The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain
Week commencing 2nd December 2022
The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain
…BUT NOT for some working in the burgeoning charity sector such as the staff at Shelter, which was founded way back in December 1966. It emerged from the efforts of Bruce Kenrick, the Church of Scotland Minister who was doing missionary work in west London’s Notting Hill, then the stamping ground of notorious slum landlord Perec ‘Peter’ Rachman who had a violent way of dealing with those behind with the rent for one of his empire of grotty overcrowded properties.
The Notting Hill Housing Trust, also founded by Kendrick in 1963, continues today as a major housing association owning thousands of properties.
Shelter had the good fortune to be launched 10 days after the BBC first broadcast Cathy Come Home by Jeremy Sandford and Ken Loach, which exposed effects of homelessness in Britain.
It soon became the leading body for advice with housing problems and it campaigns for tenant rights, spending much time lobbying local and central governments.
It spends about 21 per cent of its revenue on fund-raising, a figure which might raise a few eyebrows, but the charity world is a cut-throat business. Shelter faces brutal competition from Children in Need and fluffy polar bears seeking the nation’s conscience money. In comparison, bedraggled homeless people and people sitting in mouldy rooms do not look very cute.
Shelter’s latest Annual Report shows it has an overall income of £59,699,000, of which £41 million came from donations and legacies, with £10 million from grants and contracts, and £7 million from its shops. Its expenditure was £59,720,000, which suggests they are doing their job, spending rather than saving. It has assets worth £31 million, which is not unreasonable given that it needs a London base and a network of offices to do its job.
The highest paid member of staff was the CEO, on £132,625. Shelter claims it is very ethical as its median salary was £28,104, a ratio against the highest salary of 4.72:1. Salaries for van drivers and assistants in their shops however, start at £19,000. Shelter had 1,335 employees, 118 on fund-raising, with about 800 giving direct support, both in person and remotely. The CEO gets £99.34 for each staff member, chicken-feed to bankers.
Such is the institutional background of the current strike that starts on Monday until the Sunday before Christmas. The issue, unsurprisingly, is pay. In early November 85 per cent of the charity’s Unite branch voted to reject a three per cent pay offer, which Unite describes as a huge real-terms pay cut.
At the time of the vote, General Secretary Sharon Graham said that: “Rather than sit on ever expanding reserves, Shelter should be paying its workers a fair pay rise.”
She has a point. Its last reported reserves were £14.5 million, comfortably above their target of £8.9 million.
One of the strikers added: “The work we undertake, particularly in frontline services, is so valuable and clients depend on our teams. But that shouldn’t mean they have to sacrifice a decent and dignified living because the work they are drawn to is in this sector. At the very base level, absolute bare minimum, those working for a housing charity shouldn’t be experiencing housing insecurity as a result of being unable to pay rent.”
Regional Officer Peter Storey warned that: “Strike action will inevitably cause substantial disruption to the services that Shelter provides. However, the organisation has created this dispute through the arrogant and high-handed manner in which it has treated its loyal workers.”
This is not the first time Shelter workers have been involved in a pay battle in which strike action was at least threatened. In 2008 strike action took place whilst in both 2014 and 2018 industrial action was called off at the very last minute. In the latter case a four per cent deal composed of 2.25 per cent consolidated, plus 1.75 per cent unconsolidated paid at a flat rate, worth about £500 for each worker, was secured after management offered a paltry one per cent. That dispute also saw 100 Shelter workers join Unite.
This time round, in March, Shelter made a three per cent offer alongside a one-off £250 payment. Since then the one–off payment has been increased to £1,500. This was still rejected, partly because it would actually make things worse for some workers. This came about because it would push the lowest paid over thresholds that would prevent them claiming working tax credits and Universal Credit to top up their low earnings.
The wishy-washy left magazine Tribune recently interviewed three Shelter workers about the dispute. One staff member, Mark, who was formerly homeless himself, reported he relies on a foodbank twice a month and his general quality of life has rapidly deteriorated in the last year. He also noted that when Shelter workers suggested flat-rate consolidated increases to benefit the lowest paid, Management responded that this would weaken the pay structure within Shelter, meaning the pay rise of those promoted wouldn’t be worth as much.
Another staff member, Sarah, herself a 20-year veteran, told Tribune that in the 2008 dispute: “They tried to impose contractual changes on us. Historically, there’s been disputes around Shelter actively going after our pay and pension contributions,” and: “I’ve never had an inflation-based increase in pay in the 20 years I’ve been here.”
The result of this pattern is a charity set up to tackle issues such as housing insecurity is now exacerbating housing insecurity among its own staff. “A lot of our staff are young private renters based in London,” says Sarah. “They’re caught up in the very housing emergency that they themselves are campaigning on.”
She concluded by pointing out that Shelter workers urgently need a consolidated increase instead to get them through the coming winter months and beyond. Unless this is done, condition will worsen after next April when it becomes harder to claim means-tested benefits.
Lucy, a London-based Shelter worker, told Tribune that: “It’s commonplace for staff to have no money left at the end of the month. I have colleagues who have fallen into arrears with bills, are eating less to cut down on the cost of food, and we hear constant accounts of staff suffering with stress and anxiety.”
All three complained that Shelter spends too much on external contracts and consultants and that in common with many charities management takes advantage of dedicated workers “where committed and passionate workers are made to feel that they should put up with attacks on pay and conditions out of misguided notion of philanthropic instinct”.
The anonymous Sarah added that management: “Know that most people that come to work for Shelter are very committed to Shelter’s cause. And I think they play on it. They expect charity workers just to put up low pay really and not complain.” Winning this dispute, she concluded, would “send a message to charity sector workers that they can organise for union recognition and fair pay”.