Civil Society, Employment Relations

One in four staff earning less than a living wage is nothing to be proud of

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Working for a charity can be very rewarding, but don’t expect to be well paid. OK, so some of the larger charities will pay their most senior post holders an attractive salary, but for most working in the sector, I doubt the prospect of a healthy wage cheque was the primary attraction.

This is illustrated by two recent reports on charity pay. A survey by Croner in partnership with NCVO found that “pay in the charity sector is well below that of other sectors.” But more worryingly, the Living Wage Foundation revealed recently that a quarter of charity staff earn below the Real Living Wage.

This may not surprise many, as downward pressure on staff costs is as big an issue if not more so in charities than other sectors. Indeed, the public expectation is that money donated for good should be spent on beneficiaries rather than staff. Alongside this are the many grant funders who do not provide funding for core activities and sometimes specifically exclude staff costs. Then there is the pressure to save money when awarding contracts in what has been described as an adversarial relationship between councils and charities, and leading to a “fierce focus on contracts, competition and outsourcing.”

Taken together, these factors all conspire to keep wages down. But there is one other side to this that is often overlooked. In common with other low paying sectors, there is a distinct lack of trade union membership and organisation in the voluntary sector, with only the larger charities tending to recognise unions.

I’ve discussed the relationship between unions and the voluntary sector before; and I will say once again that the sector needs to reach out and work with trade unions on a range of issues, including tackling low pay.

Indeed, for organisations seeking social change it is surely hypocritical to keep wages low; and certainly at a level below that needed to live on. Not only is this bad for those affected, it reinforces the notion that charity staff should not be well paid.

I accept there is no quick fix; and it will take efforts from charities, funders, the statutory sector, trade unions and charity staff themselves to really tackle this problem. But while some in the voluntary sector might see this simply as too big an issue to resolve, having one-in-four staff earning less than a fair and genuine living wage is nothing to be proud of.

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