We’ve all been talking about the Living Wage for a while now. As a concept, its profile is growing with support coming from widespread sources who see it as anything from the embodiment of Ed Miliband’s ‘predistribution’ to a way of shrinking the state and reducing the welfare bill.
Personally, I think that the current debate is lacking in two key areas. One is a discussion about what really makes people’s lives affordable and the other is how we can ensure that any increase in pay or improvements to benefits are made self sustaining.
The idea of the Living Wage, as it stands now, is too narrow which means some companies are being unfairly targeted at the same time as others are able to exploit cheap PR while in reality failing to provide their employees with a genuine living.
With its focus purely on the basic rate, the Living Wage fails to take into account many other parts of an employee’s benefits package that contribute towards their day-to-day living costs.
Many Companies offer additional benefits to their employees that can often contribute directly towards their living costs. These can include things like contractual bonuses and discounts or other items that whilst not helping day-to-day, cannot afford to be ignored or sacrificed in the name of a higher basic rate such as pensions.
The aim surely is to provide people with a decent standard of living not just more money. You might think that I’m splitting hairs, but the difference between those two things is important when discussing benefits like staff discounts. While 20% off new TVs or gym membership won’t contribute much to easing the financial burden on people, 10% off your food shopping unarguably has a direct impact on your ability to afford life’s essentials. Where companies offer this kind of benefit, surely it must be taken into account when considering whether they provide a Living Wage.
On the other hand, companies shouting loudly in the press or posing with some politician or other, bragging about how they pay their staff the Living Wage should be questioned as to what other benefits they offer. What is their pension provision like? How about contractual maternity pay?
By itself, the Living Wage is a simple tick-box exercise, a beneficial one but one that never the less is open to manipulation.
What must also be considered as part of the wider debate around living standards and the Living Wage is not only how to secure improvements to the pay and conditions of workers, but also how to maintain them.
The answer, at least from where I’m sitting, and considering the name of this site surely not a surprising one, is trade unions. Formal negotiating processes involving trade unions are proven to protect and improve the conditions of workers. They provide stability to employment. I’m aware that I am preaching to the converted, but what I think is missing is an inherent and visible effort to tie the idea of the Living Wage to the model of a unionised workplace with its wider benefits.
The best campaigns are multi-levelled and whilst at present the campaign for a Living Wage is making good progress in pushing its core idea, there is an absence of the broader and deeper discussion that I’ve talked about above.
The Living Wage is important. Even if everything else is ignored, achieving this simple aim would make a massive difference to the lives of working people across the country.
However, looking to the future, we can’t afford to let the debate be left as narrow as it currently is. We need to be talking about everything that employers offer as part of their benefit packages that can make a difference to people’s bottom lines, whilst at the same time working to build in representation and organisation in the workplace in order to sustain and improve those benefits packages in the future.
These elements do not sit in separate and competing boxes, they are part of the same drive to improve the lives of working people and should be thought about as such.