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4 November 2016

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

The government should be doing the job of campaigners.

By Jonathan Bartley

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.

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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.

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