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Food workers rise up: the fight for £15 an hour begins

MANDY AMBROSE describes why, with so many food workers struggling with in-work poverty, her union is launching its campaign for a decent wage now

MY UNION the Bakers’ Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU)  has decided that we’re going to fight for a minimum wage of at least £15 an hour. We’re going to start in London. The time is right to demand wages that mean we can live, not just survive.

I work as a hygiene operative at Warburtons in north London where I earn just over £10 an hour. But I’m still just living hand to mouth. The cost of living is so expensive: rent, deposits and travel. Our demand for £15 an hour is about recognising that real people deserve a wage that means they can live not just exist.

Twenty years ago you didn’t see the amount of homeless people that you do today. It breaks my heart. People just can’t afford the rent. You didn’t see that 20 years go. It shows we’ve gone into reverse on poverty, and especially in-work poverty. Demanding £15 an hour is about saying it doesn’t need to be like this.

The Living Wage Foundation calculates the living wage including benefits to meet your basic needs. But you shouldn’t have to be on benefits if you’re working. Claiming benefits has always been stressful, and it’s got even worse with universal credit, they make it so complicated. Employers should be paying a decent wage so people can improve their lives without benefits. They need to be held to account. This is a rich country and people shouldn’t be in poverty when they are taking the initiative every single day to work, to make a better life for themselves and their families.

I support my two young adult children with only my wage coming in.  I am extremely proud of them. They are the young people they are because they’ve seen the struggles I face. I don’t have any savings.  I can’t fund their university education, or help with driving lessons. With only one wage coming in, I can’t support them as I’d like to.

Life on low wages is stressful. You develop a numbness to it. You get on with it and make the best of a bad situation. Despite the challenge, I’ve always tried to stay grateful that I do have a job.  Seeing this has taught my children respect for me as their mum. They see that they’re fed, they’ve got warmth, and food on the table. They understand that I can’t give them what I’d like to give them. This is my reality and reality for many, many others.

My father came to Britain in the 1950s when signs saying “no dogs, no blacks, no Irish” were a common sight. He would walk for miles to look for work. As a young black man he saw the benefits of trade unions and became a member of the RMT. He has been my mentor, my tower of strength, and knowing what he went through makes me know I’ve got to keep going. He put the labour movement in my blood, and now I have the honour of being on the exec of my union. It humbles me.

We have a lot of work to do in our union. Demanding £15 an hour is about saying what we aspire to. We’re starting in London, but it can spread nationwide. Our members are 110 per cent behind it.  They know the struggles and challenges in life that we all face. We’re all determined to make it happen. We know this is what real people want. Trade unions are there to be pioneers, to lead the way and make life better for people. We know we will conquer and we will win.

Mandy Ambrose is a national executive committee member of the BFAWU.

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