The case for increasing wages to cut the welfare bill

Learning from Joseph and the Chocolate Factory.

Writing in today’s Times Philip Collins produces a powerful and eloquent article arguing that we should cut the welfare bill by increasing wages. What’s more, he argues for a more moral form of capitalism to underpin it.

So what’s brought this on? Well, today JRF published our annual Minimum Income Standards report. This research asks members of the public what are the goods and services every household needs to be able to afford in order to achieve a minimum acceptable standard of living in the UK. As Collins notes:

Whether or not you agree that a few pence a week for Blu-tack is necessary, most of the costlier items are hard to dispute and they come to quite a price.

And our research shows the cost of that decent standard of living is rising fast – up 25 per cent over the last five years, higher than the official rate of inflation, which was 17 per cent for the same period. This means people today need much higher earnings just to afford the same standard of living they had five years ago. As Collins argues:

The gap between the minimally decent life and reality is growing. People on low incomes are subject to a higher rate of inflation than those who are a little richer … The gap between the life that people think others should be able to afford, in a rich and lucky country, and the life that most people lead is huge.

So what would it take for people to afford a better standard of living? The research costs the basket of goods and services people say they need for a decent standard of living, and works out what that means for how much you need to earn, once tax and benefits have been factored in. The resulting hourly wage rates are substantially higher than the national minimum wage (which is currently £6.19 per hour). A single person would need to earn £8.16 an hour while a couple with two children would need to earn at least £9.91 an hour each. 

Collins argues employers have responded to this challenge before and they should do so again, learning from historical figures like Joseph Rowntree:

When he opened his chocolate factory in York in 1869, Rowntree established good pay, housing benefits and the first occupational pension scheme for his workers...

He understood that the corporation was and is a public entity, underpinned and given a license to operate by the laws of limited liability. He felt, as all the pioneers of the American joint stock company did too, that his private accumulation came with a public obligation, which he fulfilled by paying his people well.

Low paid jobs remain prevalent in the UK, and a fifth of the workforces is on low pay. This costs us all dear as the state subsidises low income working households through the tax credit system. 

For those employers not persuaded by the moral case for change Collins argues the rate of the minimum wage should be ratcheted up as a backstop, a view that is starting to gain more support. This undoubtedly has to be part of the solution, but alone will not solve the problem. Instead a more comprehensive strategy is required that looks at why we have such an endemic low pay problem in the UK; what is driving up the cost of essential like housing, childcare and energy; and yes, as unpopular as it is right now, how best to support people through the social security and tax systems.

Katie Schmuecker is a Policy and Research Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) 

Joseph Rowntree. Photograph: Getty Images
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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.