Introducing the Living Wage Leadership Academy: Meet Angela Fields

The campaign for a real Living Wage was born 20 years ago, when communities in East London came together to discuss the issues affecting them and their families. The same problem came up again and again: low pay. In the 20 years since, nearly 8,000 employers have been inspired by their voices to voluntarily go beyond the legal minimum and pay workers a wage based on the cost of living.

Powerful testimonies and leadership from those affected by low pay were the sparks which lit the Living Wage movement and that remains the same today. That's why, together with Citizens UK and On Road Media, we're proud to launch the Living Wage Leadership Academy. The Leadership Academy will create space for authentic leadership for those who know first-hand the difference the Living Wage makes to workers and their families.

By supporting the next generation of leaders to grow, the Living Wage Leadership Academy will make sure that the next 20 years of our movement continue as the first began: with people at its heart.

To celebrate its launch, we'll be publishing a series of interviews with the participants of the Living Wage Leadership Academy. We'll talk about who they are, why they care about the real Living Wage and what their hopes are for the future of our movement. So, meet Angela Fields. Angela is the founder of the Custom House Workers' Co-operative, and she campaigns for a Living Wage across East London.

Tell me about yourself:

My name is Angela. I live in Custom House, in the London Borough of Newham, where I run and own Custom House Workers Co-op, which is a Living Wage accredited cleaning company. I've lived in Custom House since 2001, but I was born and raised in Liverpool. I've always been community minded. The community I grew up in was very close knit and still is. So, to me, community is a source of life.

The community in Custom House really came together over the first lockdown. As part of an organisation I help run called PEACH (which stands for People Empowerment Alliance for Custom House) we opened a kitchen where we cooked and delivered hot meals three times a week to the community. On the Tuesday we'd have an Indian style menu, Thursdays would be Caribbean menu, and on the Saturdays, we'd have an English menu, all with a meat and a vegetarian option. The community meals programme really kept the community spirit up. The community knowing that there were people at the end of the phone line if they needed help or support was so important.

How did you get involved with Citizens UK and the campaign for the real Living Wage?

When I first moved to Custom House, low pay was everywhere. I was getting offered a zero-hour contracts which was no good to me as I live in temporary accommodation with the high rent cost.  When I did find work, it wasn't paid at the London Living Wage and sometimes the distance you'd have to travel would mean spending most of your money on travelling anyway. It was tough just being able to live.

 It was back then that I came across PEACH. They were holding meetings in the community to see what was needed and many of the people said that what we needed was local work with a decent wage. I carried on going to these meetings with the mindset that I'd got nothing to lose and everything to gain. Through them, I got involved with the Living Wage Campaign because I met Alistair Rooms, a community organiser with Citizens UK and that was how we got involved with the Living Wage Campaign. I'm one of the founding members of PEACH now, and it was where the idea to set up the Custom House Worker's Co-op came from.

How did it feel to move from being paid below the Living Wage to starting your own Living Wage Employer?

It was a massive change setting up the co-operative. I didn't think I'd be able to do it. I'd never thought about running a business before so it's something I feel really proud of. We're providing local work to local people. If you're working in the community, the wages stay within the community; they're not going elsewhere. The community benefits as we do.

Local work for local people means I go through my local Job Centre to look for the employees I need to do the jobs as they are often the ones most in need of work. Local work for local people also means that we believe in building working relationships. With us, the cleaner that goes to a building is the cleaner that stays with that building. And if there is cover because someone's off sick or on holiday, we will always introduce you to the person. That stability is not just important for the clients, but it is also important to us. If you know your place of work, you know how to get there, you know how much it's costing you to get there. When you work for agencies, one day you're here, one day you're there and it becomes impossible to budget for the cost of travel.

Where would you like to see the Living Wage campaign advance?

I'm now part of the Royal Docks working group to make the Docks a Living Wage Place. Because the Royal Docks is mainly made up of hotels, we know for sure that the workers are paid low wages. With hotels, many workers such as the cleaners, come from agencies, and the agencies take huge amounts of profit. We're organising because we believe everybody should be paid a decent wage. Many of the workers there are single parent families who, due to low wages, are forced to take more than one job, limiting the time they spend with their kids. People that are paid a living wage are happier; they don't feel stressed coming into work; they've got more relaxing time at home with their families.

Why are you taking part in the Living Wage Leadership Academy?

It's just good to get my voice out there so people can hear my story and think, if she can achieve that then I can achieve it too. Sadiq Khan tweeted my story after I spoke at the launch of the London Living Wage in November. Being recognised by the Mayor of London made me feel so proud of myself. I never thought I'd be setting up and running a business. But because I didn't ever think I'd be able to do it, now I say to people who are thinking about it: It doesn't matter whether you can or whether you can't, you just go try it because you never know the end results.

Help us do right by workers and families by becoming a Living Wage Employer today.