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. 

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn: “wholesale” EU immigration has destroyed conditions for British workers

The Labour leader has told Andrew Marr that his party wants to leave the single market.

Mass immigration from the European Union has been used to "destroy" the conditions of British workers, Jeremy Corbyn said today. 

The Labour leader was pressed on his party's attitude to immigration on the Andrew Marr programme. He reiterated his belief that Britain should leave the Single Market, claiming that "the single market is dependent on membership of the EU . . . the two things are inextricably linked."

Corbyn said that Labour would argue for "tarriff-free trade access" instead. However, other countries which enjoy this kind of deal, such as Norway, do so by accepting the "four freedoms" of the single market, which include freedom of movement for people. Labour MP Chuka Umunna has led a parliamentary attempt to keep Britain in the single market, arguing that 66 per cent of Labour members want to stay. The SNP's Nicola Sturgeon said that "Labour's failure to stand up for common sense on single market will make them as culpable as Tories for Brexit disaster".

Laying out the case for leaving the single market, Corbyn used language we have rarely heard from him - blaming immigration for harming the lives of British workers.

The Labour leader said that after leaving the EU, there would still be European workers in Britain and vice versa. He added: "What there wouldn't be is the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry." 

Corbyn said he would prevent agencies from advertising jobs in central Europe - asking them to "advertise in the locality first". This idea draws on the "Preston model" adopted by that local authority, of trying to prioritise local suppliers for public sector contracts. The rules of the EU prevent this approach, seeing it as discrimination. 

In the future, foreign workers would "come here on the basis of the jobs available and their skill sets to go with it. What we wouldn't allow is this practice by agencies, who are quite disgraceful they way they do it - recruit a workforce, low paid - and bring them here in order to dismiss an existing workforce in the construction industry, then pay them low wages. It's appalling. And the only people who benefit are the companies."

Corbyn also said that a government led by him "would guarantee the right of EU nationals to remain here, including a right of family reunion" and would hope for a reciprocal arrangement from the EU for British citizens abroad. 

Matt Holehouse, the UK/EU correspondent for MLex, said Corbyn's phrasing was "Ukippy". 

Asked by Andrew Marr if he had sympathy with Eurosceptics - having voted against previous EU treaties such as Maastricht - Corbyn clarified his stance on the EU. He was against a "deregulated free market across Europe", he said, but supported the "social" aspects of the EU, such as workers' rights. However, he did not like its opposition to state subsidy of industry.

On student fees, Corbyn was asked "What did you mean by 'I will deal with it'?". He said "recognised" that graduates faced a huge burden from paying off their fees but did not make a manifesto commitment to forgive the debt from previous years. However, Labour would abolish student debt from the time it was elected. Had it won the 2017 election, students in the 2017/18 intake would not pay fees (or these would be refunded). 

The interview also covered the BBC gender pay gap. Corbyn said that Labour would look at a gender pay audit in every company, and a pay ratio - no one could receive more than 20 times the salary of the lowest paid employee. "The BBC needs to look at itself . . . the pay gap is astronomical," he added. 

He added that he did not think it was "sustainable" for the government to give the DUP £1.5bn and was looking forward to another election.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.