The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Low Pay at the University of Nottingham – the cleaners’ perspective.

The Living Wage/Anti-casualisation campaign group at the University of Nottingham hosted the event Nottingham – Living Wage City? Living Wage University? on Tuesday, 13 June. It brought together a number of positive examples of Living Wage employers from Nottingham as well as illustrated the hardship suffered by people on less than the minimum wage, people on casual teaching contracts or fixed-term research contracts.

Cleaners at Nottingham University are one of the lowest paid groups of staff members. In this blog post, the address to the event by Sonja, a cleaner at the University, is reprinted. We have altered her name for purposes of anonymity.


What does low-pay do to many of the cleaners at Nottingham University? I shall draw upon testimonies from the booklet Living close to the edge: Confronting Insecurity and Low Pay at the University of Nottingham as well as on conversations and discussions with some of my fellow cleaners.

One particularly striking example is from Corrine: ‘No money to go out.  My wages here just cover my Council Tax and rent. I’m paid on Thursdays at the end of the month, by Saturday I am already overdrawn again. While my daughter was still living with me, I had access to benefits. Now it is much more difficult to survive. I need to look for a second job to make ends meet. I have a contract of 16 hours. I try to get overtime as much as possible, but we depend very much on our supervisor in this respect, on whether our face fits. My wages are so low that I am not part of the University of Nottingham pension scheme, nor do I earn enough to pay into a private pension.’


Packed room at the Nottingham - Living Wage City? Living Wage University? event. 


Another mark of the poor in this society is that need for frugality, shown by study after study time and time again. Cleaners are no exception. As one of my colleagues notes ‘I cut down on all bills as much as possible, I use the car only to go to work, all my expenses have to be tightly calculated. I depend on bargains when shopping for clothes and food, things on half-price, the sales. I don’t go out. I simply can’t afford to go out.’ Indeed this adds stress and increases the time of shopping when you madly rush around searching for the latest bargain. To use a story of one of my colleagues, ‘If cauliflower is not on sale, I go without’.

This moves us to another big complaint, which is more work without extra pay. I have heard stories of staff that leave, not being substituted, or the general work load of my cleaner colleagues being increased. As one of my colleagues put it, ‘Cleaners who are leaving are not being replaced. We constantly have to work more without extra pay. It is getting harder and harder with this regular increase in pressure at work. They won’t pay us an extra hour to make up for people who have left.’

I have also heard of cases where people use food banks to supplement their income, a point of particular shame. The report Emergency Use Only explains why: ‘For those who were in work, food bank use was directly related to their employment income being insufficient to cover individual or family living expenses. This was due to a combination of low wages and working hours being reduced through limited availability of work or as a result of caring responsibilities (as illustrated by Heidi and Ian’s story; Ian was required by the family court to reduce his working hours to care for his children – Box 3.4)’ (Oxfam/GB, 2014: 50).

Indeed, a retort I often hear to the low working hours of many cleaners is, why not work more, increase the hours? True it is a solution for some, but for others, who have carrying responsibilities, be it as single parents, be it as carers for their elderly parents, this is not an option.

I will conclude the cleaners’ case, with a powerful statement that I feel encapsulates the nature of our work and the purpose of why we are gathered here today. It is from an interview of Irene Garcia in the LA Times who was from the union Justice for Janitors: ‘I have a dream that one day people will know that when we clean out their trash cans and their desks…; we do it with love. We do it so they’ll come in the next morning and feel comfortable and feel good.’

Also let’s not forget Nottingham University’s Moto: ‘A city is built on wisdom’. This has served Nottingham University well through the decades, making it into the powerhouse and innovation hub that it is today. This institution has brought innumerable benefits to the city and citizens of Nottingham, by being one of the biggest employers giving us a great hospital, clean green spaces, great education and much more.

With this I urge the University of Nottingham to use its pioneering spirit and foresight to be one of the leaders, as it is in so many other fields and ways (Economics, Physics, Medicine, Pharmacy, Nursing, Law, Philosophy, Mathematics, Chemistry and the list goes on), in ensuring a better living for all its staff.

And come on Nottingham University Student’s Union, for all the good that you guys do for students and staff it sure takes you long to make the obvious choice. It is not only Oxford Student’s Union that can afford to be accredited as a Living Wage employer, one of your ‘arch rivals’ De Montfort University Student’s Union has also been accredited. Do not linger for too long!

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