Ed Miliband speaks to supporters at Bloxwich Leisure Centre on May 19, 2014 in Walsall. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour's minimum wage plan will ensure all benefit from growth

There are some sectors that could easily afford to pay workers more. 

Today I visited Birmingham with Ed Miliband. We met Rachel Palmer, a single mum who was made redundant and now works in retail on the minimum wage. Rachel has a 19 month old son and has to pay £40 a day for childcare. She travels seven miles to work. She told Ed and me about her struggle to ensure there’s enough food to feed her family and to pay the cost of rising bills. Rachel wasn’t asking for luxuries, just the basics to enable her to get by.

Stories like hers are far too common today, with the number of people earning less than a living wage soaring from 3.4 million people in 2009 to 5.2 million today. As Alan Buckle argues compellingly in his report on Britain’s low pay challenge published today, this isn’t just a problem for increasing numbers of low paid workers and their families. It’s a cost to the Treasury for which taxpayers pick up the bill – with low pay now costing us an estimated £3.23bn a year in lost revenue and extra expenditure on benefits and tax credits. So making work pay is essential to dealing with the deficit in a fair way and getting the costs of social security under control.

And low pay is a barrier to building the high-skill, high-investment, high-productivity economy we need to compete in a global "race to the top". The UK economy is more reliant on low paid workers than most others in the OECD. And this is especially true of service sectors such as retail and care where people often assume low pay is inevitable, but where training levels and progression pathways are often inferior to those seen in other countries
We can and must do better than this. That’s why Ed Miliband and I asked Alan Buckle to look at options for strengthening the minimum wage and promoting the living wage, learning from and building on the brilliant work of the Low Pay Commission which the last Labour government established, and the inspiring campaigns for the living wage we have seen from progressive businesses, trade unions and campaigns like Citizens UK.

At its heart is a compelling argument for setting a medium-term target for the minimum wage that the Low Pay Commission would be asked to aim for over a five year period. This would be consistent with maintaining the partnership and evidence-based approach that has worked so well in the past, as well as the flexibility needed to safeguard jobs and the economy. It would be the Low Pay Commission’s job to meet this target with recommendations year to year on the cash level of the National Minimum Wage. If they believe that the target cannot be met they would be expected to write to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills with compelling reasons for that judgement.

Ed Miliband confirmed today that Labour will set an ambitious target for the minimum wage over the length of the next parliament, so we set the nation’s sights clearly on the goal of an economy that works for working people and work together with employers and employees to make the progress we need. Alan Buckle’s powerful report contains much valuable analysis and further persuasive recommendations which we will also consider carefully as part of Labour’s policy review.

He suggests new powers for the Low Pay Commission to address variations in productivity and the affordability of pay increases across the economy. We know there are some sectors that could easily afford a higher minimum wage, but in others a large increase in the minimum wage would pose significant challenges to their business models. At present, there is nothing in the remit of the Low Pay Commission to address either case. Alan’s report proposes empowering the Commission to set up partnership-based taskforces that could draw up plans to tackle productivity problems that make it hard for some sectors to make progress, while considering higher rates for those sectors that could afford them. 

Another critical part of the package is a tougher enforcement framework. It is estimated that as many as a quarter of a million workers aren’t even paid the current legal minimum wage. Alan Buckle proposes stronger tools for the HMRC and a new role for local authorities in monitoring compliance.

The report argues that the legal minimum wage should remain distinct from the living wage, which has proved to be such a powerful idea precisely because it is a voluntary commitment that has galvanised and empowered working people, consumers and communities. But that doesn’t mean that government has no part to play in the movement for a living wage. Ed Miliband has already proposed that if employers commit to paying the living wage in the first year of the next parliament, government should share some of the initial fiscal savings that result through "Make Work Pay" contracts.

Alan suggests that in addition to this government could require greater transparency of large companies so that campaigners can see which don’t pay the living wage, and what it would cost them to do so. And he suggests that government could lead the way and set an example through its own employment and procurement policies. Analysis shows that if central government departments required contractors to pay staff working on government contracts a living wage, about 30,000 workers would benefit.

Of course, any these measures, would have to go hand-in-hand with the full raft of policies Labour has been setting out to strengthen our economy and support the creation of more high-skilled jobs paying decent and rising wages, from ending the abuse of zero hours contracts to strengthening vocational pathways and improving infrastructure planning. There has to be a joined-up effort across government to build an economy that competes globally not on the basis of cutting costs and increasing insecurity but through investment and innovation to drive up quality and productivity. But the best economic evidence as well as the experience of other countries shows that effective wage floors can have a positive and complementary role to play in such strategies, as well as ensuring that all workers can share fairly in their success.

A constituent of mine in Leeds West reminded me of an astonishing advert for a security guard job advertised in the mid-1990s. It said "£1 an hour, 100 hours a week. Supply your own dog." In 1999 the National Minimum Wage brought in by a Labour government made a huge difference, for the first time putting a legal floor on wages, putting an end to this sort of exploitation. But today we need to go further and as Ed Miliband set out today, a strong and rising National Minimum Wage will be a critical component of Labour’s plan to earn our way out of the cost of living crisis and raise living standards for the next generation.

Rachel Reeves is shadow work and pensions secretary

Photo: Getty
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From war and slavery to prison – life inside an immigration detention centre

David spent five years locked in a house in Britain. Then he spent two years in immigration detention centres. 

Visitors at the immigration detention centre are met by Sid the Sloth, balancing an acorn just as he does in the family film Ice Age. The picture is one of the brightly coloured murals adorning the otherwise bare walls of the visitor's entrance. The lurid paintwork sits in stark juxtaposition to the barbed wire outside, and the metal detector and eight sets of doors which visitors must pass through.

It is a thin veneer which fails to mask a system containing institutionalised abuse from top to bottom. It isn't surprising, then, that one of the conditions of my visit was not to identify the centre - the volunteers I joined fear having visiting rights withdrawn by the company in charge.

Once inside I met Sivan, a 32-year-old Kurdish asylum seeker who came to Britain clinging to the underside of a lorry. He had been tortured by the Turkish authorities. For Sivan the children’s cartoons in the visitor’s entrance held a particularly cruel irony. Detainees at the centre are not allowed smartphones, and with no access to email Sivan’s wife, also a Kurdish asylum seeker, is unable to send her husband pictures of their first child. The couple have not seen each other in the two months since Sivan was detained. That day, in the visitor’s lounge, Sivan saw his son for the first time. Holding photographs of the little boy in his hands, Sivan’s face momentarily lit up as it split with joy and then sorrow.

Sivan does not know when he will be able to see his young family - or if they will ever be able to be together.

Across Britain more than 3,000 people, many fleeing war and torture, are locked up indefinitely in immigration centres. They arrive in Britain seeking refuge. But are shut away in privately-run prisons before being forcibly removed. Often with little or no English, detainees rely on volunteers to help them navigate Britain’s complex immigration system.

At the volunteer hub, which helps 80 of the 500 men in the centre each week, I met former detainees who all had one thing in common: the mental torture that indefinite detention inflicts. Like David, a quiet Ghanaian who has never really been free. He was kept as a slave on a plantation until traffickers brought him to Britain aged 13. Here he spent five years locked in a house, when not being forced to work 14-hour days in a warehouse. He finally escaped only to spend 11 years waiting for his asylum application to be processed - still ongoing despite clear medical evidence of his torture during imprisonment. He has spent two years in immigration detention centres. And as he waits he now has to register his presence with the authorities every Tuesday. He is terrified that when he does he won’t return to his four-year-old daughter, but instead be returned to captivity by the Home Office, without explanation.

Another former detainee Daniel, a tailor from Iran who fled five years ago, spent five months in detention when he first arrived in Britain. He describes being locked up with no time limit as "one of the worst times of my life", and still needs anti-depressants. “It really damaged my mind,” Daniel told me. “You don’t know when the process will be finished and you’re just waiting, waiting. You don’t know what’s going on.”

I heard from detainees who have had medical appointments they have waited months for cancelled because the centre wouldn’t pay for transport. Some kept three in a room with a toilet between the beds. Others woken in the middle of the night to see their friend dragged from their bed and assaulted by guards before being taken for deportation. Detainees employed to clean the centre for an exploitative £3 a day, just to afford necessities like toiletries. Or they stay trapped by fear in their rooms because they are afraid of the ex-prisoners, many who have committed serious crimes, locked up around them. I heard too of solitary confinement used routinely as a punishment for those considered not to be compliant. More than one detainee said immigration centres are worse than prisons. And they are right.

Britain is the only place in Europe which still locks people up with no time limit. Despite the government’s promise to reduce both the numbers - and the time spent there - progress is still far too slow. Last year 27,819 people entered detention. Some have been there more than five years.

Barely a week passes without a new report of violence or suicide or rape or abuse, inflicted on those who came to our country for help. The government should hang its head in shame. The Home Office must stop turning a blind eye to what it must know what is happening to those in its care. It’s clear that this is a broken and barbaric system. After seeing it for myself, I’m more convinced than ever that the use of indefinite detention has to end.

Names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed for this article.

Jon Bartley is the co-leader of the Green Party.