“There is a certain irony to the fact that it is the Ministry of Justice that is so unjust in the way it treats its cleaning staff.
Everyone deserves a fair day’s wage for a hard day’s work, yet for three days last week cleaners at the Ministry of Justice had to resort to going out on strike for a living wage. They had my full support.
For over two years now, I’ve been using Parliamentary Questions to challenge Government Departments on why a cleaner in one department is worth less than another. My research has uncovered huge inconsistencies and a Government culture that all too often wants to brush issues of low pay under the carpet by arguing these are “external contracts”.
It’s a pathetic excuse. It feels like a long time since Theresa May stood on the steps of Downing Street and pledged to fight the injustice of poverty. Where is her leadership on the problem of low pay that plagues our society? When I was a Council Leader, we became the first Living Wage local authority in the country and took immediate action to bring cleaning staff back in-house and pay them properly. We focussed first on ensuring all directly employed staff received the Living Wage and then on working towards making all our contracts Living Wage compliant. It isn’t easy but if there was the political will, the Tory Government could act now to review contracts and renegotiate them assertively to demand contractors pay the living wage across the board.
Some departments are doing the right thing. In yet another irony, it is the Department for Work and Pensions, not known for its fairness when it comes to benefit claimants, that is one of a small number of departments already paying its cleaners the London Living Wage. The Department for International Development and the Department for Education are others. But far too many are not. The Ministry of Justice is in the spotlight this week, but the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Health and the Foreign Office all refuse to ensure their cleaning staff take home enough to live on. Other departments won’t even answer my questions, revealing an attitude of indifference to the conditions of their outsourced workforce by saying only that they “don’t hold details of pay”. Layers of contracting should not absolve employers of their responsibility for those who, in the end, work for them: out of sight must not mean out of mind.
The Resolution Foundation produces an annual report on Low Pay Britain and its latest reveals that in 2017 23 per cent of workers were paid less than the living wage. That’s almost a quarter of people in work who at the end of each month aren’t taking home enough to live on, pay their bills and support their families. The Tories talk a lot about work as the route out of poverty, but the reality is that the majority of households in poverty are working yet they still can’t make ends meet. It has a devastating impact on physical and mental health and it is a key driver of inequality in the UK.
Paying the small number of Whitehall cleaners the living wage wouldn’t make much of a dent in those figures. But it would send an important message about the Government’s intent to tackle in-work poverty and it could act as a catalyst for driving a living wage requirement through all its procurement processes. That they are choosing instead to watch them go out on strike and pretend it’s nothing to do with them is utterly shameful.”
Catherine West MP
Labour Member of Parliament for Hornsey & Wood Green