THE BLOG

The Living Wage and Students' Unions

05/11/2014 15:33 | Updated 03 January 2015

After an incredible, but long struggle, last week news broke that staff at the Ritzy Cinema in London will now be paid the wage they've been fighting for, and no staff will face redundancies.

Over the past months, I've been keeping an eye on the incredible campaign. I've been to pickets, I've tweeted my support, donated to a strike fund, but most importantly I've been inspired. It's National Living Wage Week this week, and I think it's important to break down what it is, and why we're fighting for it.

The Living Wage Commission promotes the living wage. The wage currently stands at £7.65 an hour outside London, and £8.80 per hour in the capital. The figures are set independently of the Commission, at the income level needed to live outside 'working poverty'. The Greater London Authority sets the figure for London, and a department at Loughborough University do it for the rest of the UK.

To me, the very idea that we have to fight for a living wage is absurd, and signifies the mess that our society is in. There shouldn't have to be a fight to be paid the minimum amount we need to live. It should be a given. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the living wage is set at what households need 'in order to have a minimum acceptable standard of living.' It makes me sick that companies, charities, and institutions can get away with paying anything less.

However, they do. More than 5 million workers in the UK currently earn less than the living wage. Yes, 5 million. Something has to give.

In the run up to the general election, it's vital that we are lobbying parties to introduce a statutory living wage, to ensure that this can't carry on.

Looking to parliament, there are movements. Ed Miliband has pledged to raise the minimum wage to £8, on first inspection a great step. The problem with this Labour policy is that £8 in 2020, according to Bank of England inflation targets, will be worth the equivalent to £7.10 today, well below the current living wage requirements. What Miliband is promising isn't the equivalent of the living wage today, and that's not taking London costs into account.

What do we want? £8 an hour. When do we want it? 2020. I think not Ed.

The Green Party are making a bolder pledge, offering a minimum wage of £10 an hour by 2020, the equivalent of £8.88 today. This would take earnings above the London living wage for everyone. This is a real alternative, that would pull hundreds of thousands of people out of working poverty. But hey, the Greens don't deserve a platform on the TV debates, best ignore them eh?

Meanwhile, the current coalition Government have overseen the introduction of workfare, which has seen people on Job Seekers Allowance forced to work for no pay for some of the country's most profitable companies. We're waiting to see what the Tories will say on the living wage, but I'm not holding my breath. The Lib Dems are pretty silent too, but I wouldn't trust a word they say anyhow.

But what does this mean to me? As a Full Time Elected Officer at a students' union, I've thrown quickly into the position of managing and directing a massive organisation, with large turnovers, lots of staff, and massive burden of responsibility. People's jobs and livelihood are in mine and colleagues hands. The same is true up and down the UK.

Like other unions around the UK, at Sussex pride ourselves on being a fair and ethical employer. We boycott Coca-Cola, we recycle our paper, and we don't exist for profit. However there is a gaping hole that I discovered on day one of the job, we don't pay our student staff the living wage.

Watching students and officers at unions around the UK become a living wage employer has inspired me, and the other officers at Sussex, to make this history. As a union we need to provide services, and don't make a profit. It's not as if labour is used to line the pockets of tax evading billionaires. But that's not the point.

I'm proud that at the University of Sussex Students' Union we are now taking steps to make this a reality. Over the coming weeks we'll be preparing for a referendum so students can have their voices heard on this issue, and soon we'll be on our way to paying a living wage for all. Students' Unions need to be at the forefront of ethical employment, an example to employers in our communities of how to treat staff. Paying the living wage is an important step in this process.

That's why I'm working with many others around the country to make sure that all Students' Unions pay the living wage. We don't really have a choice, it's our responsibility.