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.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Nottingham – Living Wage City? Living Wage University?

Bringing together speakers from trade unions, employers and those working for less than the Living Wage from across Nottingham, this event on Tuesday, 13 June was part of the Living Wage/Anti-casualisation campaign at the University of Nottingham. The purpose of the meeting was twofold. First, we celebrated a number of Living Wage employers in Nottingham, setting a good example for others to follow. Second, it was highlighted that the University of Nottingham is still not paying all members of staff a Living Wage despite of year on year multi-million pounds of surplus. In this respect, we launched our booklet Living close to the edge:Confronting Insecurity and Low Pay at the University of Nottingham, which compiles anonymised statements by University of Nottingham staff members talking about their hardship resulting from low pay and casualised working conditions.

The Living Wage is an hourly rate, currently £8.45 outside London, set independently and updated annually in November by the Living Wage Foundation.

Paying the Living Wage

Our first speaker was Jane from the Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham. Although a small business in a highly competitive market with big book store chains and online retailers, employees are still paid the Living Wage, she pointed out. Importantly, this acknowledges that all workers, whether they are 18, 21 or 25 years old, are in need of a Living Wage. There must be no age discrimination. In turn, Greg Marshall (Labour Party), a Broxtowe Borough Councillor, told the meeting that the local council does not only pay the Living Wage, but also seeks to ensures that all the suppliers pay their employees a Living Wage. This clearly demonstrates the importance of local government for the economy and fair wages as a whole. 

Labour Councillor Greg Marshall

Against the background of austerity and severe cuts imposed on local governments by the national government, Toby Neal (Labour Party), a Nottingham City Councillor, outlined how the council has, nonetheless, managed to move towards paying a Living Wage to all its employees and ring-fenced funding in this respect for at least the next three years. Importantly, a Living Wage is not only good for employees, but also the employer. Since the Council paid the Living Wage, the amount of days employees have been on sick leave per year has drastically declined.

Sajid Mohammed
Sajid Mohammed from the local, grassroots charity Himmah that runs a food bank amongst other things, illustrated the close relationship between low wages and the increase in number of people depending on free food from food banks. "A cleaner, with 3 jobs, uses our food bank. These are real working people who are struggling to live due to their low pay." Clearly, a Living Wage is a matter of decent living as well as personal dignity. Nobody should find herself/himself in a situation of having to go to a food bank in the first place. ‘I don’t want to run a food bank’, Sajid concluded.

Poverty pay and insecure working conditions at the University of Nottingham

And where is the University of Nottingham? Despite year-on-year multi-million pound surpluses – e.g. £25 m in the years ending 31st July 2014 and 31st July 2015 – and an infrastructure investment programme of £580 million between 2014 and 2020, it is not prepared to sign up to the Living Wage Foundation. Yes, in the past two years the University did increase pay of the lowest paid staff members to the Living Wage rate in negotiations in August. Nevertheless, as soon as the new Living Wage rates were announced in November of the same year, the University was falling behind again. In the estimate of the Living Wage/Anti-casualisation campaign, hundreds of people employed by the University of Nottingham are currently paid below the Living Wage.

Labour Councillor Toby Neal 

The hardship resulting from low pay and highly pressurised working conditions are expressed in the anonymised testimonies by University of Nottingham cleaning staff, compiled in the booklet Living close to the edge: ConfrontingInsecurity and Low Pay at the University of Nottingham, launched at the event.

‘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. 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’ (Cleaner, Personal Testimony).

‘Management is never satisfied. We are not allowed any breaks or take drinks, not even water. We are even banned from talking to each other during work. We are nobodies. They don’t regard us. Staff morale is very low’ (Cleaner, Personal Testimony).

We urge the University to sign up officially as a Living Wage employer, committing itself to paying the Living Wage, as recalculated each November.

However, hardship is not only expressed in wages below the Living Wage at Nottingham University. It is also reflected in the highly precarious situation of casually employed teaching staff.

‘Working as a Teaching Associate is not easy. It means constant worry about paying rent, bills and living expenses. It involves endless stress about where the next short-term contract will come from’ (Casually employed Teacher, Personal Testimony).

The situation of many researchers on one fixed-term contract after another, never sure for how long they can rely on employment, is equally precarious. This includes the practice of so-called permanent contracts, which have however mentioned an end date linked to underlying funding.

‘The uncertainty of ‘permanent’ contracts that -in reality- are fixed-term contracts linked to end-of-funding is devastating. The lack of personal control is asphyxiating, it is unbearable. And now, what am I expected to do? Shall I make my research track record even more inconsistent? Shall I desperately jump to another ‘permanent’ contract and just wait for a better opportunity? Like a rat deserting a sinking ship? Like a rat. I have children and a mortgage and a contract ending after Christmas, but who cares?’ (Casual Researcher, Personal Testimony).

The campaign calls for the University to agree in formal, collective negotiations with the University and College Union improved working conditions for casually employed staff members and researchers on fixed-term contracts.

However, it is not only the University of Nottingham, which does not pay a Living Wage. The Students Union (SU) of the university too is not a Living Wage employer either. To address this situation, the community SU officer Abel Hartman together with several student societies is currently running a referendum campaign to ensure that the SU becomes a Living Wage employer (see campaign video). 

Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

16 June 2017

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