If you haven’t seen the new Ken Loach film, ‘Sorry We Missed You‘, I can somewhat understand your hesitation. Just like its predecessor ‘I, Daniel Blake’, which criticised the benefits system in the UK, these films are a hard watch but vital to understand. Sorry We Missed You instead focuses on gig economy jobs like Amazon delivery drivers, showing how this type of work grinds people down and drives them to desperation, without helping them improve their circumstances.
While there are many issues at play here, namely the prevalence of the gig economy and zero-hour contracts, this film is also a brilliant explainer for why a real living wage is so important and worth advocating for. And, in the wake of an election which will greatly affect workers rights, I wanted to write this and talk more about why the living wage matters.
What is the living wage?
A real living wage is an hourly rate of pay, independently calculated each year based on the real cost of living. It includes a UK rate and a higher London rate that reflects the costs of living in the capital, indicating what employers should actually pay in order to ensure their employees can afford to live. Employers of all sizes, from FTSE 100 companies to football clubs, universities, and charities, pay the real living wage.
The current minimum wage doesn’t cover monthly expenses for many who are in work. Research from 2018 found that four million people in Britain had a job but were living in poverty (a rise of over half a million in five years), meaning one out of eight in the UK are classified as the working poor. According to the Guardian, eight million people live in poverty in families where at least one person is in work, while the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that in-work poverty has risen by 5%.
Nearly all of the increase comes as growing numbers of working parents find it harder to earn enough money to pay for food, clothing and accommodation due to weak wage growth, an erosion of welfare support and tax credits and the rising cost of living.
The working poor has increased in general due to a number of factors including: the rise of zero-hour contracts and gig economy jobs, increased housing costs for lower income households compared to higher income households, the falling proportion of low-income households that own their own homes, and a higher percentage increase in the hourly wages of higher-earning people than middle or low earner.
All of these factors result in low pay, which traps households in poverty. In 2001 Citizens UK and local communities founded a pioneering campaign calling on employers to pay workers a real living wage. Since then, thousands of employers have raised salaries for the lowest-paid workers. But there is still more to be done, including ensuring that employers aren’t just paying permanent staff a living wage, but are paying subcontractors and zero-hours staff the living wage too.
Why paying the living wage is good for employers
- 93% of living wage employers have seen benefits since becoming accredited
- 86% say it has improved the reputation of the business
- 80% say that paying a higher voluntary rate has enhanced the quality of the work of their staff
- 2/3 of employers report a significant impact on recruitment and retention within their organisations. Employers reported absenteeism fell by 25%.
- 93% of university graduates want to work for a living wage employer
You can read case studies on living wage employers and the improvements they’ve seen here
Plus for workers, being paid a living wage means they know they can afford the essentials and save, improved security leads to better mental wellbeing, families are able to spend more time together, and people are able to have social lives and improve their relationships.
So how do you campaign for the living wage?
I recently attended a workshop run by Citizens UK in Newcastle on how to run a living wage campaign. I decided to share what I learned, in case any readers may want to start or join living wage campaigns in their area.
Firstly, when choosing an employer to target, the campaign has to be winnable and impactful. For example, Newcastle University recently became an accredited living wage employer, which sends a strong message to all other local universities in the area who are not. It proves it can be done and enhances the university’s reputation. Durham, Sunderland, Northumbria and Teesside Universities are currently not living wage employers, and this factor can affect both where prospective students choose to study and where people choose to work.
Secondly, every living wage campaign first begins with a huge amount of research and listening. To have an effective campaign you need to ensure you’re advocating for the right things, as each situation is different and unique. For example, workers may not struggle with pay but with irregular hours or poor contracts, which requires different strategies and approaches. This research culminates in the gathering of stories and testimonies, the most powerful ammunition in a campaign. It’s often hearing real people’s stories that wins people round, especially as it can be almost embarrassing for some employers to be met with stories of how their own workers are struggling.
After listening, a successful campaign builds teams, which must be led by the actual workforce of the organisation. As well as speaking to employees, campaigners need to work with them, not attempt to speak for them, as this is patronising. A general rule is to ask: ‘does this bother you enough that you’d be willing to campaign on it?’. Consent is key, as you could make workers lives more difficult (if workers feel they may lose their jobs, they may oppose campaigning altogether. If that’s the situation, it’s important to do what the workers want).
Most of the workers who get involved in living wage campaigns tend to not be unionised, both because their work is so low paid and precarious that they can’t afford to join, and because unions are often bogged down in individual cases and don’t have the capacity for living wage campaigns. To build teams for a living wage campaign, face to face conversations are usually a good approach, which also often involves being flexible to worker needs. In the past living wage campaigners have gotten the bus to work with cleaners, as this is the only spare time they have to talk, for example. If enough people are bothered, they can start to meet.
The next step is to analyse power. A living wage campaign is usually the underdog going against a big institution, so its important to understand the power dynamics in that institution, including finding out what you don’t know. It’s important to identify who has the power to make change, and then find out everything about them. Who knows them or has access to them? Where do they go? Where could they be confronted? What are factors that may motivate them? What do they are about? Who’s responsible for contracts? Who’s in HR? Whose reputation could be affected by coverage of poor working conditions? Understanding who has power means that you can plan public actions that are effective and target the right people.
What makes a good public action
Now that teams are built, public actions are necessary to draw attention to the problems and hopefully to achieve change. Here are some of the main factors to consider?
- A public action aims to get a reaction, so what reaction do you want? From who?
- Turn up and do things with lots of people
- Use the media, social media, and any public allies you can find to aid you in getting the reaction you’re looking for
- Ask how can you use the stories and testimonies you have to make it more powerful?
- How can you also make it fun – both for those involved and to get the public on your side? (while not a living wage campaign, I think BP or not BP are an amazing example of how to do this well and gain public support)
- Personalise and polarise your messaging. For example, if campaigning for another of the North East universities to beccome a living wage employer you could ask ‘do you want to be like Newcastle University, or do you want to be like Mike Ashley?’. And if you were to directly address a chancellor or vice-chancellor at the university, you can personalise it by comparing their salary and asking how they feel about this inequality of income, and how they can justify not being living wage employers (many in these positions are paid upwards of £200,000 per year)
Ultimately, you may need to take several actions before you win a living wage campaign. It may be a long and arduous fight. But it’s a fight worth fighting.
To learn more about getting involved with or supporting living wage campaigns in your area, find your closest chapter of Citizens UK here
And remember: a real living wage, an end to austerity, ending zero-hour contracts, championing workers rights and more should all be taken into consideration in this election.
We’ve had 9 years of draconian punishment of the poor, of endless austerity, of widening wealth inequality. Please vote tomorrow. It could be the most important thing you ever do.