Truly ethical banking
Before the Labour Party conference even begun, the Christian Socialist Movement had set up camp in the chilly streets of Manchester. As shoppers stormed past us in Jubilee Gardens, they were accosted by smiley volunteers handing them a shopping list. The response was questioning. Our trolleys, colourful and carrying a few hopeful tins and cans, confused some people into trying to take food away. “What even IS a foodbank?” we were asked countless times. A fair question, as they aren’t common place in the middle of the Manchester shopping district.
With thirteen million people living below the poverty line in Britain, the work that the Trussell Trust does through its foodbanks is more integral than ever. In fact, a worrying number of people that we spoke to said that they had been looking for a foodbank, and were delighted to have found it. They were disappointed when we explained that we were merely gathering the food to be distributed at a later date. The idea behind the bank (normally carried out in supermarkets) is that the public donate non-perishable food items, which are then distributed to families and individuals in need, in a three-day bundle.
A foodbank is a different type of charity, one which is difficult for the public to grasp when they give it a vague glance. The response, slow at first, picked up during the warmer part of the day. People were incentivised by the fact that they could see exactly where their money was going. This, and the fact that it is a cheap way of donating to charity (beans or soup cost less than a pound and yet go a very long way), meant that many people were very happy to give us food. Biscuits, pasta and milk began to fly into our trolleys.
By the end of the day, we had collected three quarters of a ton of food. This will go to those that are hit worst by unemployment, benefit cuts and the rise in the cost of fuel. One Trussell Trust worker told me to reply to anyone whose anti-charity rhetoric reflected a wider frustration at the ‘something for nothing culture’, that the majority of people that come for help from a foodbank are IN work. It’s the difference between the minimum wage and the living wage that makes buying one of life’s basics so difficult for some people.
The living wage for Manchester is calculated at £7.22. This means that the bottom 10% of workers in the city don’t earn the minimum income to meet basic needs such as housing, clothing and, most importantly for us, nutrition. Those on minimum wage are missing out on £1.03 an hour, which works out as £8.24 a day and £41.20 a week, based on a 40 hour week. When recession-induced reduced working hours are factored in, the problem of ‘something for nothing’ is eclipsed by a problem of ‘nothing for something’.
The Living Wage campaign has spread from its humble beginnings in London. Manchester Labour Students recently won their campaign to introduce the Living Wage for all those working at the University of Manchester. Francesca Massey, who won her battle to introduce the Living Wage at Manchester College and spoke on stage at the Labour Party conference about having to choose between which of her sons could play sport each week. UNISON's Sarah Brown followed Ms. Massey on the stage, stating that "The living wage doesn't provide luxury, it provides the essentials – what we need to survive."
It’s not only the low wages that drive people into foodbanks, those that are living on the edge of the poverty line are adversely affected by Christmas, the winter cold or a delay in benefits; a couple with a young baby were forced to chose between eating and heating when the main income provider became sick and their benefits were late. The 250 Trussel Trust foodbanks play an integral role, bridging the food gap for those that are on the edge of survival.
Our ‘pop-up’ foodbank in Manchester last Saturday was a great way for the Christian Socialist Movement to commence our time at Labour Party conference. It is an innovative way of doing charity that captured the hearts of many passers-by. The local Co-op ran out of pasta and we raised enough food to rival a small elephant on the scales. The people that we met forced us to confront the reality of issues that we are passionate about and I hope that we went some way towards showing the general public that poverty isn’t something that only exists outside of our national border. The ‘nothing for something’ culture exists right on our doorstep, highlighting the real-life consequences that coalition cuts, economic recession and poor wages have had and are still having on normal working people.