Elizabeth Balgobin: I'm shocked by the lack of support for the living wage

If you are a charity that aims to relieve poverty or improve the human condition, why would you pay staff less than a living wage?

Elizabeth Balgobin says the living wage prevents people on low salaries having to choose between rent and food
Elizabeth Balgobin says the living wage prevents people on low salaries having to choose between rent and food

Last month marked my 25th anniversary of working in the voluntary sector in a paid capacity. I was involved as a volunteer before that but I had no idea then how vast, complex and interesting this sector is.

Since ending my tenure as chair of Voice4Change England last year, I have had more time to look around the sector and read some of the blogs and online discussion forums. All life is to be found online, and there have been some interesting discussions that have opened my eyes to the fact that some issues on which I thought there was a consensus in the sector are not that way at all. For too long I have been sheltered by seeing and speaking to like-minded people.

After a quarter of a century, I really did not imagine that there was much that could surprise, let alone shock, me - but a discussion about whether the sector should lead the way on the living wage did just that. I have been an advocate of the living wage for more than 10 years. It makes sense to me: if you are a charity with objects to relieve poverty or to improve the human condition, why would you pay staff less than a living wage? It is a small difference, but for people on the lowest salaries it can mean they are not forced into the 'rent or food' dilemma.

A long way to go

The living wage campaign by London Citizens - part of Citizens UK - started back in 2001, but the idea is much older; it was first envisioned by a 19th century Yorkshire Liberal MP and factory owner, Sir Mark Oldroyd.

There is still a long way to go in winning people over, because there are only about 90 voluntary sector organisations in the capital that are signed up as London Living Wage organisations, and only 237 accredited organisations of any type in London. However, this has affected about 19,000 employees, who benefit from an estimated total of £180m in additional income.

Yes, accreditation is a faff, and I can understand organisations not bothering with this bit. It is also difficult to ensure that your supply chains also pay a living wage. Shared offices and shared resources might mean that you cannot directly improve the wages of the cleaner, but I would argue that you should still care and try to do something about it. The London Voluntary Sector Forum, hosted by the London Voluntary Sector Council, has taken this up as part of its work for this year, and I look forward to seeing how it develops.

Times are tough and trustees and directors are constantly seeking the best financial deals possible. Funders have been capping rises in wages on multi-year grants for some time. In order to remain in work, staff in some organisations have taken pay cuts, or at least have not had any pay increases. These are usually not the people paid at the minimum wage: my concern for them is separate. This is about those at even lower pay levels - paid at minimum wage but usually working a lot more than their stated hours and therefore, in practice, getting less than the minimum wage.

Additional hours

A couple of organisations have confessed to me that it is better for them to keep staff at the minimum wage because this ensures that they do not lose benefits. However, this caring attitude does not extend as far as limiting the hours that those staff members work, and they are often expected to do additional hours to meet client needs.

I have heard the argument that those staff should be grateful for having a wage and that volunteers are doing the same work for free. Trustees, do you really believe that? Do you conflate volunteering with paid working? Do you even know the hours that your staff are putting in to deliver services?

Look to your objects, look to your values and challenge yourself to live by these - not only for your beneficiaries, but also for your staff.

Elizabeth Balgobin is a charity governance consultant

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