Camden UNISON living wage victory for school meals workers

Residential care workers and dinner ladies lobbying the Council for the living wage. Photograph courtesy of William McLellan, Camden New Journal

After more than  a year of campaigning, we have a successfully achieved a promise of the implementation of the London living wage of £9.15 per hour from 1 September 2015 for nearly 300 workers in 51 schools on the Caterlink contract: an increase of nearly 40% on their current pay rate of £6.60 per hour.

For years these outsourced and overwhelmingly women workers had languished on the national minimum wage (NMW), of just £6.31 per hour when we began our campaign in December 2013.

Despite Camden Council’s claim to be a London living wage (LLW) employer, there was no guarantee of the LLW being introduced before April 2019, when the contract with Caterlink could no longer be extended.

One member described her life on the minimum wage:

“On my wages I can’t afford to things with my family – even simple things like the cinema or treats for my son when he’s done good work at school, I can’t afford his trainers, I can’t visit my family who live around London. I want to fight for the living wage as it affects our children who don’t get any benefit from our work providing healthy meals for Camden’s school children. They see the worst of their parents when we have money stress as well as being physically exhausted at the end of the day.”

Starting from a low level of union membership on the contract, we recruited rapidly, held some rowdy shop meetings and several workers stepped forwards to be UNISON reps.

We submitted our first pay claim for April 2014, including the London living wage as the minimum pay point and additional improvements like occupational sick pay and additional annual leave.

In October 2014, feeling pressure from the campaign Caterlink awarded a 4.6% pay increase, bringing workers above the national minimum wage for the first time. When union reps announced the increase – to just 10p per hour above the NMW – at a mass meeting we were met with howls of derision and anger from members, who pointed out that it came to the price of a loaf of bread per week.

The Council’s new promise to introduce the LLW in April 2016 was also met with anger from members who asked why should they have to wait, especially when their colleagues in Islington had been paid the living wage for years.

So the meeting agreed to step up the campaign, and in March 2015 we held a noisy pots and pans protest outside the Town Hall, which attracted media attention, most crucially gaining front-page coverage in the Camden New Journal.

CNJ took up the cause of these low paid workers with several detailed and biting stories in subsequent weeks, looking both at the Council and Westbury Street Holdings, the multi-million pound firm which owns Caterlink.

Still with no movement on implementation of the living wage before April 2016, members voted at a further mass meeting to begin an indicative ballot for strike action, which began in May.

The Council and Caterlink announced June 10 that they had reached an agreement to introduce the London living wage of £9.15 per hour as the minimum pay point: a pay rise of nearly 40% for over 230 catering assistants. Those on higher rates should also see pay rises to be announced shortly.

As a result we have suspended our indicative ballot, which to date had gleaned an impressive 100% vote in favour of strike action, pending a meeting for all members this Friday.

We would like to thank everyone who has supported this campaign, especially the members and stewards themselves at Caterlink.

This is a significant step forward in the struggle against low pay at Camden Council and amongst its contractors.

However other elements of the pay claim like occupational sick pay still remain unresolved, and other contractors at Camden, most notably Shaw Healthcare continue to pay below the London living wage.

3 responses to “Camden UNISON living wage victory for school meals workers

  1. Robert Sellers

    Excellent, I was told about this by one of the dinner ladies in the school where I work, she was really chuffed that with the help of UNISON they had shamed Camden and Caterlink into paying what should have been paid years ago (I’m pretty sure their managements would not work for the basic minimum) Furthermore, this dinner lady said that she was really glad that she had joined UNISON and so am I, glad that our union is doing what union’s do best helping low paid workers organise against the greed and viciousness of the bosses – the Labour Party should take note

  2. Pingback: School meals workers living wage campaign | Camden UNISON

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