As at the time of writing, the workers at homelessness charity St Mungo’s are entering their fourth week of strike action, fighting as so many workers across the country are doing to secure a wage rise that might offset the real-terms reduction they have suffered as a result of galloping inflation.
Their demand for a 10 percent wage increase was met by charity bosses with an insulting counteroffer of 1.75 percent. When this was roundly rejected, reps at Unite the union manged to nudge the employers’ offer up slightly to … 2.25 percent.
Not impressed? Neither were the workers. With a turnout of 76.5 percent, they voted 90.7 percent in favour of four weeks of strike action from 30 May to 26 June.
Executives rake it in while workers are impoverished
St Mungo’s staff have thus indicated their determination to win some concession from their employers as the squeezing fingers of poverty bite, but what of their bosses? It may come as no surprise to our readers the charity’s executives are taking home extremely generous packages, lining their pockets in stark contrast to those who actually carry out the daily work of the charity.
Expenditure on senior management salaries at St Mungo’s has gone up by 385 percent in the last decade as the number of senior staff ballooned from seven to 32. The CEO’s wage packet has risen during that time from £107,000 to £189,418 (a truly inflation-busting 77 percent increase since 2013). Those senior staff positions are stacked with former government or multinational employees. Ex-KPGM staffers (one of Britain’s ‘big four’ accounting firm embroiled in fraud after fraud) have also found themselves in senior positions within the charity.
Current CEO Emma Haddad was recently employed as director general of asylum and protection in Priti Patel’s Home Office. Hardly the obvious choice of caretaker for a homeless charity. Once again, we see the way in which supposedly ‘charitable’ organisations have become part and parcel of the capitalist system, thoroughly enmeshed within its state machinery and perpetuating rather than alleviating the inequalities they purport to address.
Some of the more indoctrinated among us may cling onto the idea that such executives ‘deserve’ these astronomically higher rates of pay owing to the skills and experience they bring or the responsibilities they are expected to bear. While it seems a bit of a stretch to imagine that the directors of what is supposed to be a charitable enterprise are ‘worth’ ten times more than the hard-pressed frontline staff they are supposed to supervise, the actual evidence regarding this particular management coterie’s effectiveness and responsibleness is damning.
“With such a financier-heavy board and executive, you’d think that St Mungo’s must at least fare better with money management, in line with the governance principle of decision-making, risk and control. However, the reason cited for not being able to afford frontline staff pay rises is that St Mungo’s has supposedly lost around £12 million.
“Of course, they haven’t phrased it quite like that – but that’s the difference between their current claim to have below £10 million in cash, and the accounts published in December that acknowledged a £22 million cash balance and £13 million in reserves. So where has all the money gone?”
Inflation and wages
Discussing wage numbers in the abstract does little to convey what workers are really struggling for and does much to serve the employers. Pointing out that gaining a 10 percent increase to offset a 30 percent real-terms decrease since 2010 still means accepting a 20 percent wage cut, while much more illuminating, still doesn’t convey the harsh realities of the workers’ situation.
That 30 percent decrease (or 20 percent if the St Mungo’s workers successfully get their 10 percent) isn’t merely a decrease in the amount of money workers are handed at the end of a working week or month, it is a decrease in their purchasing power; a fall in their standard of living. That decrease can express itself either in their having to buy less of some things (quantitative) or in their being unable to afford something altogether (qualitative).
While quantitative reductions in workers’ ability to buy necessities can lead to much hardship, once that decrease becomes qualitative, it can be devastating – even deadly.
A qualitative change might start with relatively bearable losses (why should we have to bear them?), such as not being able to go on holiday or not being able to replace worn clothing or damaged furniture. But all too soon these losses can become unbearable and life-changing: not being able to turn on the heating; not being able to afford food; homelessness.
Let a 2012 study by Crisis and the University of Sheffield speak:
“From the records of deaths in England between 2001-09, 1,731 were identified as having been homeless people. Of these, 90 percent were male and 10 percent female, whereas the gender split of deaths of the adult general population is 48 percent male and 52 percent female.
“Homeless people are more likely to die young, with an average age of death of 47 years old and even lower for homeless women at 43, compared to 77 for the general population, 74 for men and 80 for women.
“At the ages of 16-24, homeless people are at least twice as likely to die as their housed contemporaries; for 25-34 year olds the ratio increases to four to five times, and at ages 35-44, to five to six times. Even though the ratio falls back as the population reaches middle age, homeless 45-54 year olds are still three to four times more likely to die than the general population, and 55-64 year olds one and a half to nearly three times.
“Drug and alcohol abuse are particularly common causes of death amongst the homeless population, accounting for just over a third of all deaths. Homeless people have seven to nine times the chance of dying from alcohol-related diseases and 20 times the chance of dying from drugs.
“Homeless men and women had similar mortality ratios for deaths due to alcohol, while for deaths due to drugs, men were 17 times, and women 13 times more likely to die than the general population. Men were also more likely to die from cardiovascular problems than women.
“As these findings clearly indicate, being homeless is incredibly difficult both physically and mentally and has significant impacts on people’s health and wellbeing. Homelessness leads to very premature mortality and increased mortality rates. Ultimately, homelessness kills.”
We would add: ‘homelessness kills needlessly’. Nearly a third of the deaths referred to in the report took place in London, a city where there were at least 89,508 unused homes in 2022 (out of a total of 676,304 across England). The number of people ‘seen’ rough sleeping in London that year was around 3,500. With 25 homes for every houseless person, any human-centric system would quickly marry up those wanting a home with a decent place to eat, sleep and be secure.
Yet we don’t live in such a system, but one which priorities profit over human needs. Far from being able to solve the problem, the market system of allocating housing intensifies it. As crisis and poverty bite deeper, homelessness is an increasing scourge affecting the workers of Britain.
Data released on 28 April 2023 by the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (Chain), covering the first three months of this year, show that the total number of people seen sleeping rough in London increased from 2,714 people during the first quarter of 2022 to 3,107 people this year (a 14 percent increase). Of those, 1,490 were sleeping rough for the first time as compared with 1,296 people in the same period last year, a rise of 15 percent. The number of people considered to be living permanently on the streets was up to 376 from 363 from the same period the year before, while 1,270 people were seen to be intermittently sleeping rough, a rise of 17 percent.
This article isn’t intended as an in-depth analysis of homelessness under our present conditions; these details are outlined in order to highlight the frontline, lifesaving nature of the work that the staff at homelessness charities perform. St Mungo’s alone supports 3,150 homeless people across the country.
While the capitalist state strips public services and privatises social housing, and while the cyclical overproduction crises (the real major factor of our cost of living crisis) dash more and more people against the rocks of poverty, the numbers of workers in desperate need of support will continue to soar – exacerbated by the impoverishment of the charity workers themselves!
It seems likely that we will soon be seeing homelessness charity workers needing help with homelessness, just as we are seeing increasing numbers of employed workers relying on food banks while they work harder and longer for less.
Capitalism has no answers
The two issues highlighted here, homelessness amidst an abundance of homes and the constant pressure of wages toward an absolute survival minimum isn’t a flaw of capitalism, it is a feature. This is how capitalism always has, and always will, function.
While the workers of Britain have no say over how housing is distributed, and the market is left to give or strip people of their homes depending on their ability to pay, our society will continue to be blighted by the obscenity of overcrowding, slum conditions and homelessness.
The only remedy for working people, in this as in so many other spheres of economic activity, is to remove housing from the capitalist marketplace, to remove its character as an investment vehicle for speculation and rent extraction, and instead plan its allocation as a use-value (a home!) according to need.
Under conditions of capitalism, workers are duty-bound to struggle to defend their wages. Not to do so is to passively accept being forced into the gutter. If we struggle hard enough, we may even maintain our living standards at a level above the absolute minimum.
Even if we are successful in doing so for a time, however, the proportion of society’s wealth that is allotted to the workers who produced it will continue to decline. Thus our relative social position steadily declines even during those ‘better’ periods when we are able to maintain what on the face of things appears to be a fairly ‘decent’ standard of living.
Moreover, the periods when such a level has been attainable were always brief and now seem firmly relegated to the past. The ever-deepening overproduction crisis of the world capitalist system in which we are presently enmeshed is the worst the capitalist world has ever seen. And it has plunged the lords of monopoly capital into an existential crisis, from which they are trying to escape by means of further pressing down on workers’ pay and conditions, as well as by means of wars that they hope will secure their ability to dominate and plunder the globe.
Every day we are being furnished with fresh proof of the words of Karl Marx, who wrote in 1865 that the time had come for workers to abandon their call for ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ and struggle instead for the revolutionary attainment of the ‘Abolition of the wages system!’ (Value, Price and Profit)