Young Workers Fight for a Living Wage in London

Unite members in East London protest Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL)'s refusal to pay young workers a living wage.

In May, Unite the union revealed that more than 1,000 young Londoners had been short-changed by their employer, Greenwich Leisure Ltd (GLL), who failed to pay the agreed wage to 18-to 20-year-olds in six boroughs that had accreditation by the Living Wage Foundation (LWF).

According to the union, young workers employed by GLL in Greenwich, Hackney, and Islington were paid £10.20 an hour, while their colleagues in Camden, Croydon, Ealing, Lambeth, Tower Hamlets, and Waltham Forest were paid £2.10 less.

GLL responded by denying any wrongdoing, saying that the company never intended to pay the London Living Wage (LLW) to under 21s. According to Unite, this would be in contravention of the conditions under which GLL gained its contracts in the first place.

Workers have for some time alleged shoddy conditions at GLL workplaces. Two-thirds of company staff are ‘casuals’, employed on zero-hours contracts. Of those Tribune spoke to, many were unable to secure a single shift in six weeks. Others alleged harassment and raised serious health and safety concerns.

The GLL’s anti-union attitude has made it difficult for Unite to recruit in the company in recent years, though they have retained members transferred into GLL after the privatisation of their workplaces. Mary Hackwood, a shop steward who chairs Unite’s youth committee in London, spoke of the ‘genuine fear’ casually-employed GLL workers felt about discussing union membership.

However, as Unite regional officer Onay Kasab tells Tribune, recent victories for Unite are changing the tide. Kasab feels that the decision of Tower Hamlets Council to pay under 21s the LLW — with pay backdated to April of this year — was a big success story that saw a significant number of young Londoners joining Unite.

Despite the opposition of right-wing young Labour activists, who have fought against the union’s campaign on the issue, there is no denying its success. In the end Unite’s London and East young members committee forced Tower Hamlets Council to concede a 21 percent pay rise to young workers.

Those involved in the GLL campaign, meanwhile, warn Labour’s membership to be alert to the realities of certain ‘co-operatives’ such as Greenwich Leisure Limited, which present themselves as worker-friendly. Its mission statement pledges ‘empowerment’ for workers and to pursue ‘the good of the communities we operate in’, language that is present in many discussions about social enterprise.

But to Kasab, this is ‘a con’. Though a workplace representative sits on GLL’s management board, you must be a member of the ‘GLL Society’ — a company union — to stand for the position. You must also be a permanent employee, which excludes two-thirds of GLL staff from the process.

There is anxiety among many of those involved in the campaign that Labour stick to its commitments to keep public services public, and not be taken in by empty promises from social enterprises. Failure to do this, they say, may see the party fall into the third-sector logic of David Cameron’s Big Society — a strategy which the Tories are committed to relaunch in advance of public spending cuts planned in 2020.

But Hackwood says that the recent campaigns have ‘hugely galvanised’ young trade unionists in London, who have refused to accept that young workers should bear the brunt of austerity. Their warning for London’s scandalous employers: ‘get your house in order, or we are coming to get you.’