Yes, all workers need a living wage and the permanent, decent job to go with it, now!

6 November 2012

Do we all need a "living wage"? Obviously - as well as a "living job"! So, this week's "Living Wage Week" should be good news. But is it?

The week's events are meant to "encourage" companies to pay a "living wage". They are organised by a bosses' organisation - the "Living Wage Foundation", sponsored by a smattering of companies, charities, religious dignitaries and the public sector union Unison, with the support of an unusual duo formed by Labour leader Ed Miliband and London Mayor Boris Johnson.

So what is this "living wage"? £8.55/hr in London and £7.45/hr in the rest of the country. This may be better than the starvation £6.19/hr adult rate of the minimum wage, but given the soaring cost of living, this is still far too little to ensure a decent living for most households.

And yet the fact is, that according to a recent survey, 5 million workers earn less than this living wage across the country.

Relying on the bosses' "goodwill"?

So what do this "Living Wage Foundation" and its sponsors intend to do about this? They want bosses to "volunteer" to raise workers' wages to their "living wage" level.

Ed Miliband, seized the opportunity to advertise what he described as one of the main planks of Labour's manifesto for the 2015 general election. As if low-paid workers can afford to wait for another three years and just keep tightening their belts, waiting for Labour to be re-elected. And even that assumes that Labour does deliver on its election pledges - which is a very big "if"!

Miliband promised that Labour would request firms bidding for public contracts to pay the living wage. But guess what? As an enticement, these firms will receive a subsidy from public funds! But what if they don't stick to their commitment? What if they pay the living wage only to those of their employees working on public contracts and not to the others? Miliband has no plans to make anything compulsory for companies, let alone to introduce substantial fines against scrooge bosses.

This is the old carrot-and-no-stick approach all over again! Instead of raising the statutory minimum wage to the "living wage" level - the obvious thing to do! - they're telling us to rely on the "goodwill" of the bosses!

No wonder, the main sponsors of the "Living Wage Week" are City heavyweights: business consultancy KPMG (a tax evasion specialist), insurance giant Aviva (a big culprit in the PPI scam) and law firm Linklaters (a big player in company law). These are the kind of people who help bosses to avoid complying with their statutory duties!

Relying on our collective strength

It is ironical that Miliband boasted that 11 Labour councils are "living wage employers". What, only 11 out of a total 75 Labour councils? Not much to write home about!

But that's precisely where one of the snags is. If, even within its own ranks, Labour is incapable of enforcing the "living wage", how can it be trusted to get private companies to respect it?

There's another snag, however. Because what the sponsors of this "Living Wage Week" failed to mention - Miliband included - is the increasing rate at which jobs are being cut or threatened, including by very rich companies, like Ford, General Motors/Vauxhall and Swiss banking giant UBS. As if talking about a "living wage" made any sense for those of us whose jobs are being scrapped by bosses seeking to boost their profits!

Yes, we all need a "living wage" (and one which is significantly higher than Labour and its capitalist friends have in mind) but also the decent, permanent job which comes with it. And this means that we, workers, have to force the bosses to use their accumulated profits to keep all workers on their payrolls on decent wages.

And why shouldn't they? Having failed to make any real investment for years, these companies are sitting on record piles of cash - produced by their workers' labour over the years. Why shouldn't this cash be used to share out all available work between all available hands and pay adequate wages - thereby ending the exhausting shifts and long hours which are still all too frequent?

Of course, the bosses' won't give in so easily, especially in this crisis from which they are doing so nicely. They will need to be made to fear for their profits, by a large-scale fight back involving large sections of the working class, in their workplaces and in the streets. Workers can't rely on union leaders to offer such an option. But we could take it ourselves - and if we were determined, it is a fight we could win - all of us, together.