A senior Town Hall figure has admitted that Croydon Council “has no idea” whether the staff working at the venue at which it is staging a “celebratory event” this evening for International Women’s Day are paid the London Living Wage.
The council’s flagship event is being held at Matthew’s Yard, off Surrey Street, using the somewhat optimistic hashtag, under the circumstances, of #Pledge for Parity.
Yet Croydon Council is unable to say whether the bar staff, those serving canapes to the VIP guests, or working in the kitchens or cleaning up after the party’s over – male or female – will receive at least the minimum rate of £9.15 per hour for their efforts. Making Croydon a London Living Wage borough was a key manifesto pledge when Labour won control of the council in 2014.
“Croydon will be a London Living Wage council and we will campaign to make Croydon a living wage borough,” the local Labour politicians, led by Tony Newman and his deputy, Alison Butler, said then.
Last year, Newman, Butler and their colleagues took deserved pride in being able to announce that they had made the council a London Living Wage employer, meaning that its minimum rate of pay is £2.65 above the national minimum wage, reflecting the soaring cost of living in the capital.
“This was a clear political commitment by our administration,” Newman said last autumn when announcing that Croydon Council had been officially accredited as a LLW employer.
But that was just the half of it.
Labour’s 2014 local election manifesto also stated: “We shall ensure that all new council contracts will pay the London Living Wage and we will work to make Croydon a living wage borough.”
The italics are not our emphasis: the stress was included in Labour’s manifesto.
And it was a point which Newman was keen to emphasise himself just a couple of months ago: “It is our ambition to see the London Living Wage rolled out across every company and organisation in our borough, as we have already seen with employers such as IKEA and Lidl.”
Yet tonight’s council event is the second function in the space of a month officially backed by Town Hall officials to be staged at Matthew’s Yard. Nonetheless, members of Labour’s cabinet who we have spoken with, nor the council director organising the event nor the director of the company which runs the venue are prepared to state categorically that those working at the hipster coffee shop are being paid the London Living Wage.
Last week, an invitation went out to all Croydon councillors to attend tonight’s International Women’s Day event, which is promising a photo and art exhibition, open mic performances (a posh version of karaoke?), and live music.
The invite was sent by Sarah Ireland as the sponsor of the council’s “Women’s Network group”. Ireland, a long-time aide to Nathan Elvery, now the council CEO, receives a handsome salary as the council’s “director of strategy commissioning and communities”, so it really ought to be her task to ensure that the policy as laid down by Croydon’s elected representatives – such as “all new council contracts will pay the London Living Wage” – are implemented.
Ireland’s department, the council says, has “a commissioning focus on better outcomes for Croydon people but it also aims to ensure a consistent commissioning approach across the council”. Like ensuring that the council only uses companies which pay the London Living Wage.
It might seem odd, given the amount of venues which Croydon Council owns or pays for – such as Fisher’s Folly, the council headquarters, built at a cost to tax-payers of £140million; or Braithwaite Hall; or even Fairfield Halls and its various gallery spaces – that a procurement director finds it necessary to go outside the council estate and use public money to hire a venue.
But each one-off venue booking at Matthew’s Yard might be expected to constitute a “new council contract”, and therefore renewed opportunities for Ireland and her procurement team to discover whether those working at the venue are paid the London Living Wage. Or whether, as tends to be the industry norm, they are low-waged casual workers.
Last week, Inside Croydon asked Ireland what measures Croydon Council has taken to ensure that all workers at Matthew’s Yard are paid the London Living Wage, as per the council’s policy. Ireland, a public servant on a salary of close to £100,000 per year, or something adjacent to £55 per hour, refused to answer.
We also asked what steps Ireland had taken to check that Matthew’s Yard was fully compliant with all council and other authorities’ licensing requirements, or whether the venue had full public liability insurance. Ireland again failed to respond.
We asked the same questions of a senior member of the council cabinet. They, too, refused to speak on the record, but did concede that, “I don’t think anything has been done on this.” So much for a key Labour manifesto pledge.
Saif Bonar opened Matthew’s Yard in a disused warehouse off Surrey Street shortly after the 2011 Croydon riots, somewhat opportunistically. “The attention of the world was on Croydon. I thought ‘if there’s any time to do it then this is a good time’,” he has said.
Bonar has also been quoted as saying of Croydon, “Maybe it’s not the shit hole that people say it is.”
Until a year ago, Matthew’s Yard operated as a coffee shop, bar and cafe, employing its own staff. After a number of them walked out, having not been paid their wages, and with the business teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, with Bonar openly admitting to having debts in six figures, he opted to “change the business model”.
Trying to crowdsource his struggling business had failed to resolve its short-comings, so since early 2015, Bonar has franchised out the bar and catering elements of Matthew’s Yard, allowing “pop-up” businesses to sell their overpriced burgers and “eclectic” teas, in return for which they will pay a rent or commission, or combination of the two.
Inside Croydon has asked Bonar, more than once, whether people working at Matthew’s Yard are paid the London Living Wage. Few will now be directly employed by him, but it should still be reasonable to ascertain the payment policies of his business partners. But Bonar, too, has refused to answer the question – which is not the response you might expect if the venue was entirely London Living Wage compliant.
Marina Ahmad, Labour’s London Assembly candidate for Croydon and Sutton, has been tweeting today, “Let’s talk money.”
Marking International Women’s Day, Ahmad wrote, “A Living Wage in London must mean closing the gender pay gap and bringing true economic equality to women.” Yet in the heart of a Labour-controlled borough, her party colleagues are spending public money to hire a venue where women may not be paid the London Living Wage.
Tonight’s event is, according to Croydon Council, to “champion the lives and achievements of Women in Croydon”. Let’s hope that those attending the shindig spare a moment to consider those “Women of Croydon” who are being paid less than £9.15 per hour.
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