Most people living in poverty in the UK today have a job. Work was meant to be the surest way out of poverty, but not any more. Without a statutory minimum wage which pays enough to live on, five million workers put in a hard day’s toil and still don’t earn enough to get by.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Thousands of organisations across the country now choose to pay the real Living Wage. Overseen by the Living Wage Foundation and calculated independently each year, the rate is based on the actual cost of living. Is your local school, football club or council one of them? Such institutions help shape not only their community but the economy of their area too.
A local authority, university or hospital employs hundreds of workers directly, and even more indirectly through their supply chains. Too often though, the caterers, cleaners, carers, security guards, maintenance staff and others who work for them are among the country’s working poor. If such organisations, however, decide to take a stand against working poverty, there is a ripple effect, with other employers in the area often following suit. For a local council, committing to pay staff and contractors the real Living Wage then is an act of civic leadership.
Some may wonder if an extra tenner or so each day is really such a big deal. If you listen to low-paid workers themselves though, you hear the difference it makes. Take two colleagues of mine in the London Borough of Islington. Afsa Ahmed joined the council as an apprentice on the London Living Wage. She says it meant she could stand on her own two feet, stop relying on benefits, pay her own rent and save a bit for the future she wants to enjoy with her son. She has now been promoted and plays a permanent role helping safeguard vulnerable adults. Sara Ebrahim, a single mother of three, works as a catering assistant at a local primary school. The council’s contract with her employer insists that she and her peers all get paid at least the London Living Wage. Were it not for that, she says, she couldn’t afford to rejoin the workforce at the same time as supporting her children. With a little more help from her employment coach, she hopes to move one day from the kitchen to the classroom.
Islington Council became the country’s first accredited Living Wage local authority back in 2012. Now, all 4,500 of our own staff get paid at least the real Living Wage, and so do 98 per cent of our contractors, who, although employed by third parties, nonetheless work on our behalf. For some colleagues, that has meant being able to quit a second job, get some sleep, buy a few Christmas presents, take a family holiday or spend some time with their kids. As an employer, we benefit too, in terms of recruitment, retention and reputation. Moreover, it’s important for society at large that, by working, people can make ends meet.
Beyond securing decent pay for those who deliver the services which we provide and procure, we have also been able to exercise influence over other local organisations. As a result of that advocacy, Islington is now the local authority area in the country with the third highest concentration of accredited Living Wage employers – over 140 at the last count. Each of these employers, big and small, spanning the public, private and voluntary sectors, has resolved that their people will not have to work for poverty pay. Thanks to them, our area now has one of the lowest levels in the country (at 10 per cent) of workers who earn less than the real Living Wage.
Despite unprecedented central government cuts, local authorities still employ large numbers of people. The Greater London Authority, for instance, employs one in every hundred workers in the capital. Councils also purchase £40 billion of goods and services every year. They have other levers they can pull too, as grant makers, workspace providers, commercial landlords, planning authorities, share holders and more. As anchor institutions in their communities, they can offer a lead and champion the dignity of work.
As long as millions of our neighbours are working for their poverty, our country’s social contract remains torn. As citizens involved in the real Living Wage movement, we can mend it.
Cllr Andy Hull is Islington Council’s Executive Member for Finance
He tweets at @AndyHull79