Moral outrage about the Living Wage isn’t enough: it must be backed by legal muscle

The fact that we are even talking about the Living Wage is a sign of past failures.

To mark Living Wage Week, Left Foot Forward has invited writers to contribute to a series on wages and the cost of living

The fact that we are even talking about the Living Wage is a sign of past failures

The news this week that nine in 10 big businesses in London aren’t paying all of their employees enough to live on should come as a major shock. The fact that few people will be surprised says much about the state of the supposed economic recovery. An economy that is failing to lift living standards for those at the bottom is one that can never be sustainable.

The fact that we even have to talk about a ‘living wage’ is a symptom of that failure. The post-war generation took it for granted that the ‘wage’ received in return for a day’s labour would be enough to live on – indeed it was expected to support a dependent spouse and children.

One wage was supposed to be – and most often was – enough to support a whole family. The idea that anyone could be paid less than what they needed to pay the rent and put food on the table would have been completely alien to anyone working in the 1960s and 1970s. Strong trade unions ensured that prosperity was more evenly shared than it is today.
No one, however, is suggesting that all we need to do is wind the clock back and all will be well – too much has changed in the last 30 years. We need new tools to achieve just outcomes, to make sure that no one is left behind, and that work is adequately rewarded.

The Living Wage is one such tool: independent analysis that calculates the minimum someone needs to live on; a set of standards to hold companies to account; and behind it a campaigning organisation that cajoles, harries and harasses the miscreants.

Citizens UK deserves huge amounts of credit for setting up the Living Wage Foundation and for making the payment of poverty wages a political issue. From small beginnings in the East End of London the Foundation has become a major force with more than 1,000 employers now signed up to pay their staff a living wage.

But we need to go much further.

Across the UK more than 5 million people are paid less than the living wage of £7.85 an hour (£9.15 in London). Nearly half a million of them work in the public sector. That’s five million lives that are being blighted by corporate greed and government apathy.

The national minimum wage has the potential to make a big difference to those five million people. But successive governments have presided over a system that sets the rate far too low. £6.50 an hour falls a long way short of providing enough to make ends meet. And if you’re under 18 years old you could be legally getting paid as little as £3.79 an hour – less than half of the living wage level.

It would help to put more money into local economies – Joe’s corner café would be helped to pay the living wage when the street sweepers outside can afford to pop in for a cup of tea, and when the homecare workers (now mostly not even paid the legal minimum wage, with their travelling time between appointments not included in their hours) can gather for a slice of cake after a hardworking day.

Those small business would also be put into a better position to pay the living wage were the playing field with big business and multinationals to be levelled. If big business was made to pay fair taxes, was made to treat staff fairly – not just with a living wage but also by banning zero-hours contracts – and was made to pay its small suppliers fairly and on time, then smaller firms and cooperatives would have a better chance to compete and prosper.

The living wage is an idea whose time has come. That’s why the Green Party wants to back up moral outrage with legal muscle. Under our plans every worker aged 16 and above would be entitled to the full minimum wage. We’d raise the minimum wage so that it matches living wage levels and increase it every year. By 2020 no one would earn less than £10 an hour.

Making the Living Wage a mandatory requirement for all employers would begin to make our economy work for the low paid. That’s what I’ll be pushing for this Living Wage Week.

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party. Follow her on Twitter

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