The huge rift in the UK between the working poor, comfortable and over-indulged is increasingly seen as socially divisive, economically unwise and morally repugnant. In the last 10 years, living costs have risen by 300 per cent while the poorest 10 per cent have had income rises of only 55 per cent.
The national minimum wage (NMW) is failing to keep pace with need. It is fixed by a broad church commission and is statutory, which has downward pressure. It is the final safety net under the high wire of abject poverty risk. The Living Wage rate is £7.20 an hour (£8.30 in London) and is hardly a king’s ransom unless you are currently working for £6.19 an hour (the NMW from October 1), and then it can mean the food in a child’s mouth and clothes on their back.
The evidence that income-unequal societies are unhappy and perhaps dangerous is unchallenged, but there is inevitable resistance to a significant shift in the status quo. A class of working poor people is not a new phenomenon, but given massive social and cultural changes, technological development and a significant rise in general living standards, its persistence is anachronistic and shameful.
Since austerity-driven public pay unrest in the 1970s, there has been a race to the top and to the bottom of pay scales. The myth that public sector management posts require private sector “know-how” and reward packages has persisted. Inflationary leap-frogging between the public and private sector has led to the £80,000 middle manager, £200,000 headteacher and £400,000 vice-chancellor. At the other end of fortune, wages are depressed in the name of funding pressures and public employers are often relieved to outsource services, so that low pay and poor conditions are somebody else’s sin.
The arguments about recruitment and retention of talent at the top weaken on descent down the pay chain until those at the bottom of the heap are undervalued and ignored to justify their abysmal treatment.
Public sector pay should be flattened incrementally to relieve poverty, support the “squeezed middle” and share reward more fairly. Does a hard-working, skilled and committed woman labouring in a school kitchen really deserve so little?
There are two aspects of the argument that are central. First, the attempts to address gender inequality will be of limited success while the majority of women are corralled in low-paid ghettos of employment – most of the million support staff in education are women and low-paid. Women are more likely to be part-time, sometimes with two, three or four jobs – all equally low-paid and lacking in prospects. Second, governments of all colours express determination to tackle child poverty and fail. Children are not earners, but their parents are. A high proportion of the three million children being raised in poverty have a working parent.
UNISON is among those organisations running the Living Wage campaign that has seen a 10 per cent rise in Living Wage employers. The campaign is spreading across local government. Even private sector employers like KPMG and Barclays in London testify to the business benefits of the Living Wage – higher productivity, lower recruiting and training costs, decreased absenteeism and improved morale.
We must ask some fundamental questions about the social context in which we are trying to educate young people. As we teach them about the ways of the world, we should try to make it a fairer one. Further informationThe first ever Living Wage Week ended on Saturday (November 10). For details of UNISON’s campaign, visit www.unison.org.uk/livingWage/index.asp