Living Wage Campaign: misguided halo-polishing or a magical solution?

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Proposition: The Living Wage Campaign will only put our scouts out of a job

Moral revulsion seems to have broken out across Oxford over the plight of the scout as various JCRs across the university campaign for the Living Wage. The contention is to improve their quality of life, to quote this very paper’s lead article – let scouts ‘live in dignity’. But is there any dignity in unemployment?

Oxford colleges are not running on unlimited funds. They cannot just suddenly raise all scouts’ wages without some sort of fallout. It makes for great rhetoric to juxtapose St. John’s £313 million endowment against the Scout’s hourly wage, but that is not the whole story. Endowments are used to provide various services important to improving social equality, including bursaries and Access work. Living wage proponents do not consider possible costs, such as rents, from rising wages of all Scouts; for St John’s raising pay could see an 11% rise in these costs. If colleges are forced to cut back on services through higher expenditures, who is to say they will not reduce the number of scouts or instead cut back on other expenditures, such as Access?

Given the choice between losing their jobs or not then its reasonable to assume people would rather be in employment then out. And what if colleges do not decide to fire their employees? Then there may be losses elsewhere. Not necessarily in the Access and Bursary Schemes, but perhaps in one of the numerous functions a college provides; such as sports facilities. Portraying the Living Wage as an almost consequence-free scheme for good where the only cost is the spare change in our pockets is fallacious.

Colleges have not actually broken any laws when offering employees wages. At the end of the day, the relationship is mutually beneficial. If employees did not benefit from the wage deal struck they would not strike it.

Implementing the Living Wage is not guaranteed to lead to a magical improvement in Scouts’ quality of life; there is a genuine threat that it may well lead to some of them losing their jobs as colleges are forced by the economic pressures of higher wages to take on less staff. Even if colleges do maintain the number of Scouts, college bursaries or other vital support they offer may be reduced. While the motivation of the campaign may be pure, the long-term consequences may be disastrous for the people the campaign is trying to help.

-Saket Kumar

Rebuttal: Saket ignores the patent unfairness in our current system

“I start my shift at 6am and have to take a bus at 5.30am, then straight after my shift I look after some children from 9.15 until 5pm. Until a month ago I had to work night shifts at a hospital. It is very difficult to see my son, sometime he leaves notes saying, ‘mum, where are you?’”

That’s just one story from an Oxford cleaner, but unfortunately it is a common experience among those trapped in low-paid jobs in our university.

The Living Wage Campaign believes a job should keep you out of poverty not in it, without a living wage families struggle to provide even the essentials for their family and themselves.  And we are not alone in holding anything less than a living wage to be unacceptable, the Prime Minister, the leader of the opposition, the mayor of London and the Oxford City Council do too.

The Living Wage Campaign does consider all the possible costs and impacts for the university, and we are in continuous dialogue with the university officials. The campaign is not indifferent to the other important financial responsibilities the university has, far from it, we want to work with colleges and libraries to help them produce fair and balanced budgets that satisfy staff, students and the bursars. This is not some utopian vision, it can be done. If universities with massively smaller endowments like Queen Mary’s  can afford to pay their staff the London Living Wage of £8.40, then why can’t our university stake out a mere £7.20 for its staff?

Of course a living wage isn’t a “magical” solution, and that’s why we work with low-paid Oxford workers to make sure we’re campaigning for the improvements they would like to see.  It’s not always easy, many of the staff we talk to don’t have perfect English, are fearful of losing their jobs and have only a hazy knowledge of their employment rights, but despite all this, some scouts are still prepared to come forward and demand fair treatment. Recently in St John’s, college officials, students and cleaners have come together to consider how the college could go about paying a Living Wage.

People often describe their colleges, and the university as a ‘community’, yet until we start to pay all those whose work for our benefit a wage sufficient to live on, surely we have no right to such a title?

-Sam Norwood

PHOTO/djr xi