UNISON UoB branch offers a donation towards the University of Birmingham’s new Tiverton Gym

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Closing down the opposition
Not content with making a lot of money from its new Sports Centre on campus (UB Sport, which cost £55million), The University of Birmingham bought Selly Oak’s local swimming pool (Tiverton Pool) in early 2018, and is now in process of turning it into a satellite gym (to be opened in September 2019). They are now looking to make even more money.

We note that the City Council intended to close the Pool a few years ago, but due to students and residents’ opposition and protests [Communities Against the Cuts], they kept it open for a little while more – until, that is, the news came out in April 2018 about the University being the new owner of the Pool (see link). The Unions were never consulted about it.

That is not the end of the story. Recently, an email was circulated to staff, claiming that the University couldn’t afford to kit out the new place! Word has reached us that they are asking for donations of furniture. As an organisation concerned with people struggling to get by, one would think that UNISON should be a bit more sympathetic. It is quite difficult to do so when our members will only be able to go there to clean and maintain the building, but won’t be able to afford to use the facilities. Hence, we are doing our bit and sending them the letter above, together with a photo of our proposed donations. We hope they will appreciate our gesture.

The Joint Unions Report highlights a lack of accessibility to the Sports Facilities for low-paid staff
A Joint Unions Report written together with all the other trade unions on campus and launched in November 2018 called on the University management to address long-standing difficulties and poor working practices that members across all unions feel highlight the gap between what the university says and the reality we all experience. One crucial example in which this gap becomes apparent is in relation to Sports services.

The University has already invested in a policy on wellbeing that takes physical activity as one of its ’Five Ways to Wellbeing’ but low pay, excessive workloads, a lack of flexibility and failures to address reasonable adjustments requests contradict the principles the University claims to uphold. By implementing the Wellbeing Agenda, the University already recognises (‘on paper’) the huge benefit exercise has in terms of productivity and mental health, but it should adopt a holistic model that offers opportunities to all its employees. Dozens of members have written to us about how they could not attend sessions that were part of ‘Wellbeing Week’ due to unreasonable workloads, a lack of time, or managers not allowing them the time off.

Lower paid jobs come with stress and many staff are disabled and/or experience chronic illness which necessitate swimming classes and exercise. If they can’t access the routes to well-being, that the university ITSELF says are valuable, then university management is condemning staff to poorer mental and physical health, and reproducing inequality.

Inequality, poverty, and lack of access to sports services

Despite being regularly reminded about how their employer cares about their well-being and ‘encourages’ them to stay healthy by exercising and not smoking, our least well-off colleagues have been increasingly priced out of the new facility. It is becoming clear that the lowest-paid staff are paying the price for the new Sports Centre building and its overblown publicity. For example, swimming fees at the old (Munrow) centre were £12.50 per month. When the new Sports Centre (UB Sport) was opened in 2017, the fees almost doubled to £23 per month, and in August 2018 they were increased further to £30 per month – a 140% increase. Of course, this may not be a lot of money for university managers – 109 of them are paid more than £100,000/year. However, all of this is happening while year on year the university has given us pay rises that are in real terms pay cuts. We are dissatisfied with the university’s move to make access to sports facilities and activities limited only to those on high salaries, especially as we are told that the university has a wellbeing agenda that takes staff health and wellbeing seriously. In effect, our pay has gone down, making it doubly harder to access the facilities and to care for our health. Pay is falling, but the cost of accessing University-based facilities such as the gym and swimming classes are going through the roof.

The effects of outsourcing
The university managers make a public show of concern for staff, but make it more difficult for them to access the means of well-being. Some of our staff earn £9 per hour, outsourced staff at Edgbaston Park Hotel (company set up in July 2018 and owned by the university) are paid £8.21/hour. Furthermore, outsourced staff do not have access to the same benefits that everyone else on campus has earned as a result of collective struggles. Should they really have to work for more than half a day a month (more than a whole shift for cleaning services staff) just to access the same facilities that other colleagues can access after half an hour of work? If we assumed that the VC worked full-time (36 hours/week), it follows that he earns £237.2/hour (we did not even include his one-off incentive bonus of £80,000 here) or almost £4/minute.

Sports facilities – can you afford them? Survey

In the summer of 2018, we asked our members to fill in a survey about their experiences of using the Sports Centre. We asked whether they could afford the fees, if they feel comfortable using the facilities, and more.

Here are just a few of the responses we’ve received (out of almost 60 submissions; we are including some of the more generic feedback so as not to identify individuals): 

Do you use the Sports Centre’s services? 

  1. ‘No – I can barely afford to pay the train fees that get me to work some months, let alone pay £23 for the gym’
  2. ‘No, too intimidating, and don’t want tied into subscription I can’t cancel or will make full use of’
  3. ‘No they should be encouraging there staff to use the facilities and have concessions for part time/term time members of staff. To enable the staff to feel better with a sense of wellbeing.’
  4. ‘No, as I cannot afford it and memberships for staff are often capped as apparently the centre is ‘at capacity’ – although members of the public who wish to buy a membership are still often allowed to apply (members of the public having, somewhat unsurprisingly, the highest fee band). I would greatly like to be able to use the glittering, multimillion pound new Sports Centre, but the prices clearly reflect the clientèle UoBSport wish to have as patrons; they are utterly unattainable for someone on a Band 200 contract and I am left trying to find the cheapest gym membership that I CAN afford much further from my home and place of work (4 miles) and consequently do not get to exercise as much as I would like to given that I similarly cannot afford to drive/own a car. This impacts both my occupational health and wellbeing in general, something the University likes to claim it is cognisant of in its many ‘health and/or wellbeing’ drives; once again, as is reflected in society at large, it seems as though a life of good health and opportunities for improvement are ‘capped’ from those of us on lower incomes (perhaps this is why the bourgeois classes always have such shiny hair?)’.
  5. ‘No: they are too expensive. I cannot afford the price increase, given that my wages are barely more than they were when the memberships were cheaper.’
  6. ‘No, new members were lured in and 15 months later they are now asking for more money. The offer of a discount if you pay for the full year up ahead is laughable, a lot of money to find.’
  7. ‘No. They are already charging some of the highest parking rates in Birmingham why should the public be punished so the uni can pay the centre off?’
  8. ‘No – I expected it to go up, but not on the scale that it has. Staff who can afford to pay a yearly fee do get it cheaper according to an email I had I can pay annually it is £252.00 as one yearly payment, but I cannot afford that sum all at once so had to stay with the monthly membership at £30.00 per month’.
  9. ‘One would expect full access to everything really – especially as a staff member – not smaller subscriptions for individual things’.
  10. ‘No it’s already a complete rip off so wouldn’t consider paying more anyway’.
  11. ‘No. If I was an academic on £50,000 per year it might seem very cheap but for admin staff on £14,000 a year it is too expensive.’
  12. ‘Fair? More like extortionate, please excuse my exaggeration, but 140% hike, we would be lucky to get a 2.4% pay rise to keep up with the inflation, so we can play a part in growing our GDP but never mind that because the sports centre must take a 140% increase as it is the last building standing to defend us from our enemies. Useless’.
  13. ‘I have looked into membership for swimming and it is way out of my price range. As a arthritis sufferer and recently having joint replacement, swimming was suggested as an additional way of rehabilitation. I was unable to do this due to extortionate cost’.
  14. ‘No. The university is rich enough. You would think that staff would have a better discount, it would encourage greater staff wellbeing!!’
  15. ‘I couldn’t afford it anyway but now I will not even be bothering to buy class vouchers. It would be useful to have somewhere on site to exercise so that I can fit in more training sessions as when I get home in the evening I am usually exhausted and can’t manage the gym near by house. I have […] so when my job has wiped me out to the point I will instantly fall asleep as soon as I get home, the inability to use facilities on site is making my health and fitness suffer indirectly’.
  16. ‘Nope. As above; they’re costing out poorer staff and community members. And students. Munrow was too much for me to afford as a Student so I can only imagine what it’s like now. It reeks of classist, elitist money-grabbing and it’s disgusting that a University facility is not affordable by its own staff.’
  17. ‘No: i) I think it is reasonable to expect that memberships offered to staff are offered at a reasonable price, perhaps built into contracts, if discounting is not available. ii) the rapid rate of increase in the swimming prices, an increase of 140%, from 12.50 – 30 within the last 2 years is staggering. It outstrips any staff pay increase and is not comparable to even a […] gym, which for ~£30-40 you can get access to gym, swim and other classes.’
  18. ‘I don’t use the Sports Centre. The only facility I would be interested in using is the pool but it is quite expensive. I used to use Tiverton Pool but the University has bought this and (as I understand it) is turning it into a gym’.
  19. ‘It puts it even further out of my reach. I can’t even begin to think about joining. Exercise in that facility is something I can’t even consider. I’ve literally been priced out of getting fit, and because I live so far away (because I can’t afford to live closer) other facilities don’t run classes etc at a time I can reasonably get to’.

Our dispute with the university includes the demand for more accessible Sports Facilities for staff at the University; it also demands that Edgbaston Park Hotel staff are brought in-house so they can benefit from the same services that all staff directly employed by the University (still) have access to.

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