ESOL students in Newcastle. Diversity is a strength.

The Right to Fulfilling Work

December 8, 2019

This week is Living Wage Week.  23% of working people in our region don’t earn enough to live on without getting into debt.  The figure is set by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: £9 per hour.  Crucially, it applies to everyone – the national minimum wage is only £7.70 if you’re under 25, and £4.35 if you’re under 18.  After all, shops don’t sell you food or clothes cheaper if you’re under 25.  I’m proud to say that the North of Tyne Combined Authority is a Living Wage Employer. 

We’re developing our Good Work Pledge – a set of pledges that accredit a firm as a model employer.  Paying the Real Living Wage, access to mental health support, opportunities for in work progression, trade union recognition, and flexible working.  What’s heartening is the support I’m getting from businesses and employers’ organisations like the Chamber of Commerce, CBI and Federation of Small Businesses.  These professionals understand that the best way for a firm to succeed – whether public or private – is to look after their people. 

I want to make any company tendering for public sector contracts sign up to the Good Work Pledge.  We have to delay the launch, though, because of the General Election.  If Labour get in, what’s in our local pledge will become mandatory in national law. 

Me making a pledge to be a Living Wage employer, just before my election. Now delivered.

On the subject of work, I was invited to speak to adult learners at Newcastle College last week.  The lecture theatre was packed. 

What matters most in your ideal job, I asked.  High rate of pay?  Nope – just two hands went up.  Short commute to work – a few hands went up.  Good food in the canteen?  A few laughs, but not important to them.  The ability to use your talents creatively?  A flurry of hands went into the air.  Being valued and respected by your employer?  Yep – now we were cooking, not just all the raised hands, but the body language and murmur of agreement. 

It was a diverse audience – from health and social care learners, people doing foundation courses for degrees, and a large cohort of ESOL learners – English for Speakers of Other Languages.  There was a real wealth of talent amongst the ESOL learners – teachers, engineers, film directors, pharmacists. 

I shared my story: I left school at 16, returned to education in my 20’s, eventually completing my engineering degree followed by a career in engineering and software.  Becoming Mayor was an unexpected detour – I’m not sure what GCSEs are needed for that career path!

What struck me about the ESOL learners was their empathy.  They wanted to care for the homeless, promote sport for people with disabilities, work with people with dementia.  For them, work is an opportunity to contribute – not a transaction of self-interest. 

Judging by the number of people wanting selfies, the students enjoyed my talk.  Especially the Sudanese learner who said his ambition was to be the next Mayor. 

A surgeon’s assistant, a refugee from the Syrian army, shared his story with me.  Rather than kill his fellow citizens in the civil war, he’d deserted.  It took him five months to get here, through five countries, and if he returns a military firing squad will shoot him.  He’s bright, highly skilled, and compassionate.  Yet between arriving in the UK and getting his confirmed refugee status took 15 months.  During this time he was forbidden from working and paying tax, or attending an English Language course in college.  It’s crazy – the Home Office that brought us the Hostile Environment makes it illegal for asylum seekers to learn English in college!  People are forced into the black-economy, undercutting wages & suffering exploitation.  Action Foundation, a fantastic Newcastle-based charity, plugs the gap, training over 600 people through their courses.  But it’s shameful that we actively stop immigrants from learning English, leaving them struggling to use buses, do their shopping or take kids to the GP. 

At its best, work is fulfilling and builds a better society.  That should be our aim. 

This article was first published in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 11th November 2019

That’s everyone posing for a pic. Not us having a sing along.