In the second post of our series, Green Councillor Maya de Souza writes about the work that has gone into securing better conditions for council staff:
As residents will know, a Green Party slogan is ‘Fair is worth fighting for’. Green Councillors have pursued this cause with conviction. The key issues for us have been a living wage, not only for council staff but for the contracted-out as well. We asked through scrutiny committees and full council meetings for the living wage to be paid in the 2006-10 council.
The Tory-LibDem administration made a commitment to put all Camden directly employed staff on the living wage. But the Greens said this was not enough. The big issue was, continues to be, the outsourced staff, school catering and social care workers among others. Camden should not have a two-tier workforce.
We showed in our subsequent budget amendments that a living wage across the board could be financed. During the 2010-14 period we have continued to raise concerns about the exceptions that Labour were making, despite signing up as a Living Wage borough. They claimed it was too late in the contracting process to include the living wage in catering staff contracts and too expensive to pay social care workers a living wage! The Greens led a cross-party challenge and we’re pleased to say that in the end Labour made a commitment to pay care workers a living wage within two years. That’s still not good enough but it’s better than nothing.
Employment practice – Another aspect of fairness is non-discrimination in employment. This has been a major aim for me, given my experience, as an employment lawyer, on how discrimination materialises in day-to-day life. It’s not always deliberate, but often a result of stereotyping and poor procedures that allow too much subjectivity, as when managers choose people ‘like us’.
With the support of knowledgeable residents I’ve asked questions and sought to ensure proper monitoring. This involved looking at how agency staff is recruited for well-paid temporary employment posts and whether the Council discriminated against some groups of people in recruiting. It certainly looked as if this may have been the case. Monitoring helps to flag this up. I also sought to ensure good practice for retention and promotion of staff, leading a challenge in 2013 following a finding of race discrimination against Camden in an employment tribunal case.
Here, I worked with councillors from the other parties. I led discussions at the Scrutiny committee meeting, successfully arguing that for better procedures, training that sought to challenge stereotypes and preconceptions, as well as for better figures showing numbers at different grades. Mike Cooke, the Chief Executive, was among those to respond positively to these proposals.
More equal society – Greens have successfully argued in the Council for a maximum 10-one pay ratio for senior to junior staff. This is now accepted, but we argue that we should go further, leading by example in moving towards a more equal society. And we do query bonuses and, in particular performance related pay, which allows too much subjectivity to enter decision-making.
The evidence is also that higher paid workers benefit, as it is easier for them, unlike those in more routine jobs, to show high performance. We have also supported staff on disability rights issues, persuading the Cabinet member, Pat Callaghan, to sign up to the ‘Breaking the Stigma’ campaign for mental health sufferers.
Zero hours – More recently the big issue has become the use of zero hour contracts as a means of limiting Council obligations to staff. I’ve argued that we should not use them as an employer nor through outsourced contracts. The Labour administration has not given assurances on this front. Following tenacious questioning and many attempts at fobbing us off I was told that the Council did not in fact know whether they had anyone on zero hour contracts.
In terms of those on outsourced contracts, we’re pleased that the administration recognises the problem but do not accept that we must wait for the government to change the law.
It’s perfectly possible for Camden to require fair employment terms in its contracts with service providers. We will push them to do so. So, if you’d like Councillors who believe that fair play, decent working conditions and non-discrimination are fundamental and non-negotiable, do ensure you vote Green! Our Green team has the legal skills and campaigning experience to mount an effective challenge.
Maya de Souza
Camden, May 2014