The Ritzy cinema workers' campaign shows the necessity of a living wage. Photo: Getty
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For dignity in work, a prosperous economy and a just society, living wages are vital

The Ritzy Living Wage campaign is an inspiring example of that call to action for raising wages.

"Would you like fair trade coffee or normal?" a barista once asked me.

Standing in a desolate service station, I had more reason than usual to despair at what is deemed normal.

"Err, fair trade please."

"That’s an extra 15p, is that ok?"

I paid up. But it was not ok.

The message was clear: if you want fairness, you’re going to pay for it. Because that’s not in our business model: "normal" business is bleeding people dry.

I was reminded of this recently when the successful culmination of a year of campaigning for a living wage by staff at Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, south London, was followed promptly by a redundancy notice from the management at Picturehouse Cinemas.

Ritzy workers described it as a "vindictive retaliation", and it's easy to see why.

A year of leafleting, strikes, awareness-raising, and negotiations had come down to this: a living wage for those who make it through the 90 day 'consultation period' which will leave at least 20 of the 93 staff out of a job. The huge public backlash and calls for a boycott has now resulted in a dramatic U-turn from Picturehouse management: announcing that plans to sack staff have been shelved.

Both instances – a multinational coffee chain and an art-house cinema group now owned by one of the biggest (and growing) cinema businesses in Europe – represent a paradox. In both, a thin façade of a commitment to equity is belied by a refusal to genuinely embed the principle of paying workers a wage on which they can maintain a decent standard of living.

In that dichotomy lies the problem, and also the solution. The pressure which businesses feel – to be seen to be doing the right thing – is already there: and turning it up is the key.

The Living Wage is calculated on the basis of the minimum a person needs to cover basic living costs. Across the UK it’s set at £7.65 an hour, while in London it’s £8.80. For the majority of people on minimum wage around the UK that’s an extra £1.15 an hour. Not much, but it can make a huge difference to people’s lives.

The cost of living crisis across the UK is acute, with low pay and stagnant wages, rising living costs, and welfare cuts forcing people to use food banks. The Trussell Trust reported a 163 per cent surge in emergency food parcels in 2013-14: up from 347,000 to 913,000.

A large proportion of these people are in work – just some of the 5.2m people now in low-paid jobs (up 250,000 from last year). Raising wages is a fundamental lever in tackling in-work poverty and boosting the economy.

The Ritzy Living Wage campaign is an inspiring example of that call to action for raising wages. The workers received huge local support, with high-profile figures queuing up to give them their backing, from Eric Cantona to Monty Python’s Terry Jones, Russell Brand, Owen Jones, Will Self and directors Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.

As the Ritzy workers have shown, campaigning for the living wage effectively can not only bring direct results: it has a deeper normative effect across society.

Curzon Cinemas, which has been the subject of a similar dispute over wages for the past year, has just agreed to pay its staff the living wage. The fallout from the Picturehouse debacle is not hermetically sealed: the Ritzy staff’s fight may be more important than they know.

This was mirrored in Scotland just this week. There has been a longstanding campaign to get Celtic Football Club to adopt the living wage, led by the Celtic Trust. Despite a petition and widespread support, the club has not yet been amenable to the idea. But then suddenly, with no campaign, no pressure, no petition, their Scottish Premier League rival Hearts announced that it will become a living wage employer for its 150+ staff.

"Hearts supporters did not need to start a petition to get the club to pay the living wage, they just realised it was the right thing to do," Peter Kelly, Co-Chair of the Scottish Living Wage Campaign, told me. "The more employers who sign up, the harder and harder it is for other employers to say that they cannot pay the living wage."

"We believe that making the business case (which is undeniable) and bringing the voices of low paid workers to the fore are our best campaigning tools. We also know that increasing support and awareness within the general public, especially customers/stakeholders, is a really important aspect of the campaign."

Football clubs south of the border are also coming under scrutiny, with Arsenal being urged to become a living wage employer by Islington Council – the first local authority in the UK to do so.

And the living wage is taking hold beyond local authorities and universities, which now represent 103 and 150 institutions paying the living wage, respectively. Some of the largest corporations in the world are signing up like Nestle, which employs over 8,000 workers.

Effective targeted campaigns work: but the ripples of progress they create are even more powerful.

Before the National Minimum Wage Act came into force in 1999, it was common to hear the same lines of argument which opponents of the living wage put forward. But the NMW is now not only enshrined legally, but accepted normatively across the political spectrum: it is a principle which, even if it was not in law, would be seen as necessary and desirable.

For dignity in work, for a prosperous economy and for a just society, living wages are a necessity. Wages which reflect basic living costs should never be a luxury, they should be "normal".

Luke Massey is a freelance journalist and Deputy Editor at Brixton Blog (and its sister print-paper Brixton Bugle).
Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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