Strike at Oxfam GB

Richard Abernethy

Summary: At Oxfam GB, a British anti-poverty NGO, workers strike against a fall in the real value of their salaries which means actual poverty for the low-paid. – Editors.

Oxford, England – On Saturday morning (9 December 2023), I joined a picket line outside the Oxfam shop in Broad Street, Oxford. Actually, it was more a demonstration than a picket, as the shop was closed. A sign on the door read “Closed Due to Industrial Action”.

The strike, by members of my union Unite, is the first in the 81-year history of Oxfam GB (a major NGO concerned with global aid and development).

I used to work at Oxfam myself, at its headquarters, Oxfam House in Cowley, Oxford, until I retired five years ago. Now I was standing in solidarity with some old friends and colleagues. Hugs and greetings were exchanged.

About fifty people gathered, holding placards or red flags bearing the Unite logo. We chanted, “The workers, united, will never be defeated!”

All over England, Wales, and Scotland, about 500 Oxfam workers are on strike.

This was day two of the strike. The previous day, strikers gathered outside Oxfam House. I was told that the driver of every passing car honked in support.

In the five years since I retired, two important changes have taken place.

In real terms, salaries have fallen by 21 percent, as meager pay rises failed to compensate for the rapidly rising cost of living. This has led to the bitter irony of people working for an organisation whose mission is to combat poverty, themselves falling into poverty.

The other change is that union membership has surged, more than doubling to 500 or so, giving people the confidence to come out on strike.

During my later years at Oxfam, building the union was difficult. One problem was the high turnover of staff, because of fixed-term contracts and frequent restructuring. Another difficulty was that about 200 shop managers, some of the lowest paid, were geographically dispersed. To complicate matters, in 2014 some former Unite members left to set up an Independent Oxfam Union, which has accepted the current pay offer and is not involved in the strike.

News came through that management has made an improved offer, which will be put to a ballot of union members.

Oxfam has evolved over the decades. Its original aim was to provide famine and disaster relief. While it still does that, its role has expanded to campaigning for global justice. It seeks to be a partner, not a benefactor, of grassroots movements in the Global South. It is not an anti-capitalist organisation, except in the imagination of some Tory MPs and right-wing journalists. It protests against certain aspects of capitalism. As an actual Marxist who worked there, I can vouch that it is not full of Marxists (but that may change). I would say that Marxists can learn from it, as Marx learned from the Factory Inspectors. There has always been a tension between its global values and its internal workings.

As in the state sector and the private sector, the third sector (non-government organisations, NGOs) drives to make the worker do more, for (relatively, if not absolutely) less.

That tension has become acute in recent years, leading to this strike.

Here is the text of the strike leaflet:

Oxfam says its purpose is
“to help create lasting solutions to the injustice of poverty”

You may be surprised to hear about a recent staff survey.

  • 8% said they have had to use food banks in the last 12 months.
  • 73% said they have had to put off buying essential items until the next pay day.
  • 17% have had to seek debt counselling.
  • 38% have had to consolidate or reschedule debt to keep afloat financially.
  • 16% have had to move homes because wages have not kept up with the cost of living.
  • 4% are homeless and sleeping at friends or family.
  • 29% have had to seek psychological counselling/therapy, partly or in full because of the cost-of-living crisis.
  • 34% have had to make a choice between heating your house and feeding your family in the last 12 months.
  • 11% have had to make alternative childcare arrangements due to income and cost of living.

Why is there all of this poverty at Oxfam when:

  • Post pandemic, Oxfam has more than doubled its reserve level to £35-45 million. This shows that a pay rise is easily affordable and wouldn’t have any impact on Oxfam’s operations here or abroad.
  • Cash balances at Oxfam have increased by 48% since 2018. At March 2022, the charity held £91 million in cash.
  • The CEO’s salary was £121,000 in 2021/22, 7 times the pay of the average (50th percentile) employee.

Isn’t it time Oxfam ended poverty at Oxfam?


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