The Living Wage: Supporting living standards, economic prosperity and consumer freedom

The Living Wage Campaign is a laudable campaign that seeks to protect and strengthen employee rights. The LW will be a key factor for economic recovery and crucially helps to re-balance our economic system in favour of the citizen. A decent, living wage has three positive claims: first, it rests on a moral claim that people should not be treated as cheap commodities; second, it rests on a economic claim that it will increase growth through greater consumer spending; and third, it rests on a political claim that will allow citizens to spend their money more ethically.

Living Standards

The Living Wage Campaign was founded on the principle that work should be rewarding, and that it should bring dignity. Consequently, wages should be enough to provide families the essentials of life. [1] The campaign has roots that go back to the late nineteenth century, where one MP wrote: ‘A living wage must be sufficient to maintain the worker in the highest state of industrial efficiency, with decent surroundings and sufficient leisure’. [2] A living wage is important because the minimum wage is not enough for a sufficiently comfortable life in the twenty-first century. This is not about luxury, it is about protecting living standards:

  • The Living Wage has had a colossal effect on reducing in-work poverty. Since 2001, over 45,000 families have been lifted out of working poverty, directly as a result of the LWC.
  • Relatedly, the LW contributes to a reduction in fuel poverty. A living wage would cut the horrifying situation where people have to choose between their radiator and their dinner (especially at a time when fuel bills are going up).
  • The LW is about increasing the health of employees. A higher wage means less stress, and could ensure that the money is spent on better quality food, goods and services (with obvious health benefits).
  • Being paid the minimum wage prevents parents from seeing their children at weekends because they end up with two or three jobs to make ends meet. The LW intends to end such a situation, ensuring hard-working parents’ strain is eased through wage security.
  • Better living standards will have an effect on the economy: a happier, healthier workforce will lead to higher productivity, fewer ‘sick days’ and a greater sense of social cohesion. The modest effect that the LW will have on reducing inequality is vital. [3]

Economic Prosperity

The last three bullet points of the above section have already hinted that the Living Wage plays an important part in prosperity. This is something that goes beyond the individual level, or as the Mayor of London puts it: ‘Paying the London Living Wage is not only morally right, but makes good business sense too’ (quote from LWC Website). Independent studies have shown that 80 percent of employers believed that the LW increased employees’ quality of work, and absenteeism decreased by approximately 25 percent. Two thirds of employers reported a significant impact on recruitment and retention within their organisation. 70 percent of employers felt that the Living Wage had increased consumer awareness of their organisation’s commitment to be an ethical employer. [4]

The benefits for the economy are important for the macro-level too. Higher wages allow for greater consumer spending. Workers’ spending on consumption accounts for roughly half of GDP in advanced economies. Lower wages means less spending, and hence less demand for economic output. Unless this is more than offset by new investment or exports, total output will contract as a result of a wage cut, and employment will fall. [5] Unfortunately, the UK is not export-focused. Combine that with government cuts and decreases to global investment, and we have stagnation in economic output (enter the double-dip recession). A Living Wage could counter some of these negative effects.

Citizenship

Ultimately, giving the employee more economic power can only be a good thing. A massive problem for the low-paid is that their choices, in economic terms, are diluted. They are forced to shop in the cheapest possible places, without any regard to the ethical or moral outcomes. Plenty of people do not buy goods with a Fairtrade mark simply because it is more expensive. Should our moral and ethical choices be limited because we are paid less? No. [6] I am not saying that we should all be paid enough so that we can go to Waitrose, or that everyone should buy free range eggs. But surely there is a problem if shoppers buy unethically because they are paid unethically?

A link between ethical consumption and the LW definitely exists. The LWC is not just about individual changes to eating more healthily, but also about wider societal efforts to create a more ethically-balanced economy. Higher wages means that spending power of the consumer could be directed towards more ethical goods – precisely those Fairtrade, free range and environmentally-friendly products that cost marginally more. Wages affect attitudes to shopping. As one commentator puts it: ‘spenders of the world, unite!’. [7] The LW could enhance exactly this sort of behaviour to create a more ethically-based capitalism.

Fighting For A Living Wage

A living wage has unparalleled benefits for living standards of employees, benefits the economic growth of this country, and can ensure that citizens become more active in their consumer choices. There are other reasons for introducing the LW. One is that it would reduce the need for taxpayers to effectively subsidise employers who pay their staff too little, because state benefits, such as working tax credits, would be reduced.

It is hugely misleading to say that the Living Wage would ‘kill business’. For most businesses – and especially in banking, IT and construction – implementing the LW would represent less than a one percent rise in overall costs; in other industries the costs are a few percentage points higher, but a phase-in could mitigate any harms. [8] Indeed, one way to increase the take-up rate would be to offer tax-cutting incentives to small- and medium-sized businesses for introducing a living wage.

Analysis has also shown that simply reducing income tax rates – touted as one alternative to the LW – is poorly targeted and cuts the British tax base even further, which would perversely increase debt (cut income tax but pay tax credits equals higher debt burden).

For all those reasons, I’m very happy that the Labour Party has announced its unequivocal support for the Living Wage and that Sheffield Labour Students supports this campaign. I’m also proud to support the Living Wage Campaign in Sheffield more generally. And I’m more than happy that Sheffield City Council will introduce a living wage for all its staff.

mg

Notes

[1] D. Hirsch and R. Moore (2011) The Living Wage in the United Kingdom, London: Citizens UK, p.4. Report available here.

[2] Ibid., p.4.

[3] For instance, see R. Wilkinson and K. Pickett (2009) The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone, London: Penguin.

[4] These figures are drawn from the Living Wage Foundation. Click here for more details.

[5] J. Stanford (2008) Economics for Everyone, London: Pluto Press, pp.158-9.

[6] One very interesting example of this in action was Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall’s Channel 4 three-part documentary, Hugh’s Chicken Run, from a few years ago. Here, local residents learnt about free range chicken, but some residents simply could not afford to eat ethical chicken – even if they wanted to.

[7] D. Jeffery (2012) ‘A Call to Arms: Spenders of the world, unite!’, Canvas 3:6. Article available here.

[8] M. Pennycock (2012) What Price a Living Wage? Understanding the impact of a living wage on firm-level wage bills, London: IPPR. Report available here.

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Review: Tescopoly, Andrew Simms

It’s one of those books you see on the shelf that makes you roll your eyes. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised. Dotted with statistics and a truly engaging writing style, Simms offers a provocative account of the British retail industry and how it is eating away at our independence. Tescopoly makes a number of arguments: firstly, how high streets are becoming ‘clone towns’; secondly, how supermarkets are unnecessarily invading your privacy; thirdly, the colonial-style global operations; fourthly, the detrimental impact on the environment; and fifthly, how to restore some order. I am only going to cover three of these here: communities, privacy and globalisation.

Communities

Libertarians and liberals rightly fear a state monopoly over services, and especially a cradle-to-grave-type government. This Orwellian picture has shifted, however, towards a new founder for dominance – namely, the supermarket. Tesco won’t just sort all your grocery needs out, but it will also provide: an in-store pharmacy, opticians, alcohol, junk food, healthy food, drugs, house decorations, lighting, music, DVDs, electrical appliances, clothes, plates, cutlery, crockery, washing machines, microwaves, garden furniture, loans, mortgages, credit card and other financial services, mobiles, holidays, insurance, photography centre, broadband, paperwork for a divorce or to make a will. Should we have a problem with this? Yes, if you believe in diversity of produce and freedom of choice. And especially if Tesco takes up to 50 pence out of every pound spent in local economies. The problem with providing all the services above is that it puts local, independent shops and retailers out of business. Local businesses are often governed by an 80/20 rule, in which 80 per cent of profit comes from 20 per cent of goods (p.26). This allows independent shops to stock niche and specialist goods, catering for a wide range of customers in a given community. If, however, a general retailer like Tesco takes away 80 per cent of profits by providing the 20 per cent of high-turnover goods, then independent businesses go bust. Allowing one super store to cater for all your needs might be convenient at first, but if you want variety then that convenience will be out of favour, especially due to supermarket power in terms of below-cost selling and price-flexing (pp.305-6). British towns are turning into ‘clone towns’ with identical high streets across the country.

Privacy

Another point raised in this book is something that could easily be mistaken for identity theft. Tesco boasts that it could produce the following consumer profile:

Mrs Smith is a young adult. She is a Premium shopper. She uses Watford Hypermarket for major monthly shops and Covent Garden Metro for daily requirements. She often shops late in the evening and buys upmarket products. She is particularly loyal to her cat food brand and fine fabric washing powder. She buys Hello magazine and sometimes country life. (p.98)

Tesco will also know her address, phone number and probably her email address. Imagine if Mrs Smith also held a Tesco bank account and her mobile was on a Tesco contract? Tesco holds a record of every single movement and conversation you ever make. All this from a little Clubcard! Neo-liberals will say it’s all for marketing purposes – yet I wonder whether or not Tesco knows a little bit too much about Mrs Smith. And a further note: there are 25 million registered Clubcards, which means that Tesco holds more files on its customers than the notorious East German Stasi ever held on its 16 million citizens (p.96).

Global Operations

A third point from Simms is the global reach of retail. Even the bastion of right-of-centre thinking, the Sunday Telegraph, has said that Tesco’s global operations is a form of ‘neo-colonialism’. To see why, take a look at the reception that Tesco inspectors got from a farm in remote Africa, witnessed by an investigative journalist:

The visit was the visit of a king. They [the community] slaughtered animals. They roasted a lamb. The schoolkids rehearsed welcome songs for three days and gave Tesco presents. Tesco gave nothing back. The adage ‘To those that have shall be given’ came to me. Why would poor Zimbabwean children give present to Tesco when they didn’t even have a school on the farm? (p.206)

The farmers assumed Tesco was a country and its staff were royalty. The low prices in our supermarkets have high costs elsewhere. Simms notes that we are indirectly financing a new form of slavery: a plantation worker in the Dominican Republic gets paid £2.48 for the day (the day being a start at 5am and bed the next morning at 2am); a girl in Bangladesh gets £9 per month to make those £3 jeans in a Tesco store. In a final example: for every £1 worth of fruit (a banana in this case), the producing country gets 12 pence (p.218). Free marketeers will tell me that this is competition in action. Really? Tesco will:

  • Request a financial contribution to place its products on promotional offers, to cover product wastage, to refurbish a store or to open a new store, to the costs of bar-code changes, or to help a specific promotion that Tesco could not afford.
  • Seek improvement in terms (of Tesco) as a condition to display their products, increase the product range or threaten to de-list the supplier.

That’s all well and good, and suppliers should just tell Tesco to stick their business. But seeming as 78 per cent of our goods come from supermarkets, suppliers do not have that choice but must sell to Tesco and others. This is not a ‘free’ market.

There are a few shortcomings to this book: i) no internal investigations of how Tesco works and hires its staff, ii) Simms seems fine to just use someone else’s work to offer solutions on how to tackle the problems, and iii) there is also too much focus on one supermarket. Nonetheless, this book is an essential guide for anyone wanting a broad picture regarding British retail. Read this book!

These are mindless riots, but that doesn’t make them pointless

Sorry to point this out to you, but these are not pointless riots. Yes, they are sickening, and I condemn them wholeheartedly. But this does not mean that there are no underlying problems in British society that are likely to have accentuated these violent conflicts. Thuggish looting on our television screens demonstrates a group of people that have lost confidence in the institutions of both state and society. Does this make these riots explicitly ideological? No, it does not. However, I challenge anyone with the ignorant claim that there is nothing more to it than ‘mindlessness’.

Thugs have taken on the British police – constabularies which have never used rubber bullets in mainland UK, yet now have the opportunity to do so. How can rioters have become bold enough to take on the British law enforcement agencies? Does this not suggest something more than anarchic opportunism? To me, it shows that there is a deeper crisis of authority. Internalised conflicts have simmered through in a brief moment over the past few days from long-term problems of neglect, inequality and disaffection. As riots hit Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, we really have to ask ourselves whether we can be ignorant enough to simply call this mindlessness. It may not be ideological, and it may not be particularly well thought-through, but that does not mean that these riots are not making a point:

Riots don’t tend to happen in affluent areas: they tend to happen where there is deprivation, where there is no trust in government or its policing methods, or where the perceived gap between rich and poor seems to be widening. (Prospect, 09 August 2011)

This is a simple, yet important, fact. I repeat that I wholeheartedly condemn these riots. However, we need to understand its roots, which go far beyond opportunism and theft. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

A riot is the language of the unheard.

The people who have committed these atrocious acts of violence and destroyed the livelihoods of so many law-abiding citizens are adopting a despicable code to voice their concerns. They have, in part, been driven to this. They are ostracised from mainstream society and asking one question: what is our place in British society? Marginalised communities are acting in a moment of (sickening) violence; young people not in education, employment or training (i.e., NEETs) acting in an unjustifiable and brutal way. Commentators have claimed that these thugs are doing this for ‘fun’ – this suggests something more than anarchy; this suggests a systemic failure to protect younger people over generation and generation from the harsh reality of living in bleakness. These are ‘style riots, boredom riots, feel-good riots, look-at-me riots’ (not post-political riots). They may be aggressive, consumerist gangs, but this does not mean that this is not a sign of political, social or economic failure. We must confront this challenge, and defeat it.

Defeating these conflicts will be arduous in the medium- to long-term. Quelling riots will be relatively easy compared to the mountainous task of re-building these communities. Our society has become increasingly divided from the 1980s right up to today. This, unfortunately, lies at the heart of the present situation. Our society has been battered repeatedly in the recent past: from MPs Expenses to bankers’ bonuses to the false moral economy. This broader picture is important, because it engenders a sense of hopelessness and despair. These were not the direct cause of these specific riots, I accept that. However, I believe that this is the culture in which many uneducated young people in poorer inner cities feel at the moment. [1]

This is why we must have a considered approach in how we proceed, a point made well here. I believe that UK constabularies should be allowed to use tear gas, and in the worst case a water canon (although, see possible outcome here). Rubber bullets will reinforce the feeling of a war zone. A curfew will do nothing other than instigate fear of ‘what’s out there’. Tapping mobile phone networks hardly seems effective (other communications media exist). The army should be out of the question – they would accentuate the problem of the rejected versus the (perceived) elite. Mixing state security organs with internal civil ones hasn’t been a useful move in the past in other countries, nor will it be here. We need more belief in our police force. Yes, they’ve made mistakes – but they aren’t ‘namby pamby’. I’m happy that police numbers have been trebled (not so much that they will be cut by 16,000 by 2015). We need a strong, hard and fast response to condemn these rioters. We need clarity on the causes, but we do not need violence to demonstrate the symptoms. Only when the violence has calmed down and the dust has settled will it be possible for us to move forward from these truly sickening acts. Criminals, looters and rioters need to face the full force of the law.

In no way have I tried to justify any of these chaotic, criminal actions by the rioters in any of our cities. I have tried to set out a defence of clarity, because this is not a mindless mob. If we subscribe to a view that there is nothing to it, then we are shutting down debate and we are condemning these riots to the dustbin of history. The problem is that if we do not confront the problems, they will happen again and again. We need to tackle the underlying issues that have been described above: inequality of opportunity, political disaffection and personal responsibility.

[1] I can only partly verify that through the news reports, interviews, columns and such like that I have come across, being a student in Sheffield.