworth were all involved in the campaign and have close links with the cleaning staff. Carlos Velez a student at the school of Health and Biosciences is also working on the project as a student intern.

A number of outputs are envisaged: an article on the Living Wage Campaign at UEL by Ana Lopes and Tim Hall and an article on the significance of living wage campaigns in the contemporary landscape of political activism by Tim Hall and Erika Cudworth.

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