Where next for the living wage?

Progress on low pay is imperative.

Tomorrow marks the start of the first Living Wage week. It is tangible proof that, 11 years after a small broad-based East London community alliance revived an idea first forged in the industrial heartlands of 1870s Britain, momentum for increased living wage coverage continues to gather pace.

And with good reason: at a time when powerful forces are bearing down on wages at the bottom end of the labour market, living wage campaigns have delivered tangible gains for thousands of low-paid workers. More widely, living wage initiatives have served as a powerful rallying cry against endemic levels of low-paid work, highlighting the power of social norms in challenging a low-pay, low-productivity economic model that is anything but pre-determined. 
 
Yet for all the success of the living wage campaign relatively few workers have secured a higher wage as a result of a living wage initiative. For example, there are an estimated 651,953 workers in London earning less than the London Living Wage, yet only around 10,341 London workers won a living wage in the six years between 2005 and 2011. This is not a cry of despair, simply a call for realism about the role that living wage initiatives can play in tackling our reliance on an extensive pool of low-paid labour and for targeting efforts where they will be most effective.  
 
Of course, the latter would be far easier if there was greater transparency around low-paid work. There is therefore a powerful case for amending the UK Corporate Governance Code to require listed companies to report on how many of their employees receive less then a living wage – as called for in the final report of the Resolution Foundation’s Commission on Living Standards. At a stroke such a move would begin to alter our tolerance of endemic levels of low pay, laying the ground for further gains. 
 
And we know that further progress is possible. Our estimates suggest that for large private sector companies in key sectors like banking, construction, food production and communications – where roughly a million people in total work below living wage rates – the costs of paying a living wage for all directly-employed staff are affordable at around 1 per cent of the firm’s wage bills. 
 
Of course, different companies will be better able to absorb these costs than others and the introduction of a living wage pay floor will be more challenging for companies in the major low-wage retail sectors (increases in wage bills of between 4.7 and 6.2 percentage points) but progress is still possible.
 
It is also imperative given the growing awareness that the public purse can no longer sustain the high cost of the UK’s reliance on 5 million workers – 1 in 5 employees – who earn above the legal minimum but below a living wage. It is not just low-paid workers and their families that bear the cost of low-paid work on this scale in strained budgets and diminished life chances. Taxpayers also pay to the tune of around £4 billion a year in in-work support for low earners. 
 
With few, if any, believing that the growth in tax credit support that occurred over the past decade can be repeated in these fiscally straitened times there is an urgent need to start developing an ambitious policy agenda to tackle low pay at source. For any policymaker serious about doing so living wages are an integral, if only partial, part of the solution. 
 
But there is a very real need to start matching words with deeds. Over the past decade politicians from across the political spectrum have competed to associate themselves with the idea of the living wage, safe in the knowledge that the voluntary nature of living wage agreements and their partial coverage made doing so almost consequence-free. With the role, rationale, strengths, limitations and policy potential of living wages now under increased scrutiny the window for endorsement devoid of decision is beginning to close. 
 
The transition from approval of living wage initiatives to concrete policy ideas to support their proliferation will not be easy. Yet there is a path for policymakers between inaction and reaching for a legislative solution in the form of a statutory living wage which few living wage advocates would endorse. That path not only involves fostering greater transparency around low pay but also thinking about the use of central and local government’s purchasing power and how the notional savings in state support that would accrue from more extensive living wage coverage might be used to help firms transition to better business models. None of this will be simple. But the alternative of not matching words with deeds is no longer a justifiable option at a time when we need wages to do far more of the heavy lifting if the living standards of low earners are not to decline rapidly. 
 
Matthew Pennycook is senior research and policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation
A street cleaner passes the Jobcentre Plus office in Bath (Photo: Getty Images)

Matthew Pennycook is MP for Greenwich and Woolwich, and member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee. He is PPS to John Healey. 

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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