I’m writing this late on Wednesday – Blog Action Day 2008 – and bloggers all over the world are posting on the subject of poverty. The poverty crisis in less developed countries – and Europe’s crucial place in that as one of the causes and one of the main potential solutions – forms a large part of my work as an MEP. I’ve crossed swords many times with the now Baron Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool, who as European Trade Commissioner was very much in the ‘problem’ camp, and was delighted this week to be named MEP of the Year for Trade. But in this Blog Action Day post I’d like to look at solutions to poverty closer to home. People in the UK don’t generally think of themselves as being in poverty, but many thousands are.
Total up the absolute basic living costs that families need to cover, and you get what’s known as a poverty threshold wage – and every study finds this to be already higher than the minimum wage set by the government.
But a real ‘living wage’ must also provide a secure margin so that the family involved does not fall into poverty and debt when it faces the kind of day-to-day challenges those of us who are better off can take in our stride: a broken kettle, the need to buy shoes for a growing child, the cost of a train journey to visit a sick relative.
The absolute minimum needed for a basic existence, calculated by this approach, shows that the minimum wage falls well short of what’s needed. More than a pound an hour short in fact. Every calculation of a living wage that has been done in towns and cities in the UK has found a living wage this year lies above seven pounds an hour. But from October this year, the minimum wage is just £5.73.
This means that anyone receiving the minimum wage is receiving poverty wages. And in 21st century Britain this is just not on.
If the Greens were in government, the national minimum wage would be set at least at the level of a real living wage. But meanwhile, we’re pledged to use every piece of influence we can get to fight poverty pay.
In 2007, the lowest paid workers in the London Fire Brigade got a pay rise. Previously the people who clean fire stations were paid the national minimum wage, at that time just £5.35 per hour. But thanks to the work of the London Living Wage Unit, this changed and now the cleaners earn at least the London living wage of £7.45 an hour, enough to support themselves and their families at last.
What many people don’t know is that the Living Wage Unit was set up under Ken Livingstone’s administration thanks to the Green Party members of the London Assembly, Jenny Jones and Darren Johnson.
They held a casting vote over the Mayor’s budget for four years and used it to get a fair deal for all London government’s employees, and create the Living Wage Unit to calculate the amount needed to get by in the capital.
While they don’t have the same influence over the new Mayor, Greens in London are continuing to support the efforts of groups such as London Citizens, the Fair Pay Network and The East London Communities Organisation fighting for fair pay for cleaners, shop staff and catering and hotel workers across London.
In Oxford, Greens have also succeeded in passing a motion through the city council, bringing in a living wage for council workers there. But when the Greens brought the same motion to Oxfordshire County Council this June, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives shamefully voted it down.
In Lewisham, the six strong Green Group is proposing a living wage for all council employees, and are proposing extending this to all council contractors as well. And our Deputy Leader, Adrian Ramsay (who is also taking part in Blog Action Day) defeated Conservative opposition to commit Norwich City Council to the principle of the Living Wage.
Over the next months, Greens all over the country will be following the example of Oxford, London, Lewisham and Norwich Green Parties. They will be campaigning hard so that millions more of the lowest paid workers in Britain get a decent wage.
The Greens have spent a long time being right about things like this, but pushed to the political margins. It makes me so proud that as we win more and more elections, we refuse to rest on those laurels but use that influence to make real changes in the lives of ordinary people who have also been marginalised by the establishment parties.
So next time you’re tempted to think of the Greens as a single-issue party, ask a Fire Brigade cleaner.