A Living Wage in London

Against the Current, No. 122, May/June 2006

Jane Wills

AT A TIME when the United States is associated with the export of neoconservatism in the form of George Bush, readers will be heartened to read this tale of a more positive export as the living wage movement has leapt across the Atlantic over to the United Kingdom.

Spearheaded by a broad-based organization called London Citizens, the living wage campaign has won better pay for at least 2000 workers in London. In addition, the campaign has been important in allowing union branches (locals) to develop mutually beneficial relationships with community organizations and to recruit new members and leaders.

Launched in April 2001, the campaign has systematically worked with trade unions to target hospitals in East London, cleaning contractors and clients at the prestigious Canary Wharf development, the voluntary sector and higher education establishments. Some 2000 domestic and catering workers in the hospitals and banks are now on living wage contracts which include a commitment to paying £6.70 (roughly $14) an hour, improved holiday entitlement and sick pay for the first time.

The longterm advantages for trade unions in working with the community are perhaps most clearly illustrated in the way the campaign has successfully targeted official public bodies in London. London Citizens used the 2004 Mayoral elections to mobilize their affiliates as voters and citizens. The candidates were asked to support the “People’s Agenda for London” in front of a capacity crowd in the city center. These demands put Mayoral support for the living wage at the top of the list.

As a result London’s elected Mayor, Ken Livingstone, has since taken responsibility for publishing an official living wage rate for London, which is to be updated annually, from April 2005.

Seeing the opportunities proffered by the bid to host the 2012 Olympics in London, the campaign has also put concerted pressure on the bid team to develop an ethical Games. Again, the campaign used a powerful mixture of mobilization and quiet diplomacy to put community interests at the heart of the bid. The official presentation made in Singapore in July 2005 reflected the multicultural community of East London and the importance of leaving a legacy to what is currently one of the poorest places in the UK.

London’s 2012 Olympics are now set to break new records for their legacy as much as their games. The procurement principles include the following words, providing a mechanism for ensuring that living wages are to be paid to all those building, cleaning and catering at the site:

“A key assessment criterion in the selection of contractors should be their commitment to … deliver a programme of local community involvement and benefits including: employee representation; fair and ethical employment sourcing; London living wage; supplier diversity; local labour; community benefit; training and supply chain initiatives.”

Readers will be pleased to know that the campaign has now spread to Birmingham, the second largest city in Britain.

For more information about the campaign and ongoing research see www.london citizens.org.uk and www.geog.qmul.ac.uk/globalcities.

ATC 122, May-June 2006