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Councils must make their contracts living wage

Andy HullIslington Council is leading the campaign with Citizens UK for a living wage in local government. We believe that no-one should have to do a hard day’s work for less than they can live on. So we are putting our money where our mouth is to recognise the dignity of work.

For us, the big challenge has been to secure the living wage for our contractors, acknowledging that layers of contracts should not absolve councils of their responsibility for the pay of those who, in the end, work on their behalf.

Step one was to review our thousands of existing contracts. Where we identified a major contract with time left to run and workers on less than the living wage, we sent a senior delegation from the council to meet the boss of the firm in question. Our leader would make clear to their chief executive how important the living wage is to us and how marginal a cost (thousands) paying it would entail for the company, compared to the overall value (millions) of their council contract.

In almost every case, the companies did the right thing and agreed to pay the living wage out of their own coffers, at no extra cost to the borough. It was an exercise in assertive negotiation, recognising that the council was in a position of strength. Such moves shift a burden to the private sector from the public purse, as the company then foots the bill for decent pay and the taxpayer no longer has to subsidise them via tax credits.

The government is cutting its funding to Islington Council in half 

yet we are able to get on the front foot in tackling the scourge of poverty pay

Step two was to build the living wage as a requirement into our procurement process, moving forwards. This meant a paradigm shift for our procurement staff: for years, elected members had asked them to drive down the cost of council contracts, which had inevitably put downward pressure on contractors’ wages; suddenly, we were asking them to ensure our contractors got a decent rate of pay. Understandable concerns were raised about staying on the right side of the European Union’s posted workers directive. We found that, taking a case-by-case, risk-based approach, we needn’t do anything illegal to make this work. And where we were procuring as part of consortia, we could apply Islington-specific subsidiary terms and conditions to secure the living wage.

As a result, we soon reached a position where 92% of our contractors, including security guards, school cooks and litter pickers, were paid at least the living wage.

Since then, we have made it our mission to try to win the living wage for the remaining 8% of our contractors, all of whom work in adult social care. These people do some of the most important work in our society, caring for our loved ones, but they work in an industry in which the dominant business model is predicated on low pay. After a lot of hard work, we have now secured the living wage for all our (domiciliary) home care staff, for the time that they spend travelling between appointments as well as for their contact time. This has cost us an extra £600,000. Over five hundred carers (mostly BME women) have benefited from the move, 180 of them Islington residents. We don’t do 15 minute visits (except where specifically requested by the recipient) and we do not offer zero hours contracts (all our carers are guaranteed a minimum number of hours). No other council in the country has managed this yet.

That has got us to 98% living wage compliance in terms of our contracts, leaving only our (residential) care homes left to crack. This final step is proving far from easy. Some of our care home contracts, signed by the previous administration, still have decades left to run. Even if we made the money available, the providers have said they wouldn’t take it, as they have similar staff doing equivalent work for other boroughs in nearby homes (or even in the same home) and they’re concerned about equal pay. It’s all very complicated, but we think that with a concerted regional and national effort, we can make progress. Indeed, last month we had a breakthrough, when we tasked our staff with securing a living wage contract for one of our care homes, St Anne’s. Again, we’re the first council in the country to take this important step.

Local authorities should pay the living wage. Everyone who cares for our parents, cooks our kids’ meals, staffs our pools and keeps our offices safe and clean deserves to earn enough to live on. It doesn’t have to break the bank. The government is cutting its funding to Islington Council in half between 2010 and 2016, yet we are able to get on the front foot when it comes to tackling the scourge of poverty pay. There are obstacles along the way, of course, but they are all surmountable. In the end, all we really need is the political will.

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