Peace on earth and goodwill to all men, unless you happen to be a low-paid school cleaner

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As we know, Christmas is the time we remember the incarnation. It is the time of year we remember the coming of God into our world. And why did Jesus come?

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luk 4:18f)

The coming of Jesus is ‘good news to the poor’ and liberty to ‘those who are oppressed’. How ironic it is then that this is the time of year that C&D Cleaning – an outsourced local government contractor covering the cleaning of school premises in West Yorkshire – see fit to cut the pay of their already low-wage staff and sack those who dare complain.

Three women – Lesley Leake, Marice Hall and Karen McGee – known as the ‘Kinsley Cleaners’, had their wages cut from £7.85 per hour to £7.20 when the contract for the school they clean was switched from Wakefield County Council to C&D Cleaning in April. Having attempted to raise the issue with their employers, the women determined they had no choice but to go on strike in protest at the cut. The Guardian report ‘The women, who between them have more than 28 years experience cleaning Kinsley primary school, returned to work earlier this month. But on Thursday they were told they had been sacked’.

We may look on at the meagre difference of 65p per hour and wonder why the hoo-ha. Three things ought to be said. First, if it is so insignificant, it begs the question why the company felt it important to cut their pay. If 65p per hour is not a vast sum, the company should have no problem in reinstating it. Second, small cuts to salary amongst lower paid workers are always felt more keenly as a percentage of pay. What may seem a small cut to many on much higher salaries would be noticed by low-paid workers trying to support families on little more than the minimum wage. Third, these women began working for Wakefield CC and agreed the terms of employment from the beginning, including their salary. What they are asking for then is not a pay increase, they are rightly seeking the contract on which they were first employed to be honoured.

What is particularly troubling is that C&D Cleaning is an outsourced company that taxpayers are funding. Even were we inclined to be entirely self-interested about this, it is apparent the cut in pay for these women is not leading to a reduction in council tax for the people of Wakefield. Whatever savings are made will be lining the pockets of those at C&D Cleaning at the expense of some of their lowest paid workers. Moreover, if we want to look at the communal benefit, it is a well-known economic fact that higher pay leads to greater spending which is a boon to the economy. If a pay cut makes no difference to the tax payments of locals, reinstating the higher salaries would help the local economy as these women are given more money to spend (albeit in the most meagre and barely noticeable way).

Of course, the wider issue is neither the minuscule difference to council tax payments nor the indiscernible difference to the local economy. The issue is one of fairness. These women have served Wakefield County Council for over 28 years collectively in their role as cleaners. They agreed the terms on which they were employed from the beginning. For their pay to now be cut simply to offer a greater share of profits to an outsourced company funded by taxpayers seems iniquitous. For the company to sack these women, clearly in retrospective punishment for daring to ask for the pay on which they were first employed, is legally iffy and morally reprehensible. To sack them at Christmas time seems particularly callous.

Apparently Christmas is a time for good will to all men and represents good news to the poor. Fortunately for C&D Cleaning, these are women, not men, so they don’t get the good will. They also earned marginally above the government’s living wage, so they don’t count as poor enough either. Nice to know the spirit of scrooge is alive and well.