John Sentamu: the scandal of the millions not paid enough to live on
Millions of people across the country will get up today, leave their families and travel to work to carry out jobs that we all depend on. They will care for people, serve us food, clean the spaces that we all use and share. They will do more than a fair day’s work, but they won’t get a fair day’s pay.
The scale of low pay in Britain is a national scandal. Come pay day, nearly five million people in this country won’t have been paid at a rate high enough to live on. Just think about that. Nearly five million people give their time, their skills and their energy to perform jobs – many of which we all depend on – but don’t get paid enough by their employers to even get by. That means not enough money to heat their homes, or feed their families, or plan for a rainy day.
The consequences for so many people and their families are devastating. Women, as the majority of low-paid workers in this country, are hit particularly hard. Low pay threatens the great strides that have been made in gender equality in recent decades because it undermines women’s economic independence. This is a huge loss for them and for society as a whole.
So far, all governments have been merely applying a sticking plaster to the crisis of low pay. The holes in millions of pay cheques are being plugged by in-work support to the tune of £4bn a year.
But why aren’t those who are profiting from their workers paying up? Why is the government having to subsidise businesses which don’t pay their employees enough to live on? These are questions we need to answer and act on – fast. The cost of living is rising but wages are not.
In the rush for profit, and for high pay at the top, too many companies have forgotten the basic moral imperative that employees be paid enough to live on. So how do we resurrect that imperative?
The living wage: three words that provide hope of an alternative. Championed by community groups across the country, it is a deceptively simple idea. A wage rate set to ensure a basic but acceptable standard of living.
Over the past decade, workers, trade unionists and campaigners at Citizens UK and the Living Wage Foundation have seized on this idea and driven it into mainstream Westminster policy debates.
Because of their tireless efforts, 284 businesses have adopted the living wage, which is currently set at £8.55 an hour in London and £7.45 throughout the rest of the UK. (The minimum wage required by law is £6.19.) Around 45,000 people have seen their pay cheque boosted as a result.
Politicians have started to sing the praises of the living wage, too. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, called it "an idea whose time has come". Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, said: "A fair and decent wage for Londoners is critical if the capital is to remain diverse, inclusive and prosperous", while the prime minister, David Cameron, has described it as a "good and attractive idea".
I agree. At the end of the day, though, what workers really need is pay, not platitudes. The reality is that despite these warm words, too few companies have stepped up to the mark. For the vast majority of low-paid people in the UK, the living wage remains an abstract concept, not a description of their pay rate.
That has to change. But how is change to be achieved? That is what the Living Wage Commission, which I will be chairing over the next 12 months, will set out to uncover. With colleagues from business, trade unions and civil society, we will investigate the future of the living wage.
What is the full potential of the living wage to both change people’s lives and change the way we do business? What are the barriers to companies adopting the living wage – and how could we surmount them?
To answer those questions, we need to have a national conversation about low pay in Britain. If you are paid less than the living wage, I want to hear from you. If you are a business which is considering the living wage, or which thinks it would be untenable to adopt, I want to hear from you, too.
By mapping the potential of the living wage, and facing the challenging questions about implementation head on, I believe that we can not only build fairer workplaces but also help build a just and good society. Join me.