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Impact of cost of living crisis on members

Rates of pay at the University dropped below the real living wage rate last month – there are now hundreds of band 200 and grade 2 staff (including those on the University’s new pay scale) who are being paid less than the amount the independent Living Wage foundation has assessed they need to meet essential living expenses.

The silence from the University on this has been shocking – they committed to match the living wage as part of the settlement of our 2019 dispute and in every previous year this has been implemented, or at least confirmed, soon after the announcement of the new rate of pay in November. This year they seem to be content to leave staff struggling over Christmas.

As part of this, our Vice Chancellor has been presenting the pay rise staff received for accepting the terms and conditions changes as much more favourable than it is in practice, giving a figure of “21%” in both our conversation on the picket line and in the VC’s open forum. This figure only applies to a tiny number of staff in very specific circumstances. The higher rates tend to be awarded to new staff, in what looks to be a recruitment centred rather than a retention, loyalty minded or genuinely cost-of-living focused policy.

The pay rise is also made up of different parts:

  • Our normal annual pay rise: to make up for inflation this year (6%).
  • The pay spine reform increase: (which you have to accept terms and conditions changes to get). This part is supposed to make up for how far pay has dropped compared to other employers, and how members have been “mapped” to the new structure based on their existing position (which also reflects the fact that many staff have had no prospect of pay progression for the past two years).

Whatever percentage rise the University claim, staff have still fallen below the real living wage before the new rate of pay was even implemented – the living wage is now at £12 per hour. The lowest paid at the University receive either £11.55 on the old terms, or £11.87 if they have been forced into accepting the terms and conditions changes. The living wage is already set by the foundation with a view as to how affordable it is for a wide range of different organisations, and the University’s “great offer” is not even clearing this low bar. 

What are the real-life impacts on staff?

With the best will in the world, these rates of pay can seem abstract and the real impact of them might not be clear to all. Recently the committee asked for feedback from our members about the impact of the recent rises in cost of living on them. The responses we received just to our initial request were staggering and incredibly emotive.

Lots of responses have mentioned the impact of increased financial pressure on their mental health, saying they “feel ashamed,” are in a state of constant worry or that the “increasing levels of stress and anxiety” are even leading to issues with sleep. 

Some respondents said that to pay their bills they were relying on government relief schemes, going without essentials like heating and food, taking second jobs or making wholesale sacrifices like eating healthily, visiting family, socialising or buying clothes. An incredibly worrying proportion of respondents, 35.4%, said they have skipped meals for financial reasons. One respondent even mentioned taking naps when hungry in order to do so.

An area of noticeable common impact seems to be in terms of long term financial security, savings and debt. Many report that their savings are “greatly diminished” or completely gone, due to using savings to supplement income. Others stated that they had “little hope of getting out of (their) overdraft” and some report taking measures like moving out of their home in order to clear debt. 

In responses about what they feel their employer has done to support them through this difficult time, respondents reported not being “paid enough…to actually live a quality life and not have to make sacrifices of essential items.” Overwhelmingly, responses have also called on the University to match the Real Living Wage, stop making cuts to overtime pay, and listen to staff who are struggling.

What could the consequences look like for the University?

Unless the university backtracks on its entrenched attitudes, the long term consequences could be very bleak. For a sustainable and robust workforce, there needs to be a shift away from eroding terms and conditions, allowing wages to continue to fall behind inflation, failing to reward loyalty and length of service, marginalising groups of staff and operating on lean staffing models.

At the time of writing, 70.8% of our respondents said that for financial reasons, they were considering additional employment, other employment or both. Consequently, more staff members will be pushed beyond their means and into in-work poverty. This is a distressing and unsustainable prospect that will result in more staff leaving the University, or taking on extra employment and becoming exhausted. With less staff and already protracted recruitment practices, departments and services will be stretched further, unable to provide adequate service levels for students, which will ultimately have an effect on student surveys and rankings. It would be much more difficult to recruit too, forward thinking employers are focusing on maintaining their employees for as long as possible and recruiting with that goal in mind, offering generous terms and transparency as priorities. 

To be truly competitive and reflective of the University’s grand aspirations, a massive attitude change is needed, and soon. There are currently 14,207 Living Wage Accredited employers nationally, including 154 Higher Education employers. In the West Midlands there are 562 living wage employers including our neighbouring Universities Aston, Northampton, Loughborough, Wolverhampton and Warwick. 

The ambitious 2030 strategy underpins the aims of the University for the next decade. Part of the strategy claims “We enjoy being the first to do things…and seek to make a real and positive difference to the world around us.” Although UNISON has urged senior management to take action and become formally Living Wage accredited, it has been summarily refused year on year in favour of a yearly battle to ensure the uplift is made in a timely manner. Accreditation would also ensure that all within the wider University community get the rate including contractors, suppliers and staff at the University owned Edgbaston Park Hotel (who have been below the living wage rate since the University set up the company in 2018.

Unless the University proactively steps up and becomes a living wage employer, its ambitions will surely fall short and behind its competitors. The strategy also aims to “operate with transparency, trust, and respect…(and) strive to be an excellent employer, to reduce inequalities in access to education, and to place sustainability at the heart of our work.” According to our survey however, an enormous 93.7% of respondents thought that our employer has not been understanding/supportive about cost-of-living increases. What good are ambitions and statements of intent without genuine accountability and meaningful action where it matters most?

Christmas strike action

To highlight issues with the cuts to overtime allowances, we will be taking strike action on Christmas Eve this year (December 24th). Many of our colleagues who are asked to cover essential services while the University is closed, are normally compensated by more generous pay rates. Unfortunately this year Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday, which under the new terms is considered a normal working day. This means that in exchange for giving up on valuable rest or family time, staff will only earn a nominal amount of 1.25x pay. Read more on our recent blog if you’re interested in why we are striking on Christmas Eve and what that will look like.

To the University we say it’s time to do what is right – become a living wage accredited employer, and increase the pay of all support staff to ensure they can make ends meet this Christmas!

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