The campaign for a real Living Wage was born 20 years ago, when communities in East London came together to discuss the issues affecting them and their families. The same problem came up again and again: low pay. In the 20 years since, nearly 8,000 employers have been inspired by their voices to voluntarily go beyond the legal minimum and pay workers a wage based on the cost of living.
Powerful testimonies and leadership from those affected by low pay were the sparks which lit the Living Wage movement and that remains the same today. That's why, together with Citizens UK and On Road Media, we're proud to launch the Living Wage Leadership Academy. The Leadership Academy will create space for authentic leadership for those who know first-hand the difference the Living Wage makes to workers and their families. By supporting the next generation of leaders to grow, the Living Wage Leadership Academy will make sure that the next 20 years of our movement continue as the first began: with people at its heart.
To celebrate its launch, we'll be publishing a series of interviews with the participants of the Living Wage Leadership Academy. We'll talk about who they are, why they care about the real Living Wage and what their hopes are for the future of our movement. So, meet Caroline Verdant: teacher, dancer, mother and activist.
Tell me about yourself.
I'm a teacher at St Antony's Catholic Primary School. I'm also a co-lead of the Performing Arts department - you may have seen some of the songs and videos the students have done with myself and Nathan Chan, who writes all the music for our songs. I love dancing, I started when I was about 8, and I've been teaching Dance here for about 15 years so a lot of the movements you see in the videos are choreographed by myself. I'm a mother of three girls - 24, 16 and 10 - who all attended St Antony's and one of whom is still there. Ultimately this revolves around my campaign work for the Living Wage.
How did you get involved with Citizens UK?
A few years ago we were visited by our community organiser from Citizens UK, who came into St Antony's and asked if we could write a song celebrating the Living Wage. That led to our first Living Wage song in 2018, Realize, which was launched at the Barbican. I got involved from there.
Campaigning was not something I ever thought I'd be involved in. I was brought up at a time where it didn't feel like you had a say. You just cast your vote and that was the end of it. But I had always wondered how it is that I could vote for politicians who would make decisions on my behalf - on the vote that I had given them - when they hadn't spoken to people on the ground, regarding their issues. Citizens UK has shown me that you can and do have power to make change. You have a voice, you can use it and gain power through community organising. That's what Citizens UK does and that's why I love the work so much.
Why are you passionate about the Living Wage?
I see the affect that low pay has on the children at my school and in the local community. I see it with regards to gang life in the area. You have parents working such long hours in order to maintain their homes and pay their bills that some children do not get to spend time with them. Those children are going to find comfort and acceptance elsewhere and easily fall into gangs.
A lot of parents in my school are care workers and the pandemic has highlighted like never before just how low-paid and undervalued they are. The thing about low pay is that it doesn't just affect the person that gets paid, it's everyone else around them too. If parents doing care work aren't getting paid enough to even meet their everyday needs, to feel valued, then what are we teaching the children about those jobs, their parents, their future? It's important for the children to know that this is about their future, that they too have a say in what their future. The Living Wage helps to instil in them the idea that you are to be valued. Whatever background you're from, whatever your skin colour, you are to be valued.
You wrote a blog, 'Bitter Sweet Sugar' about Tate and Lyle becoming a Living Wage Employer. Could you tell me more about why that campaign was important to you?
Being in the room meeting with Tate and Lyle, I remember questioning whether I should have really been there. With the executives. Whether I belonged at that table. But - while records show that Tate and Lyle themselves never profited off sugar produced by slaves - remembering the history of sugar and my ethnicity made me realise, no I do need to be here. I was overjoyed when they were accredited and showed their commitment to valuing their workers.
Things have changed for me since George Floyd. As a Black person I feel as though I've been flung into this arena where all eyes are on me. Prior to that I was just being Caroline. I know what colour I am, I don't need anyone to tell me. My parents came to this country when they weren't even allowed to sleep in certain homes - no Blacks, no dogs no Irish - but they were of the ethos that if you work hard you can get on. What happened to George Floyd highlighted so many disparities between Black and white people across the board it was like"¦ hold on a minute. Why is it that the majority of these care workers and cleaners are people of colour and women not getting paid a wage they can live on?
As a Black woman growing up in this country, I've never had the opportunities that a lot of my white counterparts had. But there shouldn't be an ethnicity pay gap. There shouldn't be a gender pay gap either! Why should it be that way?
Why are you taking part in the Living Wage Leadership Academy?
There are so many stories out there that need to be told. I'd like to be able to help people get their stories out there in any way that can help them overcome the issues they have in their life. Whether that be the Living Wage, housing, youth safety. Anything that can help get those stories out there is something I'd like to be part of.
This year we're celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Living Wage campaign. What are your hopes for its future?
The money that this campaign has put back into working pockets is phenomenal. The fact that banks have signed up based on the stories of real people, the fact that we as a school are now accredited as Living Wage Employers, the awareness that's been raised already on what low pay means to families speaks volumes as to how far we've come already. As to where we go in the future, I'm part of the Royal Docks action team: to see the Royal Docks become a Living Wage place would be phenomenal. I'm really looking forward to seeing that happen!
The Living Wage movement was established by low-paid workers, largely from racialised communities. You can read more about their work to drive forward our campaign as well as our ongoing anti-racism work here. Living Wage Employers, get involved in our action-research to build an evidence base on the impact that paying the Living Wage has on racialised workers here.