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We present below a letter written by a support staff UNISON member who works for the University of Birmingham and who is challenging the University’s Senior Management to live off a low pay salary for a month. Please add your name (and message) in the form at the bottom of the page, if you agree with the challenge. We note that we are currently in dispute with the University of Birmingham – following a successful first day of strike action on the University’s Open Day (28th June 2019), we are left with no other choice but to strike again on Tue 16th and Wed 17th July, on the University’s Graduation days. More information can be found underneath the letter.
Dear Mr Vice Chancellor,
I’m writing to give you a little background and insight into the life and struggles as a member of support staff working within the university.
I would like to start off by saying, I love my job, the people I work with and the customers I serve every day.
To help you understand I will give you a little background of my life.
I came to Birmingham 10 years ago to escape domestic violence with nothing but the clothes I stood in and a suitcase for my child, not knowing where I would be living or how I would provide for my child. I spent 3 months living in a women’s refuge relying on state handouts and the generosity of the charity who ran the refuge.
I have worked hard all my life to provide for myself and my children as you have also, so as you can imagine to go from having everything I needed, a nice home, a job I loved, friends and family around me, to having nothing was extremely difficult. I moved into my property with nothing but a second hand mattress, I have gone without for my children to have what they needed and for them to enjoy luxuries I couldn’t otherwise afford, working my way back to a decent standard of living and it was damn hard.
I started to work for the university 4 years ago and felt very lucky to have gotten a job at such a wonderful place.
Forward to last year.
My father was very very poorly and needed an operation, my Mother was sat down and told he may not survive. I don’t have a chauffeur driven car and could not afford the £30 train fare that you earn in 8 minutes to go and give my Mother support and to see my Father for the last time, 3 days later he passed away, I did not get to say my goodbyes.
I work a 36 hour week term time contract with the university taking home after stoppages £977.96, a little over what you earn in 4 hours. From this salary I pay £380 a month rent, £85 a month council tax, £80 a month electric, £60 a month gas, £40 a month water, £13 a month television licence, £112 a month travel for myself and my child to get to work and school, £260 a month childcare costs. During school term this rises to £125 a WEEK during school holidays. If you have a calculator at hand you will see I am already in the red and still have not bought any food or personal items.
So as you can see my income clearly does not cover my outgoings.
I have taken out loans to make ends meet, I have lived on my free staff dinner only, so I could feed my children, I have used food banks on a regular basis. at Christmas I rummage charity shops to look for half decent presents for my children still being careful not to spend too much. Yet I came here for a better life, to escape my struggles but have walked into a different kind of struggle, poverty. Left with no option I have had to take out a second job, working a further 20 plus hours a week to be able to eat and pay other bills such as telephone etc as well as debts I have accumulated from trying to live a basic life.
Just to give you an insight into my working week and time spent with my child.
My alarm goes off at 5am on a Monday morning, I leave my home at 7am taking my son to his childcare setting for 7.30, I arrive at the university at 8.15 to start my 8 hour shift, finishing late most days I start my journey home picking up my now very tired child on the way, by the time we arrive home it is now 7pm my child is worn out after tea and bath and is in bed by 8pm leaving me with no quality time together. This routine is repeated all week until Friday I wake as usual at 5am, today is my short day so hopefully I finish on time so I can be the person picking up my child. This is not to be, there is lots to be done so I stay late and finish my tasks, I then rush to collect my child followed by my grandchild. Once home I do the usual tasks, kiss them goodnight and await my grown up daughter to arrive, 8pm I then leave my home to work my second job arriving home at 8am, my daughter then goes to work and I have my child and hers, on no sleep I do the normal mum/nan routine taking them extra-curricular clubs etc. Then when my daughter returns again at 9pm I leave to work my second job. Sunday morning I arrive back at around 8am and my day is repeated as before, until finally at around 10pm I finally get to sleep for the first time since 5am Friday morning, knowing that in 7 hours’ time my alarm will be ringing again for my next working week.
You see I have very little time to spend with my child and he is missing out because I am left with no choice but to work 2 jobs to pay basic bills. This is not a life I choose this is a life I am given no choice in.
So to end this letter I would like to challenge all senior high earning management within the university and yourself to swap your incomes and outgoings for 1 month, put yourselves truly in our shoes – the catering shoes that we now have to pay for ourselves due to more cutbacks. Then ask yourselves are support staff valued, respected and rewarded as they should be? I understand the bank balance is not a bottomless pit and I understand the need to invest in the university but what I don’t understand is how you can justify taking a hefty bonuses whilst other staff members can’t afford the basic necessities.
All I ask for on behalf of all support staff is that you rethink the pay scales to make it not only fair but also to improve people’s lives, their wellbeing and their families. We give our all to the university no matter what our home situations but are we getting a fair deal in return?
A member of support staff at the University of Birmingham
The letter highlights the importance of, in particular, one of our demands in our current dispute with the University: restructuring the pay spine and setting a budget for it, with no strings attached (i.e. without asking us to give up other benefits such as annual leave and sick pay, as this is what management have always tried to make us do in return). It also raises the issue of childcare costs: the University of Birmingham has refused to even negotiate with the unions on our joint demand for subsidised childcare for staff (you can find it in our joint unions report). We welcome other contributions by members and supporters, highlighting the importance of our demands (and what difference they would make to our lives):
- Living Wage Accreditation
- An above inflation pay rise
- End the gender pay gap
- Meaningfully negotiate with the trade unions on campus on the joint unions’ report (you can find the contents of the report here: uobunison.org.uk/demands2018)
We also note that the University has awarded a 1p pay rise to outsourced Edgbaston Park Hotel and Conference Park, bringing their wages ‘up’ to £8.21/hour. We want all outsourced staff to be brought in-house and for outsourcing to end on our campus. At the same time, 109 of UoB’s senior managers are paid more than £100,000/year, with the VC earning £444,000 + £80,000 bonus, and receives £90,000/year as Chair of the USS pensions scheme.
Please contribute to our Strike Fund if you can: https://gofundme.com/uob-unison-strike-fund