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Clean Living: Paying the Living Wage to QM cleaning staff

A new report shows the economic and ethical benefits to paying cleaning staff at Queen Mary a ‘living wage’. 

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Exactly one year ago Queen Mary, University of London took unprecedented steps to bring the majority of its cleaning in-house, and pay those cleaners the ‘living wage’ – a salary that affords a better standard of living in the capital.

To mark the one-year anniversary of this ethical move, which bucks the global trend of outsourcing such services to contractors, a detailed report is being published by Queen Mary on 19 January, documenting the impact of the ‘living wage’ on cleaning staff, service quality and the College as a whole.

‘The business case for the living wage: the story of the cleaning service at Queen Mary’ showcases the findings of a two-month study (October to November 2008) involving an online questionnaire completed by 292 staff members from across the College’s four campuses.

Also part of the research: a face-to-face interview survey with 73 cleaning staff (59 of whom had transferred from a contractor); additional interviews with 11 respondents and in-depth interviews with four managers in the Estates Department and the Chief Administrative Officer at Queen Mary.

Results showed the majority (71 per cent) of Queen Mary employees surveyed endorsed the decision on the grounds of social justice and expectations of further improvements in cleaning standards. Just four people (1 per cent of respondents) opposed the decision to bring the service in-house, primarily, on the grounds of cost.

In reality, the introduction of the ‘living wage’ has not been the big drain on resources predicted by its opponents: the in-house cleaning service came in only slightly more expensive than that provided by sub-contractors - including start-up costs. When looked at over a two-year period the expected budget for 2008/9 is almost identical to the expenditure spent on contract cleaners in 2006/7.

The surveyed cleaners were very positive about their new jobs at Queen Mary; citing improvement in pay and benefits, as well as better supervision, working hours and opportunities for career development as College employees. Some 89 per cent of cleaners who transferred from contractors rated the College a better employer. As many as 96 per cent said they liked their permanent job and 100 per cent enjoyed working for Queen Mary.

When asked what had changed about the nature of their work since shifting from sub-contracted employment, the most popular responses from cleaners were that they now worked more productively (68 per cent), with more supervision (63 per cent) and completed a broader range of tasks (61 per cent).

James Gurley is one cleaner who made the switch to Queen Mary’s in-house team in 2007, after six years with the contractor. Now a lead supervisor for 12 cleaners, he is pleased with how things have worked out.

“The money here has made a big difference; I was always struggling before as the contractor only paid minimum wage. We were missing out on other benefits too like sick pay, which made life really tough.

“Overall I’m very happy to be working for the College: we have more variety in our work and training on health and safety and other things to help us do the job, something we that didn’t get before the move.

“The College is also getting a better service, and I’ve noticed staff are appreciating what we do more; I even got a Christmas card thanking me this year – that’s never happened before,” said James, who lives in the Limehouse area of Tower Hamlets.

Introducing the ‘living wage’ has also enhanced the reputation of the College as a good employer among the wider workforce and the community beyond. This became self-evident in May 2008, when the College held an open day to expand its cleaning team. The event generated an overwhelming response, and despite only limited adverts on internet site, around 300 people attended.

Project lead, Professor Jane Wills of Queen Mary’s Department of Geography, which recently won a LONDON CITIZENS award for its long-term research into the plight of migrant workers in London, believes the study shows that there are clear economic and ethical benefits to being corporately responsible and offering the ‘living wage’.

“Helping to alleviate poverty is important for Queen Mary: our institution is based in the east end of London, a deprived area; and many of our cleaners live locally, so offering them better pay and a good experience of the institution has a positive impact on their lives and our standing in the local community.

“It’s a stance that also makes good business sense: investing in training and offering better pay and working conditions improves productivity, standards, staff loyalty, performance and turnover without affecting cost – it’s a ‘win-win’ situation for all concerned.”

Neil Jameson of London Citizens, which is part of the Citizen Organising Foundation (COF), has praised Queen Mary, saying: “LONDON CITIZENS applauds the College’s pioneering example of both paying a ‘living wage’ and deciding to offer their workers the dignity which often goes with being employed in-house.

“We hope that other London organisations will study this report and consider following Queen Mary's example by working with LONDON CITIZENS to ensure that their lowest paid staff are given a ‘living wage’ and the respect that goes with it.”   

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