Unite for rural workers

For many rural life can be a daily struggle. Unite super-reps like Stéf Kasprowski are here to help

Reading time: 7 min

Sacre bleu! A Unite rep who managers dread dealing with because of her attention to detail and determination to help union members navigate their way through the cost of living crisis.

Nothing new there – except that this particular rep is French and is helping to sort out issues affecting workers in both countries.

Stéf Kasprowski chairs both Unite’s South West regional committee and South West women’s committee as well as being secretary of her local branch.

She lives in Bradford on Avon and works as a process analyst for the University of Bath’s finance department, using her computer skills to make life easier for colleagues as well as researching information on pay, housing, travel costs and the many other problems facing workers across the South West.

Stéf was due to speak at this year’s Tolpuddle festival in July before it was cut short by high winds. She would have blown people away with her warnings about the state of working life in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK – just see the stats we’ve included in this feature. Many taken from research by Exeter University, starkly illustrate the issues Stéf faces every day in her drive to help Unite members.

Housing is now near the top of the political agenda, with fewer and fewer affordable properties across the country, but particularly in rural areas, even for those on above average wages.

Frome Town Council in Somerset is the latest to officially declare a housing crisis as rental rates soar out of the reach of local people.

The formal declaration was adopted recently to draw attention to the shortage of housing in the town. The average rent in Frome has risen to £1,499 a month, which is a giant 50 per cent of the average salary.

Stef says people are having to move further and further away from where they work in the search for cheaper houses to rent or buy.

“That means a long and expensive commute, especially for those who are not able to work from home,” she told UNITElive.

Stéf represents Unite members ranging from university lab technicians, to electricians, plumbers and carpenters, so she sees firsthand how the cost of living crisis is still hurting workers from many different professions.

“We are working with the university to help staff work in a hybrid manner because of the benefits of flexible working, as well as trying to encourage car sharing, although that is difficult because not everyone works the same hours.”

Pay has been at the heart of the many disputes which have led to strikes over the past year, with university staff struggling as much as anyone because of wages failing to keep up with inflation.

Stéf says many who work in higher education, often on low pay or employed on part time contracts, also claim Universal Credit. She advises Unite members on their right to claim benefits, worries about sanctions, as well as warning about one off, non-pensionable, non-consolidated pay deals.

“I try to offer signposts to workers, to at least make sure they are aware of their rights as well as the pitfalls.

“I have attention to detail, and go through everything with a fine toothcomb, so HR probably dread meeting me!”

Stéf grew up in rural north east France and says workers in the two countries face similar problems, including access to housing and healthcare, decent jobs, increased cost of goods and services and decent broadband.

Despite moving to the UK 20 years ago, Stéf has not lost her French accent, or her determination to improve the working lives of Unite members.

Workers are also struggling in insecure, low paid jobs, which is why Unite’s relentless drive to win decent wage rises since Sharon Graham became general secretary, is making such a difference to the members Stéf represents.

In August Sharon Graham warned employers that, “The [hard fought] battle to push up pay is certainly far from over. Our economy is broken. Every day, people are suffering. We’re sick of the trading of warm words. What we need now is action.”

So the call to arms is clear – from the factories and the fields, Unite members have had enough. What’s next for Stéf’s branch and regional members in the fight against rural poverty?

“Our region needs more well-paid jobs and we welcome the arrival of companies like Tata, the parent company of Jaguar Land Rover, in Somerset who will build a new electric vehicle battery plant.

“This is great news for rural Somerset as it could create between 4,000 and 10,000 new roles.

“I hope this will bring some well-paid unionised jobs into the region. The ideal would be a transition in place so local people have the skills and opportunity to get those jobs.

“But we are also aware that there will be new families travelling to these new jobs and we must ensure that housing is affordable and fit for purpose, including schooling and healthcare provisions in these mostly rural areas.” 

Stéf is determined to succeed. “Unite needs to do what it does best – organise workers wherever they work – to make sure they don’t feel alone in their attempts to get a fair wage for the work they do. That’s why Unite is the union for rural workers.” 

Stéf’s blow-away stats

  • 43 per cent of Universal Credit claimants in South West are in work – highest percentage in UK
  • 41 per cent of jobs in Torridge, Devon, pay below national living wage – second highest rate in UK
  • SW rates of child poverty after housing costs are around or above average, showing major working poor population
  • Higher than average rates of poor mental health for both children and adults
  • Fewer schools rated Good or Outstanding
  • Long travel times incurred for work of FE
  • Youth exodus – with the highest number of 16-24 year olds and highest number of students leaving anywhere in UK.

By UNITElive team