Low-paid support staff forced to turn to food banks

Unison ballots members in colleges over strike action, as a survey reveals that many staff struggle to pay their bills

George Ryan

Unison is balloting support staff at colleges over possible strike action, after research showed that some low-paid workers were being forced to go to food banks

Support staff in colleges, who are among the lowest paid workers in the FE sector, are being consulted over possible pay strikes.

Just under 11,000 college members of the public sector trade union Unison will be sent ballots from Wednesday asking whether they want to take strike action or “action short of strike action”. The union is recommending that its members vote “yes” for both options.

A message on the union's website reads: “Your vote will help us show the strength of your feelings as we negotiate with employers and the government.”

Appetite for strike action

A survey conducted by Unison of its FE members ahead of the 2018-19 pay negotiations found that among the 472 members who responded, 12.7 per cent struggled to pay for food and one in 50 was forced to rely on a food bank.

A further 16.3 per cent found it difficult to pay essential bills like electricity, gas and water, and 11.4 per cent struggled with their rent or mortgage repayments.

A Unison spokesperson said that the consultative ballot would help to gauge the appetite for strike action, and if the necessary thresholds are met then strikes would be held “as soon as possible”, perhaps in tandem with strike action with “sister unions”.

A message on the union’s website reads: “If you work in FE in England, this is your chance to tell us what action you would be prepared to take to help us improve your pay.”

National pay negotiations 

So far in the 2018-19 academic year, members of the University and College Union at 16 colleges have met the legal threshold for strikes to take place. Since 2017, new trade union laws have meant that strike action can only take place if a majority of members vote for action and a 50 per cent turnout threshold is passed.

Pay for college staff is set through national pay negotiations. The Association of Colleges (AoC) represents its member colleges and the FE unions – the UCU, NEU, Unison, GMB and Unite – represent staff. 

Unison members in colleges work in a variety of roles, including training and assessment, technician roles, library services, facilities, administration, specialist learning support, curriculum support, catering, IT, data, finance and procurement.

New members can join the union up until 23 January and still vote in the strike ballot.

Pay disparity

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “With the increasing disparity between school [and college] pay, we understand that unions feel this is the only way to get their voice heard. However, the major issue facing our sector is funding.

“We need to concentrate our collective energies on pushing the government for better investment in the sector, to allow colleges to properly reward their staff. In the meantime, colleges will now have to focus on ensuring that students and their studies don't suffer as a result of any industrial action.”

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George Ryan

George Ryan

George Ryan is a further education reporter for tes

Find me on Twitter @GeorgeMRyan

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