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A crisis in a crisis: How charity workers are struggling to make ends meet

Those responsible for helping the UK’s most vulnerable say they are having to turn to food banks

Lauren Crosby Medlicott
12 December 2022, 12.01am
Some workers in the charity sector are relying on food banks

Vuk Valcic/ZUMA Press Wire

Rail workers across the UK will tomorrow begin their latest round of strikes, adding to a long list of key workers taking part in industrial action over Christmas and into the new year.

This ‘winter of discontent’ will see bus drivers, ambulance staff, postal workers, nurses, civil servants, and teachers walk out of their workplaces to demand better working conditions and pay increases to keep up with the rising cost of living.

But as news coverage focuses on major public services, a smaller regional dispute over wages, staffing levels and unpaid expenses in a corner of north-west London is shining a light on a crisis within a crisis: how some of the professionals dealing with the human impact of the cost of living, particularly in the voluntary sector, are themselves being squeezed by those same costs.

Hounslow LIFE workers employed by the charity Hestia will be taking the first industrial action in Hestia’s 50-year history on 12 and 13 December. Those striking – about ten workers who provide mental health, addiction, immigration, and language barrier support to 600 of Hounslow’s vulnerable residents – are demanding Hestia address understaffing, low pay, and unpaid travel expenses.

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“Workers are struggling to make ends meet,” said Steve O’Donnell, a regional officer at the union Unite, in a statement. “Excessive workloads have reached dangerous levels and still bosses refuse to engage with the union. Management must address these problems urgently or the strike goes ahead.”

Hestia says it recognises Unison as the official staff union, rather than Unite – whose own members feel Unison is too “cosy” with Hestia and does not represent their interests.

Staff say Hestia refuses to address understaffing, imposing unrealistic changes in working practice that will make it nearly impossible to provide important services Hounslow residents desperately need. Meanwhile the charity’s own internal ‘cost of living toolkit’ for staff, seen by openDemocracy, includes advice about how to access food banks.

“We are the people helping those on the frontline of the cost of living crisis, but we are being hit with the same crisis,” said one Hounslow LIFE employee. “I refer vulnerable people dependent on food banks as part of my job, and am now being told by directors I should go to the food bank every day after work because they cannot afford to pay me a living wage.

“We want adequate funding for enough staff so that we don’t have unlimited caseloads making us all seriously ill and unable to provide services to our vulnerable clients.” They pointed out that the organisation has more than £15m in reserves and pays its chief executive more than £100,000 a year.

Low pay and a deteriorating building

Unite claims the charity’s management is refusing to negotiate over a cost-of-living pay increase and the provision of adequate travel expenses, even threatening Unite members with disciplinary action if they discuss pay with colleagues during work.

Hestia told openDemocracy the strike action was “sad” as it had received “positive feedback” from staff on its response to consultation feedback.

“We will of course do everything we can to ensure that any disruption for our service users is minimised,” said a spokesperson. “We will also continue to work alongside our staff to ensure we are doing everything possible to make this vital service as successful as it can be.”

We are the people helping those on the frontline of the cost of living crisis, but we are being hit with the same crisis

Hounslow LIFE employee

Hounslow LIFE isn’t the only division of Hestia where staff have concerns. One staffer at a south London women’s and children’s refuge told openDemocracy: “How can [women’s charities] Solace and Refuge pay to keep up with the inflation cost, but Hestia, who has a similar contract with local authorities, cannot?” She showed openDemocracy adverts for recent vacancies where Solace and Refuge were advertising for refuge workers starting on £28,000 a year or more, and one where Hestia was advertising for a similar job on less than £25,000 a year.

The same employee said that on top of too few staff and inadequate pay, which has led to her deteriorating mental health, the refuge building itself is falling apart. “There is a rat infestation,” she said. “There are continuous maintenance issues – electrical problems and no heating. We feel like part of a maintenance team and don’t have time to do key working.”

Hestia said it would keep working with Unison, which it officially recognises as the workplace union, “to create the best working environment possible for Hestia employees”.

Shelter on strike

Action at Hounslow LIFE mirrors a similar dispute at the housing and homelessness charity Shelter, where more than 600 workers on Monday began an unprecedented fortnight of strikes in a dispute over pay.

Unite said a 3% pay increase this year, a real terms pay cut of 11% with the true inflation rate, led to many Shelter staff being unable to pay their own rent, “leaving them haunted by being made homeless”.

One Shelter staff member said: “At the very base level, absolute bare minimum, those working for a housing charity shouldn’t be experiencing housing insecurity as a result of being unable to pay rent.”

Shelter has said it gave all staff a 3% pay increase this year, and a one-off payment of £1,500. Unite responded by claiming these pay deals would “leave pay rates at unacceptably low levels and fail to take into account rampant inflation”.

Tim Gutteridge, the charity’s director of finance and strategy, admitted the cost-of-living crisis was “impacting both our colleagues and operational costs”, adding: “Industrial action is not the outcome we wanted after months of talks with the union, but we fully respect people’s right to strike.

“Our ambition remains trying to support colleagues through this difficult period, while being able to deliver our frontline services and campaign work. This year we gave all staff a pay rise – which for non-management staff means an increase of between 8% and 12.3% – consisting of a 3% consolidated increase and a one-off payment of £1,500.

“As a Real Living Wage employer, Shelter is also implementing the Real Living Wage Foundation’s increase of 10.1% from December 2022, much earlier than required, benefiting the colleagues who receive this at the earliest opportunity.”

Paul Kershaw, who chairs Unite’s Housing Workers Branch, told openDemocracy charities could be “some of the worst employers”, even though they pride themselves on working sensitively with vulnerable clienteles.

“I think board members have a misunderstanding of the problems faced by staff,” Kershaw said. “They are a long way removed from what it is to be a front-line worker. They don’t get that these workers, in the current cost of living crisis, are really struggling.”

This winter could see several other small frontline organisations taking similar industrial action against their employers in an effort to be recognised for the vital job they do for society’s most vulnerable people groups. UVW (United Voices of the World) members at Sage Nursing home in north London are due to vote for strike action imminently, with dates to be set in the new year, while workers at Birmingham’s Asylum Support and Immigration Resource Team (ASIRT) are preparing to down tools in the week before Christmas over the charity’s purported failure to formally recognise UVW as the staff union.

In total, new analysis has shown that nearly 1.7 million workers, mostly from the public sector, are being balloted on, or have voted for, stoppages this winter, the most significant wave of industrial action since the early 1980s.

Updated, 9 December 2022: This article originally stated that Hestia paid directors salaries in excess of £110,000. In fact, according to its most recent public accounts, its highest paid worker earns between £100,000 and £110,000.

Updated, 12 December 2022: This article has been updated to include more up-to-date information about strikes across the UK this week.

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