OPINION: HOT ISSUE - Should charities pay a 'living wage' to their employees?

The issue of charity wages has reared its head again. Last week, civic activism group Telco followed its call to City institutions to pay contractors a 'living wage' with a challenge to the voluntary sector to do the same. It wants to see all organisations pay their workers and agency staff at least £5.80-£6.70 an hour

Catherine Howarth, community organiser, Telco - YES

Charities tackling poverty and supporting the vulnerable face a real dilemma - they want their limited resources to go as far as possible, but making resources stretch can result in very poor pay and employment benefits for staff, thereby contributing to household poverty among workers employed in the sector.

Charities should be aiming to adopt a 'living wage' for employees and agency staff. This will require co-ordination across the sector to ensure that those charities taking an ethical line on this issue don't lose out in the competition for contracts.

Many of the UK's biggest children's and pensioners' charities are signatories to a petition inviting the Government to research minimum income standards, the basis of calculating a living wage. In signing, these organisations have shown commitment to the idea that people should get the minimum income required for healthy living. The next step is to ensure that their staff and sub-contractors get a living wage.

Chris Ball, national voluntary sector secretary, Amicus - YES

Emphatically so! Those who work for peanuts, often doing jobs that are vital to the comfortable existence of the rest of us, deserve proper recognition.

Charity shop managers are a case in point. Typically, they organise armies of volunteers, and manage operations to generate funds by selling direct to the public. Yet, you would be amazed at how mean some well known charities can be.

And there are tens of thousands of workers who provide personal care services, vital to the independence or comfort of their clients, yet their reward is pitiful. Some workers are so badly paid, let's face it, that they can't afford to join a union, but they are the very ones that most need us to safeguard their interests - which is why we allow them to join on a very low subscription.

We have been pressing for decent standard wage levels in charities for 20 years to my certain knowledge, and I have no hesitation in supporting this campaign.

Shirley Scott, chief executive, Charity Finance Directors' Group - NO

In response to the question, the considered answer must be 'no', but that is not to say it shouldn't be 'yes' in some instances.

Charity trustees are duty-bound to do what they believe to be in the best interests of their charity - i.e. the pursuit of their charitable objectives.

A charity with objectives to relieve poverty might conclude that its staff should get a living wage as a means of tackling poverty in society.

Equally, the charity may decide it is important to pay a living wage to support its credentials as an employer, or protect its reputation in the eyes of its supporters.

However, you cannot say that such considerations must inevitably apply to all charities. For example, medical research charities may not work to objectives relevant to the relief of poverty. If it does not help such a charity in any way to pay a living wage, the trustees might be criticised for paying over the odds for services. Charities have to perform a delicate balancing act, and the objectives of the charity should always be the prime consideration.

John Burnell, consultant, CF Appointments - YES

All praise to Telco's chairman, Paul Regan, for addressing in practical terms what should have been on all our consciences for far too long - the scandal of continuing low pay in parts of the voluntary sector.

It was not so long ago that many charities were complaining about the introduction of the minimum wage. One has to wonder how well motivated those staff being paid starvation wages were. Every piece of research has shown that, while you can build on goodwill in the sector to get your staff to go the extra mile, you've still got to get the basic wage packet right.

There will be some charities that specifically attract people who are not interested in the salary, and others that make it a specific point to reflect the wage levels of the communities they serve. But these are the exceptions, and staff enter willingly into such arrangements.

As for the rest, a happy workforce is a productive workforce, and a key element of that happiness is a decent living wage. I'm sure that most Third Sector readers would agree - how many of you would be prepared to work even for the £6.70 being proposed?

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