Better wages mean more to those trying to escape the poverty trap, says Rosie Ferguson

08 July 2021
Better wages mean more to those trying to escape the poverty trap, says Rosie Ferguson

A well-paid job offering realistic career prospects with reasonable hours should be within the scope of all businesses, says Rosie Ferguson.

Unique among members' clubs in London, House of St Barnabas is a social enterprise built on a mission to break the cycle of homelessness. We support people who have been affected by homelessness into lasting ‘good work' – that means work with secure hours, with opportunities to progress, and that is paid at London or National Living Wage.

The pandemic has proved an extremely challenging time, particularly for those working in hospitality. Zero-hour contracts and inconsistent working hours have provided a precarious work situation that has resulted in increased levels of unemployment and homelessness. The Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the people we work with here at the House of St Barnabas. By the end of March 2021, 33% of our Employment Academy graduates who worked in the past two years had lost their jobs as a direct result of lockdown (13 out of 40 people). Over three-quarters of those who lost their jobs did so in the first six months of the pandemic. The closest comparison for the general population comes from LSE research, which found that 5.6% of all workers lost their jobs during the pandemic (Generation Covid report, October 2020).

I have heard first-hand how the pandemic has impacted those who wouldn't previously have considered themselves to be vulnerable. They experienced the retreat of essential services: GP appointments have been scarce, housing and benefits departments scaled back, and foodbanks were overwhelmed. Graduates from our Employment Academy experienced sudden job losses, furlough on insecure income and anxiety about losing their homes. And we saw the digital divide get much wider and deeper overnight, with many people simply not able to access much-needed technology. Our graduates told us they felt disconnected from the practical support they needed, much of which could only be easily accessed online, and also from the critical emotional connection that many of us relied on with family and friends online during lockdowns.

As the hospitality sector reopens, the reality is now emerging about the shortage of staff, as many of London's former hospitality employees have left the country during the pandemic. This creates an opportunity for the individuals we support at House of St Barnabas, who are ready and willing to work and have proven themselves through work experience here. But for them and others in a similar situation, to move themselves out of hostels and short-term accommodation and into a position where they can really rebuild their lives for the long term, they need work that offers them security of hours and pays a wage that they can survive on.

Over the next 12 months we are focused on supporting our current and future Employment Academy graduates out of homelessness and into work, despite the economic outlook. We want to build partnerships with a wide range of employers and seek to convene and challenge the hospitality sector to prioritise good work within its recovery. Only by providing this can we ensure our graduates and others in precarious situations can be lifted out of poverty with a secure safety net for the long term.

It may not seem instinctive for hospitality businesses to be increasing their fixed labour costs at a time when the future is so unpredictable, but we believe from what we have seen first-hand in our own business, where 100% of our hospitality team returned after furlough, that paying staff a London Living Wage increases loyalty, reduces staff turnover and boosts customer service.

I hope that the crisis of the pandemic has created a tipping point for hospitality employers to recognise the importance of good work

I hope that the crisis of the pandemic has created a tipping point for hospitality employers to recognise the importance of good work, and for customers to become more demanding, not just of where their food is sourced from, but also whether the person serving it is being paid well or being forced deeper into a poverty trap.

Rosie Ferguson is chief executive of the House of St Barnabas

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