Oxfam staff strike
Poverty pay protest
Reading time: 5 min
Think of Oxfam, and like any other charity, you may well think of lovely kind people running fund-raising coffee mornings, serving generous slices of cake from tiered stands on floral tablecloths. People who are happy to play their part in fighting poverty.
Set up in 1941, the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief as it was originally known is now a global anti-poverty movement. Over 81 years later it has shops and offices throughout the UK, with a dedicated staff committed to relieving poverty. Unfortunately many of these workers are also low paid themselves.
And now for a first in Oxfam’s history – around 500 Unite members working for Oxfam are taking 17 days of strike action throughout December. They started last Thursday, December 7.
How angry must a committed charity worker be to go on strike? Clearly Oxfam workers have had enough.
Last Thursday, low paid Oxfam staff, who work across the charity’s shops, offices and the Oxford headquarters, angry that average wages have been slashed by 21 per cent in real terms since 2018, took action. On the second day of strikes, pickets surprised Oxford’s shoppers by striking outside Oxfam’s first ever shop which opened in 1948.
Oxfam workers’ wages have been cut – despite – and here’s the irony – the charity publicly condemning real-terms pay cuts by other employers.
In contrast, Oxfam’s last reported cash reserves stood at £44.6m in 2022. This is the highest they have been in at least five years and at the very top of the acceptable range the charity has for reserves, which is between £35 and £45m.
Unite members voted by 83 per cent in favour of strike action in a ballot with an 82 per cent turnout. The vote came after they rejected a pay offer of £1,750 or six per cent (whichever is higher), plus a one-off taxed payment of £1,000 for the lowest earners.
The low pay campaigner doesn’t seem to want to address it’s own problems. The charity has repeatedly refused to enter fresh negotiations. Unite also understands Oxfam is looking at undermining the strike by using unpaid volunteers – a quite astonishing move for a charity that says it supports labour rights, including the right to strike.
“Oxfam wants to end poverty and says it is on the side of unions,” commented, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham.
“Yet its own workers report having to use foodbanks, it refuses to engage with the only union representing its workforce and it is considering using unpaid labour to break a strike. This is rank hypocrisy from an organisation that should know better.
“Oxfam is an extremely wealthy organisation and can afford to put forward an acceptable offer without impacting its charity work in the slightest. Its workers have their union’s total and unflinching support as they strike to make sure that happens,” she added.
Oxfam’s total income for 2022 was £373m, while its expenditure was £329m. Meanwhile, a recent survey of Oxfam workers found that in the last year eight per cent had used foodbanks, 22 per cent had not been able to pay their rent and 34 per cent have had to choose between heating their homes and feeding their families.
The workers will take strike action impacting Oxfam offices and over 200 shops throughout December – probably the charity’s busiest time of the year. But Unite is determined – the industrial action will intensify if the dispute is not resolved.
“Like many other employers in the charity sector, Oxfam exploits its workers’ commitment to its aims by not paying them properly,” said Unite regional coordinating officer Jamie Major.
“That Oxfam is even thinking of using unpaid labour to break the strike and refuses to talk to its workers’ union, shows this is an organisation that is in danger of losing its way.
“Our members are striking as a last resort and Unite’s door remains open for talks at any time to resolve this dispute.”
The dispute remains unresolved.
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By Amanda Campbell