Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Living Wage Week #3: Excuses and Values

When you campaign for a living wage you get used to hearing the same excuses for why a particular organisation or business won't pay it. Top of the list, as you would expect, is 'we can't afford it'. I always find it amazing that employers are so quick to say it, usually before even trying to work out the maths or taking account of the added business benefits that Living Wage employers always speak about (higher productivity, less sick days, less staff turnover). I'm convinced that if employers sat down and worked it out properly, and took advice from at least 1 of the 1000+ employers who've gone through the process they'd discover it's not as expensive as they think, and almost certainly a lot less than the hugely inflated figures they tend to defensively produce on the back of an envelope. Take a look at the diversity on the living wage employers list. Any business contemplating it will find someone like them has already done it!

Many employers like to pass the buck, especially those who enjoy the hassle free arrangement of contracting out their lowest paid workers. Typically they counter with 'it's the contractors who set the wage levels not us.' Any contractor will tell you that is simply untrue - contractors pay the levels set in the contract and organisations/businesses are welcome to set them at a living wage level if they like.

Arsenal football club have come up with a different excuse altogether - that the living wage is political. I must admit I'm a bit confused by this one. It seems rather strange that when it comes to setting players wages it's all about business and on-field success but when it comes to the cleaners' pay it's suddenly a political matter.

The truth is, whether employers will admit it or not, it's not the market, nor the contractors, nor politics that are the issue - it is the employer themselves. They choose not to pay it. And often they choose not to pay it because of generally accepted, self-imposed values about employment and money. These values determine that certain jobs should only be paid a certain amount and that the minimum wage level is somehow the benchmark. In other words the least they can get away with or just above it.

But what if businesses operated on a new set of values? Why shouldn't an employer, for example, choose to have a smaller deferential between the highest and lowest paid employees? The top earners take a small hit to lift up the bottom earners. Now that's a company I'd want to work for. Or an organisation that explains to all employees that in order to lift the wages of the bottom earners they will forgo certain perks or tighten their belts in certain areas. Is it ridiculously naive of me to think that workers for organisations across the UK might be up for this in order to stand in solidarity with their colleagues? Certainly there are accredited Living Wage Employers who make big sacrifices in order to ensure that all their staff are not on a poverty wage. Those are the employers who impress me the most.

I like that the Living Wage is a choice, not an imposition. It unmasks the values beneath the branding and initiates a counter cultural movement to the status quo. Congratulations to those who've seen the light - may there be many more with the guts to give it a go.

Here's a great film about a small business paying the Living Wage.

Living Wage from Connected Pictures on Vimeo.

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