RSPCA: Kind to Animals, Cruel to Workers

Last month, the RSPCA announced plans to sack 20% of its workforce – just weeks after it had forced all workers onto reduced terms. It is a reminder of the stark inequalities which scar the charity sector.

On June 17th, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) announced plans to make over 300 of its 1,600 staff redundant. Though ostensibly triggered by the crisis in charity funding following the coronavirus pandemic, the RSPCA’s executive – which has long been known for its aggressive managerial style – offered no justification or financial evidence to justify sacking 20% of their workforce. Ameliorative measures, such as offering voluntary redundancies before compulsory ones are enforced, were barely considered.  

In the current climate – one of mass redundancies across many other sectors, with recession looming – it is increasingly unclear which organisations are genuinely floundering, and which are using coronavirus as a justification for vicious, unnecessary cuts. But before this crisis, the RSPCA executive had form for hitting its workers hard. 

These redundancy proposals come just months after they forced all their workers to sign new contracts with reduced terms and conditions. Incremental pay increases were scrapped and replaced with a performance-pay related system, which is totally inappropriate in an environment where high standards of animal care can only be maintained by the combined efforts of all staff. As well as unilaterally rescinding annual pay increases, the new contracts also slash standby payments to staff working ‘on call’ to rescue or treat animals at any time of day or night. 

This is why, in February, the RSPCA’s workers – the majority of whom are members of Unite – voted overwhelmingly for national strike action. This was the first ever strike ballot within the organisation, and an impressive feat in a charity sector which is historically disinclined towards industrial confrontation. For a long period, the RSPCA totally ignored Unite’s requests to go into serious negotiations, until the threat of industrial action forced the executive to finally meet with staff representatives (in the presence of ACAS). 

This meeting resulted in a partial victory, with management conceding on the issue of standby payments, and agreeing to improve the union’s recognition agreement. The vast majority of staff did not wish to disrupt the levels of animal care they provided and voted for strike action with extreme reluctance, and were dismayed to discover how only the threat of industrial action made their employer even consider engaging with them.

Now, just a few months later, the RSPCA has used the cover of the pandemic to announce a devastating round of compulsory redundancies. The redundancies disproportionately affect lower-paid staff such as animal care assistants and the RSPCA inspectorate, who rescue mistreated animals. Most employees are already on low wages, with 76% of RSPCA staff earning less than comparable jobs at other private sector organisations. 

Additionally, the reason for the RSPCA’s financial hardships lie – predictably – in excessive executive pay and wasteful spending at head office level. In a story familiar in our austerity-stricken country, frontline staff are made to shoulder the cost of corporate financial waste. Neoliberalism’s inability to sustain rising living standards for the majority alongside extraordinary remuneration for the 1% is widespread in the charity sector as well as in public and private sectors.

It is true that charity funding has been hard hit by the pandemic. Lockdown has necessitated the closure of charity shops and halted door-to-door fundraising. The government has provided limited financial compensation for the sector as a whole, with most of it being channelled towards health and social care charities. 

But the current RSPCA executive has done little to earn the trust of their employees in financial matters. As an organisation with a well-documented history of toxic management culture, casual overspending and exorbitant top-level salaries, the RSPCA’s last CEO received a £150,000 pay-off, and they have not published a financial report since Chris Sherwood was made CEO in 2018. 

During the last dispute with Unite, multiple HR consultants were drafted in from the private sector to deal with the issue, at an unrevealed cost to the organisation. Ironically, Sherwood – who is now engaged in a protracted campaign of wage repression – once stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party. The ‘benevolent’ philanthropists of the 19th century are reborn as the ‘progressive’ CEOs of the present day.

This is all reflective of a much wider trend within the third sector, which sees supposedly compassionate organisations increasingly following a rapacious corporate model. In recent years, charity bosses’ salaries have skyrocketed, while ordinary workers face a continuing degradation of pay and conditions.

The Oxfam Haiti allegations demonstrate the enormous lengths to which unaccountable individuals will go to cover up grotesque behaviour. While CEOs line their pockets, charities continue to use emotive content to guilt-trip well-meaning citizens into donating. It is a well-established fact, however, that the least well-off give the highest proportion of their income to charity. 

The RSPCA thus finds itself in a dilemma. A large amount of its social role should be statutory and publicly-funded – such as the investigation and prosecution of animal cruelty cases. But while care homes and hospitals struggle to fund themselves, this is unlikely to change any time soon. Meanwhile, accelerating social inequality has put massive pressure on RSPCA resources, with fewer people able to afford private veterinary bills. 

However, these problems cannot be solved by making staff bear the brunt of the organisation’s financial shortcomings. Charities rely overwhelmingly on the hard work and goodwill of their workforce – qualities can be quickly eroded when executives preside over an aggressive institutional culture while earning ten times as much as frontline workers. 

The Oxfam scandal has shown how donations from members of the public can plummet overnight when the transgressions of powerful, wealthy charity officials are exposed, since they so clearly demonstrate the problematic nature of philanthropy as a solution for social injustice. 

It is more important than ever to protect public services from further outsourcing. We cannot maintain our image of ourselves as a civilised society while the state continually relinquishes its duties to its citizens to the whims of the market. This includes the basic welfare of the population and, yes, the care of abused, ill and abandoned animals.

For those of us working in the charity sector, recent disputes have shown the importance of building trade union membership and organising to democratise workplaces. Charities lack the scrutiny and regulation of the public sphere, and charity executives now earn far more than MPs. They cannot be allowed to syphon off donations for their own financial gain while their staff are subjected to longer hours and lower pay. 

This is exactly why neoliberalism promotes privatisation: outsourcing, whether to a charity or corporation, enables sharply hierarchical pay structures while evading public accountability. Universal rights and expectations are relegated to the status of privileges for some and unaffordable luxuries for many others.  

It is absurd to run a social resource on the same operational model as a supermarket or restaurant chain. To treat employees as disposable is unacceptable in any case, but to attack the conditions of specialised workers in the charity sector puts those depending on their care at risk. Through unionisation and collective action, charity workers such as those in RSPCA are defending not only their own working rights, but the wider social value of their work.