Today sees the start of the fourth annual Living Wage Week (1 – 7 November), and the launch of a new phase in the Living Wage campaign in the UK. There has never been a more crucial moment to strengthen the movement for Living Wages.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s new premium minimum wage for over 25s, which he branded the ‘national living wage’ has created potential a huge amount of confusion. Whilst an increase in the National Minimum Wage to £7.20 an hour is welcome – a ‘Living Wage’ it is not.
The ‘real’ Living Wage is significantly higher – £8.25 as of today across the UK and £9.40 in London – and most importantly, calculated independently and pinned to the actual costs of living.
Like all great campaigns, the Living Wage is based on a very simple idea: that a person should be paid enough to live decently and to adequately provide for their family. At its heart is an ethical argument for preventing in-work poverty and ensuring workers are not exploited through low wages.
The Living Wage campaign began in East London in 2001 when parents found that despite working multiple minimum wage jobs, they were struggling to make ends meet. They decided it was time to fight for a wage they could live off, instead of just survive. Since then, the campaign has won the accreditation of over 1,600 employers. This adds up to over £210 million in extra pay and over 40,000 people lifted off the poverty line. It also means a strong challenge to the inequality entrenched in our economic system.
Living Wage: Where spirituality and economics converge
But, as Walter Brueggemann has argued, the Living Wage is as much a spiritual issue as it is one of economics:
“If solidarity with the poor is not to be welfare (that offends and is currently out of style among us) and is not to be charity (that never fully touches the big systemic issues), then a fair, living wage is precisely the vehicle through which we express a deep theological conviction about God’s will for the neighbor, and we enact neighborly solidarity that cannot be denied.”
The Churches have played a key role in the Living Wage campaign thus far. Over the past few years all the major Christian denominations have not only endorsed the principle of the Living Wage, but committed (at least in principle) to paying a Living Wage to all church employees.
But more broadly the Living Wage is gaining ground, as the evidence grows that people across the UK care deeply about decent wages which cover the basic cost of living. The challenge now is to turn this concern into action which strengthens the Living Wage movement and encourages more employers to pay the rates.
The Peoples Movement for the Living Wage
That’s why, this November the Living Wage Foundation is inviting individuals to take action in support of the Living Wage, demonstrating to employers their demand for decent pay. A new campaign site, going live today (www.livingwagemovement.org) hosts a pledge to support the movement and calls to action for individuals and groups. There are online actions, like sharing the campaign and using the brand new mobile-friendly Living Wage Employer Map so you can search your area and see who’s already championing the rates.
Individuals can become local Living Wage Champions and use downloadable activism materials, such as model letters for employers and calling cards to hand over at the till which ask the business to go Living Wage.
But beyond this, a core aim is to establish campaign groups across the country to mirror the efforts of existing Living Wage campaigns in places like London, Cambridge, Reading, Colchester, Lewes, Lancaster, Horsham, Leeds and Manchester.
The Greater Manchester Living Wage Campaign, set up with the support of Greater Manchester Churches Together, Church Action on Poverty and a range of trades unions and others has demonstrated the power of local campaigning. Working closely with the Living Wage Foundation it has achieved a 400% increase in the number of local Living Wage Employers in Greater Manchester in its first two years. It is looking forward to welcoming the one hundredth accrediting Living Wage employer in Greater Manchester later this month.
In the end, the success of the Living Wage campaign is measured in the impact it has on the lives of those struggling on poverty wages.
Folk like Amy Davies, a catering assistant from Camden, whose employer has recently agreed to pay the Living Wage as a result of a campaign by her trade union.
“I’m really happy about it. It’s going to come in time for Christmas, which will really help. When I worked it out roughly, for me it means my wages go up by about £250 extra a month. It means we’ll actually be able to do nice things, rather than worrying all the time about money and bills.”