How much would Miliband's living wage plans actually change?

"Naming and shaming" employers who don't pay the living wage is likely to have disappointing results.

Labour says it would "name and shame" employers that don’t pay all their workers a living wage – the income a person needs to be able to afford a basic standard of living. But how shaming would inclusion on Miliband's list of offenders be? Employers on it wouldn’t exactly stand out: KPMG calculates that one in five UK workers are not paid a living wage, which stands at £7.45, or £8.55 in London.

That makes for safety in numbers, and with low wages heavily concentrated in certain sectors – 70 per cent of cleaners, waiters, and kitchen staff are paid less than the recommended rate – the competitors of affected companies would be even less likely to pay the wage, keeping the pressure to change low.

Miliband’s pledge recalls the strategy of anti-tax-avoidance protest group UK Uncut, which drew attention to high profile companies that avoided large sums of tax, in the hope of shaming them into paying more. The campaign succeeded in raising the issue up the political agenda – but corporate tax avoidance is still rife, and there have so far been no major public reversals by their targets: at the height of the protests last year, companies like Vodafone reported record profits, whilst spokespeople simply repeat that they are following the law.

One aim of UK Uncut was to urge politicians to act on the issue and change the law, but as a politician himself, Miliband’s approach to low pay seems somewhat confused. Low paid workers may well also ask why Labour needs to be in government to do what a small campaign group did with a Twitter account and a lot of time on their hands.

UK Uncut also had the advantage of focusing its fire on specific, high profile offenders. But if a Labour government were to target specific companies to get high-profile results, they'd be likely to fall foul of EU state aid regulations: governments are strictly forbidden from picking on certain companies, or offering an "advantage in any form whatsoever conferred on a selective basis to undertakings by national public authorities".

The "name and shame" approach could even be embarrassing for Labour, which doesn’t have a spotless record on the living wage itself. Relying on negative media coverage and civil society to do the job could end up with the party turning its fire on itself. The party’s longest serving living Prime Minister only recently signed up to paying his staff the bare minimum wage, and Tony Blair, among others, would be one of those shamed for not paying the living rate if the proposals were comprehensively implemented.

If Labour is serious about workers earning a living wage then it will probably find the results of its flirtation with business voluntarism disappointing. The actions of companies are ultimately guided by the profit motive and shareholder value, and recent history suggests that activism can rarely, by itself, create corporate social responsibility out of thin air.

Ed Miliband is campaigning for companies to pay the living wage, currently £7.45 an hour. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jon Stone is a political journalist. He tweets as @joncstone.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.