How can premium chains continue to argue that a living wage isn’t possible when the discount chains clearly think it is?
In the five-minute walk from the station to my office in City Hall, I pass at least ten shops selling coffee. Not one is paying the living wage, all but one of them are part of major chains.
The point at which one of them pays the living wage (which may not be so far off) will be the point at which there is real consumer choice to opt in to a truly ‘decent’ cup of coffee that might allow the person serving us and their families and children to have a high enough income to do more than scrape by.
Today’s announcement that Lidl is the first of the UK’s supermarket chains to pay above the Living Wage, including the higher London Living Wage in London, takes us a step closer to having this genuine consumer choice.
How can the premium chains – and supermarkets that trade on being ‘ethical’ – continue to argue it isn’t possible when the discount chains clearly think it is? The Co-operative, for example, has a long track record in promoting ‘fair trade’ but their shops are still not paying the living wage to their staff.
It feels like we are reaching a tipping point.
The Living Wage Foundation has done well to highlight the problem and in trying to persuade businesses of the benefits, but as activists and consumers we need to use our buying power to support their work, and the campaigns of trade unions, where we can.
The government’s cynical acquisition of the language of the living wage at the point at which they slashed tax credits suggests that they recognise that people think wages should be high enough to live on.
Many of us campaigning for higher pay for the lowest paid workers had understandable concerns that they had seriously undermined the whole concept. Announcements by companies like Costa that they would increase prices to pay the new higher rate for the statutory living wage have been unhelpful and reinforced this fear.
Some supermarkets have argued that the overall package for workers (in terms of discounts) makes up for not paying the living wage. If other supermarkets follow Lidl’s lead, as they surely must now do, we should be mindful that, while the bottom line remains that a pay packet should be enough to live on, some retailers may try to claw back higher wages through cutting back on other benefits.
The Conservatives will use any voluntary progress – on top of their own higher rate of the minimum wage – as a reason not to introduce a statutory, genuinely, living wage. However, with the loss of tax credits about to hit millions of families, a living wage has never been more necessary.
In London, for example, once the tax credits are removed the mayor’s economics team estimate that the current London Living Wage would need to be raised to £11.65 in order to make up the difference.
The Tories will try to portray our new shadow chancellor’s announcement confirming Labour policy as being committed to a £10 rate as financially irresponsible. However, the more voluntary progress we make in the four and a half years before the next General Election, the less of a leap it is towards a genuine living wage rate to replace the National Minimum Wage.
We can do more in power than in opposition and some of our Labour councils are showing the way through how they award contracts in social care and delivery of school meals, for example, and Brent council has introduced incentives to local businesses.
A Labour mayor in London would make a massive difference. Sadiq Khan has already previously announced that he would raise the London Living Wage rate to £10 when he hopefully regains City Hall for Labour next May.
The current mayor has done well in portraying himself as a living wage champion but has in practice done little to make a difference to low paid workers. There are more people paid below the living wage in London – both in numbers and as a proportion – than when Boris Johnson took office.
We all now have the opportunity to be genuine living wage champions. Most of us shop in our nearest supermarket. Those of us who can should vote with our feet and start using our local Lidl, if we don’t already, and email our local supermarket to say why we are no longer going there. Those of us who can’t should still take two minutes to email our local supermarkets to suggest they follow the lead taken by Lidl.
It should not be viewed as revolutionary to suggest that people should be paid enough to get by. However, we do need a kind of revolution to make it happen. Winning in elections next year can help make this happen but on the high street, Lidl’s adoption of rates of pay above the living wage recommended by the Living Wage Foundation can help us make this happen.
If we all push together – as activists and as consumers – we will be that little bit closer to achieving a living wage.
Fiona Twycross AM is Labour’s London Assembly Economy Spokesperson. Follow her on Twitter
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