Guest post: A Living Wage Nation?

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.

6 thoughts on “Guest post: A Living Wage Nation?

  1. Thanks Chris and yes I think that we have to give credit to all of those in the campaign who were making the case for the living wage and yes to Glasgow City Council in particular who led the way. People like Jen McCarey at Unison were instrumental in getting the NHS signed up. I well remember having discussions with sceptics in government and elsewhere who said it would never happen!

    We recognise that the private sector is the challenge. It really is shocking that we are leaving the care of our young, old and vulnerable to people getting paid minimum wage. We must deal with this as a matter of urgency and we must start with procurement. No public money spent on poverty wages!

    We have heard many arguments on how the living wage isn’t practical, too difficult, not realistic and indeed pie in the sky and will never happen. Despite that it is happening and thousands of workers have benefited. We nearly have the public sector covered, next stop public sector contracts and who knows retail and hospitality!

  2. Good post Eddie! From the comments so far we still have convincing to do. Maybe we need to expand on the need (mostly accepted by participating councils, or other public authorities) to use their tendering to expand the LW into the private sphere. I know the much maligned Glasgow City wants to do this.
    The comment about care contracts is all too true and outsourcing this has already started a race to the bottom. Part of the motivation behind the LWC, I believe.
    It might also be good to give the early supporters of this campaign due credit. I well recall its early adoption by a number of councils and even private companies when the SG were rejecting UNISON requests for LW in the NHS! Good to see them on board now.

    • I didn’t mean my comment earlier to sound as if it is critical of the living wage idea. I just know that it isn’t people like me who need to be convinced: it is employers in the private sector and we should be honest, they’re not listening. They don’t have to. This living wage idea is pie in the sky, it just won’t happen.

      • Jo
        I know this is late in response, but I’ve just been made aware of John Park MSP’s Bill to extend the living wage to private contractors of public bodies. This might be be a step forward into the private sector. And actually, there are already some private firms who have declared themselves LW employers.

  3. The living wage sounds great, but is it really practical?

    A living wage unit trying to get employers to pay more? What about the retail sector, which is struggling in some areas. Game for example?

    An increase in staff costs usually means a reduction in numbers, which reduces service.

    Most retail staff are employed on a contracted hours basis. During quiet periods, a bare minimum of staff are present. Most retail organisations also use sales projections to plan staff, and that can also cause problems. (I know two senior retail managers and that is exactly how they have to plan staffing).

    And how would SSP (sick pay, not Tommy’s mob!) work with a living wage? Many companies do provide sick pay, but this will almost certainly be reduced. Private companies are not going to play ball with a government if it is going to cost them more.

    I’m being cynical but I know how recruitment and retail work.

    I think the SG have made a hash of their presentation on the living wage. What they have done is to effectively bribe the voters, with a rather vague idealistic promise of Scotland becoming a “living wage” nation.

    My wife gets paid barely above the minimum wage, so I have an interest in the living wage. I just think the SNP could have presented the matter much better, perhaps leaving it for the Referendum, rather than council elections.

  4. Mention is made in this piece of Community Care providers who, we should remember, cater for the needs of the most vulnerable. This group includes people with learning disabilities. My own experience with my local Council is that these services are now put out to tender and the main issue is cost. The lowest tenders tend to win contracts. So, while those delivering the “care” work for agencies vying with each other to win contracts from Local Authorities they are not public sector but private sector employees. And if their employers are lodging low tenders then it figures that they will also pay low wages and will simply not entertain any idea of a “living wage”. While I feel sorry for those who work for such agencies my concern is that people with learning disabilities are at the mercy of people on low incomes and that, in my view, is not what was promised when Care in the Community arrived with us. Mr Salmond’s “living wage” will not help those people or those who are employed to “care” for them. And increasingly there is evidence that what is being delivered is woefully inadequate.

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