Getty
Show Hide image

Public pressure on employers is no match for a legally-enforced living wage

The government should be doing the job of campaigners.

There was a time when a job guaranteed some basic rights and food on the table. But now almost a quarter of people referred to foodbanks are there because of low wages. Even trainee nurses are being forced toward payday loan companies just to make ends meet. Meanwhile workers in the gig economy have to take employers to court to get basic sick pay, holiday pay and a minimum wage. We may live in one of the richest countries in the world but those who work face growing insecurity. Increasing numbers are just a pay cheque away from destitution.

For the lowest paid, the announcement this week that a Living Wage needs to be £8.45 an hour (and £9.75 in London) will come as no surprise. They understand that employment provides scant protection from poverty. They know they cannot survive properly in the Government's two-tier system on the phoney National Living Wage of £7.20 an hour, let alone the minimum wage for under 25s. And they are all too aware that the Government's figures reflect the cost of living in 2007, not the spiralling prices of post-referendum Britain. 

The Living Wage Foundation has stepped up where the government has failed to address the new age of insecurity. Almost 3,000 employers have committed to pay their workers the amount they need to get by. Thanks to tireless campaigning workers in those companies, charities and public bodies have the chance of a fair wage.

But a voluntary system will not guarantee employment you can build a life around, any more than foodbanks will provide lasting food security. As the Green party proposed at the 2015 General Election, we need a statutory living wage of £10 an hour. We need a pilot of a basic income, giving workers not just a safety net, but the platform they need to pursue their aspirations in the new sharing economy. And most of all we all need proper job security. 

The expanding gig economy, facilitated by apps like Uber and Deliveroo, has seen insecurity spread like a disease, with bosses exploiting zero hour contracts and self-employment at the expense of working people. While these new ways of working can provide the flexibility that many want in the 21st century, it must not come at the cost of basic rights, such as guaranteed hours for those who want them.

The good news is that workers are fighting back. On Friday 28 October, a landmark ruling against Uber found that drivers should qualify for the rights that other workers enjoy. This is a historic ruling for those employed elsewhere, too, and an example of what can be achieved when people stand up against exploitation and take back control. 

But it also begs huge questions about why workers should have to go to court in the first place. How have companies been able to get away with exploitation on an industrial scale? The answer is that the UK’s employment status law, like its minimum wage, is not fit for purpose in the 21st century. Those Uber drivers would never have been forced to take their cases to court in the first place if our laws were stronger and clearer. 

At the Conservative conference, the Prime Minister announced a review into employment law. In the context of the Great Repeal Bill, it is not inconceivable that this could be a vehicle for making things worse, not better. It should be of huge concern to every working person that the 2014 investigation by the Coalition government into employment status law has never seen the light of day. I have called on Theresa May to publish its findings immediately. The failure to do so at best unnecessarily prolongs the insecurity of workers, and at worst suggests the Government has something to hide. 

In the meantime, things look set to get worse before they get better. For many who live in the shadow of post-referendum Britain, "Marmitegate" is not just a frivolous tabloid headline, but a sinister taste of things to come. Cost of living increases, coupled with a hard Brexit, would drag many people under. We should be standing with Uber drivers, and everyone else fighting for basic employment rights and fair wages, to say we can be so much better than this.

It is a national scandal that agencies such as the Trussell Trust and the Living Wage Foundation have had to create voluntary schemes, just in order to put food on the table and secure basic subsistence wages. The kind of Britain we need, and which we deserve, is one which renders such organisations obsolete.

Jonathan Bartley is co-leader of the Green party. He was formerly the co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia. 

Getty
Show Hide image

Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”