Opinion: Third Voice - It's up to the sector not to play dirty with cleaners

Tim Gibbs, researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research; he is also a member of the Living Wage Action team

Cleaners at the Houses of Parliament made headlines this summer.

They held their first strike, complaining of low wages, no sick pay and only 12 days of paid holiday per year. They threatened to strike again this autumn - and to publish a 'list of shame' of MPs who have not supported their cause.

How does this compare with the third sector's treatment of the twilight workers who clean our offices at night? In August, the Institute for Public Policy Research raised the pay of its cleaners. For the first time, they were paid a London Living Wage of £6.70 per hour. As a leading progressive think tank and a charity, the IPPR openly advocates such a practical promotion of the values of social justice.

London's cleaners are some of its most vulnerable citizens. Thirty three per cent are on the minimum wage and most work part-time, irregular hours with little prospect of their pay rising above rock-bottom. Cleaning contracts have been squeezed in recent years as offices have held down costs.

Since 2001, London Citizens, a community alliance that campaigns on poverty issues, has been campaigning for a London Living Wage. It led successful campaigns at Homerton Hospital and Canary Wharf. The campaign has been endorsed by the Mayor of London's Economics Unit, which advocates £6.70 an hour.

Yet the third sector has often been slow to put its own offices in order.

We operate in an insecure funding environment and face constant cost pressures, which often means a hand-to-mouth existence.

Improving cleaners' pay requires a tough budget choice.

Fair trade tea and recycled paper are easy to procure, but finding a cleaning company that will pay a living wage was a struggle. IPPR became a Living Wage organisation when approached by Via3 Office, a new business offering environmentally friendly cleaning and recycling services. It was happy to incorporate a 'Living Wage premium' into our new cleaning contract, and now offers this premium to other organisations. This month, NGOs will start a campaign to bring the London Living Wage to third sector offices across the capital.

The responsibility to pay a Living Wage lies with us all, but especially with the voluntary sector. We campaign to make poverty history abroad and against social injustice in Britain. We must make that tough decision and find the extra money.

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