“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”.