Everyone is familiar with the concept of a “full-time job”. Each week you work 35-40 hours and are considered to be in full-time employment. This means you won’t be listed in government statistics as unemployed, part-time employed, or inactive. You have a job and don’t need to find another one.
Except for many, that simply isn’t true.
The Living Wage Foundation considers the living wage to be £8.75 per hour in Scotland. This is set by analysing the total costs of basic goods (food, bills, clothing, household goods) housing, council tax, travel, childcare costs, basic requirements for social participation, and phone/computer costs. These are all financial requirements to live a basic life by modern standards. This is what every person needs to live without having to worry about the ability to pay for the most fundamental costs of living.
So, someone who is in full-time employment should probably be able to afford basic living costs, right? They’re classified as fully employed and these are fundamental to modern life, after all.
Unfortunately, this is not how many businesses see it. It’s not how the law sees it. Six million jobs across the UK pay under the living wage and 60% of people who are below the poverty live in working households. We live in a country where, despite government promises, working hard isn’t a guaranteed road out of poverty.
According to the current national minimum wage anyone over 25 can be legally paid £7.83 per hour. If you’re under 25 this falls rapidly. A 16-year-old in full-time employment can be legally paid just £4.20 per hour. This would leave those over 25 around £1,700 short at the end of each year. The 16-year-old will be short almost £8,000.
Those earning under the living wage are left with some pretty big decisions to make. Do they resort to a life spent at home or working their second, even third job? Do they cut down their food bill and let their health take the hit as more expensive healthy food falls out of their reach? Maybe these aren’t the only things they have to cut and their living conditions tumble from bad to worse as they’re left desperately searching for the cheapest possible roof over their heads.
Some people in this situation will resort to payday loan companies to try and cover the difference until they find an employer willing to pay them enough to live on. Many people will not find such an employer and will instead fall deeper into debt, as sharp interest rates take back far more than they were given. With their savings stripped bare a sudden cost such as white goods malfunctioning or a relative requiring care could be all it takes to push them from just-about-managing to homelessness.
All whilst working a full-time job.
This isn’t new. Mapping our society using the Gini Coefficient (a measurement of inequality) shows inequality surging in the time of Thatcher to a level it would remain at under Blair, Cameron and May. We’ve been trapped in Thatcherite inequality for thirty years.
We’re left with an important question: why isn’t the minimum wage set to the living wage researched by the Living Wage Foundation?
The most common argument we hear against the living wage is that it will put pressure on businesses and increase unemployment. These arguments were fielded with the introduction of the first minimum wages in 1909, and with each of its increases in scope through to 1937 and its universal, modern, form which has progressed from 1998 to today. These threats and warnings have never been shown to have any substance to them. This, of course, has not prevented conservative commentators lining up to parrot them again every time the issue becomes news.
These problems have not emerged because of lack of funds; Jeff Bezos has become the richest man in the world whilst paying short of the living wage. By working employees so hard that ambulances were called out to Amazon warehouses 600 times in three years and four out of five workers reporting pain due to their workload. All whilst their CEO built a fortune of $120 billion and the the average Amazon directors walked home with £230,000 per year.
He only raised minimum wages after being publicly humiliated by the working conditions. When exploitation became a public relations issue.
Every party, other than the Conservatives, backs paying at least the living wage to everyone from the age of 18. It’s a policy that has achieved near-unity across the centre and left.
So if the arguments against the living wage are so weak, and the coalition of parties supporting it so broad, why even write about it? Because we’re not there yet. Despite increasing consensus on the issue there are still six million people working in full-time jobs that don’t pay enough to meet living costs. Somehow, despite near-universal acceptance of basic living costs, such as housing and access to food, being rights we still don’t consider the ability to afford these basic living expenses as being a right itself.
We need to move the conversation on. We need to nail down the right to a living wage for all work as a battle that has been fought and won, and established by law. We need to use it as a foundation for pushing forward other reforms needed to create an economy that provides for everyone.
The right to a living wage should be the core of our economy. It is vital that we keep fighting until it is.