“I’m 56 years old, and it’s just embarrassing I get paid on the 15th and I’ve not got a penny by the 17th,” that was how a maintenance worker looking after the properties of the ForViva housing group in Salford described their life to Tribune.
Billing itself as a ‘progressive landlord’ and a ‘national social purpose group’, ForViva manages over 14,000 homes across Salford as part of their 24,000-strong portfolio in the North West of England. Its stated aims are to create jobs, prevent homelessness in economically deprived areas, and reinvest in those same communities.
The company’s current director Colette McKune has been praised in the regional press for her right-on outlook, including being heralded as a ‘people’s champion’ by the BBC last summer. A cursory glance at her Twitter account shows an employer committed to liberal social causes (including retweeting anti-Labour and pro-Liberal Democrat statements), and often publicly praising her workers.
However, behind this progressive veneer lies significant industrial unrest. On Friday last week, 9 out of 10 Unite members at ForViva in Salford, Ellesmere Port and Knowsley voted to strike. Plumbers, electricians and general handymen are seeking a wage rise to £28,500, which would amount to approximately £13.70 an hour while the office staff are demanding a 5% per cent wage rise across the board.
According to the workers’ complaint, ForViva tradespeople haven’t received a real pay increase for three years. This is despite the fact that ForViva made a whopping £12.4 million profit in that time – a rise of 7.8 per cent from the previous financial year. The ‘progressive landlords’ certainly rewarded themselves for their graft, as the highest-paid director’s annual wage skyrocketed from £315,000 in 2016-17 to £381,000 in 2017-18.
This huge leap in bosses pay has increasingly soured the mood among workers. People are furious that efficiency targets imposed by management are becoming increasingly tight, making workers graft harder for less money. One worker described how tradespeople at the company are increasingly being forced to urinate in vans. As they told Tribune: “because of our targets and the constant threat of disciplinaries, we haven’t got time to go looking for toilets – if we go look, we’re not hitting targets. It’s really degrading.”
Furthermore, a survey carried out by Unite found that 92% of ForViva workers thought their pay was “bad”, while 8% said it “could be better”. Not a single worker would bring themselves to say that their wage was “fantastic” or even “good”. 76% of workers said that they relied upon payday loans or credit cards to make ends meet each month.
Staff have been further incensed by a pay offer produced by management – with the caveat that many hard-won terms and conditions must be given away. “We’re under a lot of pressure,” one worker told Tribune. Another added: “A lot of people are scared to raise health and safety issues or problems with management because so many people have been victimised when they have.” On top of all this, there is a widespread belief among staff that shop-floor union figures are being spied on by management, and that there is a serious attempt to victimise the figures leading the dispute.
However, ForViva’s intransigent attitude has backfired. “Loads of the men have joined the union because of the way this organisation has been run”, Tribune was told. “Men feel like they’re on egg shells all the time and any slip up means they’ll sack you.” The conduct of management has allowed the union to recruit widely, even among workers who would be otherwise inclined to keep their heads down.
There is a social aspect to the workers’ anger too, and a keenly felt sense that managers do not have the decent treatment of their tenants at heart. Workers who regularly deal with distressing situations in irregular hours are at pains to say that this dispute is not just about pay, but about social responsibility, and that ForViva employees and tenants are put at risk by management’s increasingly rip-shod approach to repairs and maintenance.
There are tragic examples that back up the workers’ case: ForViva’s leadership includes figures such as Henry Terefenko, who was a landlord to a tenant in Burnley who was eaten by dogs in the flat that he owned. Workers doubt whether figures like this share their commitment to a humane environment for tenants, with one worker telling Tribune: “they want to build an empire, not build social housing.”
Throughout the balloting, ForViva have refused to negotiate with the union. However, Tribune understands from company insiders that a joint letter supported by Rebecca Long-Bailey and Barbara Keeley – Salford’s two MPs – alongside mayor Paul Dennett and local Labour Party branches have caused considerable consternation among management.
At a time where public attitudes towards landlords are at an all-time low, the Labour Party voted to nationalise housing associations, and cash-strapped workers are organising in places that were never traditionally unionised, bosses at places like ForViva need to know that when you make a mockery of your staff while skyrocketing your own pay, progressive rhetoric is not enough. They need proper solutions to offer a united, angered workforce. They won’t be able to duck forever.