A very welcome guest post on a campaign supported by the burd from Eddie Follan.
Eddie is co-ordinator of the Scottish Living Wage Campaign. He has worked for a number of years on social justice issues and has campaigned with community and national organisations.
Campaigners for a living wage in Scotland have had some encouragement over the last few weeks as the issue has been given a right good political airing. Kicked off by a full Parliamentary debate on the Local Government and Regeneration Committee report of their Living Wage Inquiry, swiftly followed by a member’s debate as a possible precursor to a Member’s Bill on including the living wage in procurement and topped off by the First Minister announcing that every SNP-led Council elected in May will pay the living wage of at least £7.20. Indeed, the FM went further and boldly trumpeted (no pun intended!) that we are building towards a Scotland that is a “living wage nation”.
As a campaigner for social justice and the eradication of poverty, it would be natural to be excited by the prospect of a living wage nation. My first thoughts, however, were ‘what does that mean and what would a living wage nation look like’? Well the easy answer is that in a living wage nation no worker, regardless of age, gender or ability, would be paid less than the agreed living wage. How to get there is the harder bit!
The political argument for a living wage has largely been won with the support of both of the main political parties and the Greens. Tory MSP Margaret Mitchell has done a good job of reminding us why the Tories are where they are in Scotland as she describes a wage of £7.20 as “gold plated” and criticises councils for paying the living wage rather than filling in pot holes.
Needless to say, having this political support is crucial because if we are building a “living wage nation”, there are some tough political choices ahead and low pay is a significant problem.
Just over half a million workers in Scotland are paid poverty wages. The vast majority of these are in the private sector, are female and work in retail and hospitality. There are also significant numbers of workers caring for our children and elderly who are paid less than the living wage. There are no numbers for those in the voluntary sector paid less than the living wage but Community Care Providers Scotland talk about a “deterioration in pay and conditions for voluntary sector care and support staff” and that pay for some workers is now slipping below the living wage threshold.
As a result of extensive political support, the situation in the public sector is much better for directly employed staff. A majority of local authorities will be paying the living wage by April with the prospect of even more doing so post May.
We could then argue that the first steps in building a living wage nation have been taken with progress in the public sector. It is after all the area where the Scottish Government has the power to act and, in the case of local government, has been able to exert influence over local decision making.
The challenge remains the private sector and that is where politics and political will have a huge role to play.
The Scottish Government could legislate to include a living wage clause in public procurement. At the moment, we are awaiting a response to a letter from Cabinet Secretary Alex Neil to the European Commission seeking clarity on whether including such a clause would be in in breach of EU law. I might just have been doing this for too long but clarity and the European Commission in my experience go together like oil and water.
So in the expectation that the Commissions advice is ‘inconclusive’ the ball will be firmly back in the Scottish Government’s court and that is where political will comes in. If we truly want to build a living wage nation, the Government will need to take the broadest interpretation of any advice and include a provision in the Sustainable Procurement Bill for a living wage clause in contracts. There is sound legal advice to say it can be done and experience from elsewhere has shown there have been no legal challenges to such a clause.
All of us campaigning for the living wage believe that there is a need to establish a living wage unit in Scotland. The role of such a unit would be to promote the living wage both within government (have a think about how many government departments can influence the employers/stakeholders they deal with on a day to day basis) and with business in all sectors. A living wage unit would also have an important role in offering advice on adopting the living wage to employers and of course in setting the living wage level. It could also have a broader role in mapping and highlighting low pay across Scotland.
Supporters of the living wage in Scotland are encouraged. Increasing numbers of low paid workers have more money in their pockets and the living wage is at the top of the political agenda. If we are building a living wage nation, however, we need to make the right choices to make sure that all workers benefit. The opportunities are there through procurement and by more investment in promoting and advising on the living wage.
Equally we need to build on and sustain the political will and general political consensus that has taken Scotland to where we are now – on the cusp of becoming a living wage nation.