by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser
· As even the BBC’s Panorama was obliged to express it, “millions of minimum wage heroes are putting their lives on the line.”
After decades of being systematically robbed of their real-term wages, subjected to insults about being unskilled by employers and governments, vast armies of the lowest paid have now been belatedly recognised as ‘key workers’ in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis.
But don’t get fooled again on 1st April; this government recognition is more about getting these key workers to continue working, to prop up ‘the economy ‘, with the offer of school-based childcare, than it is any sudden Tory conversion to accepting their value to society.
The Tories’ ongoing concern for profit over people, for the health of company balance sheets over the health of the workers who create that wealth, is underlined by their continued refusal to guarantee a decent living wage for ‘the minimum wage heroes’.
The curse of poverty pay
Poverty pay has stalked the land for decades, enforced by a cocktail of anti-trade union laws, fear of mass unemployment and incitement to divisions within the working class.
· Over one in five workers—22 per cent of the workforce—are officially living in poverty.
· Five million workers earn below £9.30 an hour.
· In Scotland alone, 400,000 workers earn less than £9-an-hour.
· 30 per cent of all children—that’s 4.2 million kids—live in poverty in the fifth-richest economy on earth.
· Over half—52 per cent—of all those in poverty are also in a job, working to remain below the breadline.
The one thing that is on the rise is not wages—they’ve been in the longest, deepest decline and stagnation since the Napoleonic Wars 200 years ago; it’s inequality.
Government figures accept that inequality, as expressed in the GINI coefficient, was last year higher than in every single year from 1961 to 2006—only outstripped by the year of the banking crisis, 2008-9.
As the Resolution Foundation think tank put it, “we entered the Covid-19 crisis with, at best, stagnant living standards for households in low or median incomes.”
Poverty endangers lives
This appalling state of affairs has had catastrophic effects in the current Covid-19 crisis. It’s a fact that many workers are dragging themselves into work, in danger of infecting others as they are asymptomatic carriers, because the Tory government failed utterly to prepare well in advance for this widely predicted pandemic by mass testing.
But it’s equally true that others are doing so because they can’t afford to go without wages. Household debt is at an all time high, and personal savings at an all time low.
Carnage for hospitality workers
And of course such impoverished incomes for millions of families is not only literally life-threatening to many classified as key workers, but also wreaks devastation on the swathes of workers made redundant, or laid off on drastically reduced wages.
For instance, the third-biggest workforce in the country are hospitality workers—many of whom were thrown on the scrapheap by unscrupulous employers prior to the belated government 80 per cent wage subsidy. Some have fought and won reinstatement; the rest should be taken back on and paid 100 per cent of their normal wages.
Most workers in this huge sector are on the minimum wage. In fact, hospitality accounts for about a fifth (20 per cent) of all minimum wage workers.
NHS and retail staff cursed by low pay
The largest and second-largest workforces in Scotland and the UK are the NHS and retail, respectively.
Vast armies of care workers, cleaners, porters, drivers, food production workers, farmworkers, supermarket staff and others who are critical to the provision of food and healthcare to the entire population are on, or marginally above, the government minimum wage.
They can’t afford to be in self-isolation without pay. They literally can’t afford to be sick, which means more of them will get sick—especially as the provision of Personal Protective Equipment is a lottery.
Even the offer of working from home—on full pay—is heavily dependent on what wage bracket you are in. Less than 3 per cent of the poorest-paid tenth of workers can work from home; less than 10 per cent of the lowest half of earners can do so; whereas 27 per cent of the highest-paid tenth of earners can still work but isolate themselves from the risks of the workplace.
New government minimum wages
Of course, anyone on low pay will welcome the increases to the statutory minimum wage that kicks in on 1st April. But the wages being legally guaranteed fail to compensate for decades of accumulated poverty, and utterly fail to match the rising cost of living. Especially not with inflation on life’s daily essentials, such food, energy, shelter, childcare and public transport.
The grotesquely misnamed National Living Wage, for employees aged 25 and over, rises by 51p to £8.72-an-hour.
The pernicious age wage discrimination continues unabated: £8.20 for workers aged 21-24; £6.45 for those aged 18-20; £4.55 for workers under 18; and an even more derisory £4.15-an-hour for apprentices (those under 19 and any apprentice of any age in their first year).
No wonder there’s a noticeable absence of workers out in the streets doing the conga in celebration—with or without social distancing!
These wages perpetuate the atrocity of poverty pay, rather than combat it.
Thousands of care workers and hospital staff and bin collectors are putting their lives on the line, and this is their reward. Likewise with the posties, who have had to resort to strike action to even get basic hand sanitizers.
Supermarket staff are facing daily health risks (and all too often abuse from frustrated customers) for wages a few pence above the minimum wage; most of them around £9 or £9.20-an-hour, with all sorts of premium payments for anti-social hours abolished, and paid breaks taken away in recent years.
Demand for £10 lags behind workers’ needs
Since September 2014, both the entire trade union movement through TUC Congress, and the Scottish Socialist Party, have campaigned for a £10 minimum wage. The SSP has campaigned in the streets and our workplaces and unions for this to apply to all from the age of 16, with equal pay for women.
This campaigning has undoubtedly pressured the government into a bigger percentage rise to the minimum wage than in previous years.
But not only are the multiple new rates a recipe for continued poverty; even the call for a £10 minimum is woefully lagging behind workers’ needs, nearly six years on from it first being raised.
Two-thirds male median earnings
Since our foundation in 1998, the SSP has fought for a decent level of national minimum wage, legally enforced for all at 16, calculated on the formula of two-thirds male median earnings.
That formula serves several purposes. It links the minimum wage to the earnings of others, countering the widening chasm between a very few grotesquely well-paid and a vast army of low-paid.
It helps combat the scandalous gender pay gap, by being based on the higher median wage of male workers.
It’s incredibly modest, only asking for two-thirds of the middle wage of all men, rather than for instance demanding the full male median wage.
It’s also a radical challenge to the overall share of wealth that goes to profits rather than wages.
Wages must rise with inflation
Throughout the SSP’s fight for a minimum wage of at least two-thirds the male median wage, we have also added “rising with earnings or inflation, whichever is the greater”. That is critically important.
Since the bankers’ greed triggered the financial collapse of 2008/9, workers’ wages have stagnated. Latest available figures show that wages in 2018/19 were lower than those of 2004/5!
But prices haven’t stagnated! Far from it. The official, doctored government figures show at least 14 per cent inflation in the five years from 2014 to 2019.
And distorted they are, because these figures include luxury items like yachts, with low inflation, whereas you only need do the weekly shopping to know real price rises on food has rocketed far beyond that average.
As has the cost of public transport, childcare, gas, electricity and housing itself.
SSP demands £12 minimum now!
Allowing for all sides of the policy already described, the SSP has launched the demand for an immediate £12-an-hour minimum wage for all at 16, without exception, legally enforced, as a step towards a decent living income.
This alongside our pioneering campaign for abolition of all zero hours contracts and their replacement with the guarantee of a minimum 16-hour contract for all workers who want one.
Calling for £12-an-hour minimum is still a very modest demand–but it would transform the lives of millions of workers. In the hospitals, in social care, retail, hospitality, cleansing workers, the posties… millions would be radically better off.
It’s easily affordable
And it’s easily affordable. One of several things the C-19 crisis has proven is that since Theresa May contemptuously dismissed calls for public investment last year with the comment, “There is no money tree”—a whole orchard of them have sprung up!
The state has the resources to subsidise 80 per cent of wages for under-threat workers, and to offer £330billion in loans and grants to employers.
And that’s without even a hint of progressive taxation of the obscenely rich, which could overnight fund measures like a £12-an-hour minimum wage.
For instance, the Blairite reptile Richard Branson is rattling the begging bowl under the government’s nose for a £7.5billion bailout, when it’s been calculated—by Tory MP Richard Fuller, no less!—that he could pay every one of his 8,500 laid-off workers their full eight weeks’ wages just on the basis of securing 2 per cent interest on his investments.
Wages and profits
Share prices for the big supermarkets chains have rocketed, as people have piled in and bought an extra £1billion worth of food at the outbreak of Covid-19, with the prospect of mounting profits.
True, several of them have hired thousands of temporary staff to cope with demand, and some rewarded their dedicated staff with a bonus. But that should be converted into a permanent ‘bonus’—a £12 minimum wage, guaranteed minimum 16-hour contract for all workers who want one, and contracts topped up to the actual, normal hours worked by people currently cursed by short hour contracts of 8, 10 or 12 hours a week.
Let the rich scream their opposition!
Of course billionaire and millionaire company bosses will scream blue murder, painting visions of Armageddon if such a wage was demanded of them. Let them!
They’ve had a profits bonanza for decades. The share of national wealth that goes back to wages is at its lowest since records began in the 1950s.
Of course this is a challenge to the profit margins of big business—and the personal grotesque incomes of the Chief Executives, who infamously earn as much in 3 days as it takes the average worker a whole year to earn. That’s part of its purpose; to radically redistribute wealth.
And if there’s only one thing the C-19 crisis should teach us, it’s the undeniable fact that society relies on the labour power, the skills and dedication, of the working class, not on the grotesquely rich minority who take the wealth whilst workers make the wealth.
One startling, further fact to bear in mind as the bosses scream poverty in the face of such a demand: big businesses have £750billion stashed away in cash piles, in their bank accounts, totally unused; not invested in either improved wages nor modernisation of production.
Transform millions of workers’ lives
Such a wage would not create a nation of millionaires! But for a 35-hour week, it would mean £420-a-week, modest even compared with government figures of the current ‘typical’ weekly full-time wage being £576, or £620 for men.
However, full-time jobs have become as scarce as hen’s teeth. At least a £12 minimum wage and guaranteed minimum 16-hour week would mean the battalions of part-time workers got at least £192 in their weekly wage, going some way to paying the rent and feeding families.
It might mean millions of workers could put a few quid aside for an annual holiday, or for a rainy day. It might mean many who feel ill would not have to choose between their livelihood and their life in the current health crisis.
No going back after Covid-19 crisis
We are living through an unparalleled crisis, which highlights how society works. Amongst other things it should highlight the crime of poverty pay and its consequences, and build our resolve to end that atrocity, a hallmark of capitalism and its core motivation of profit.
We must start the debate now for a decent minimum wage of £12-an-hour, immediately, rising with inflation or average earnings, whichever is the greater.
Once this health crisis allows it, the SSP will be on the streets and arguing in our unions for this modest but far-reaching measure.
There can be no going back to the outrageous poverty and inequality that have exacerbated the impact of the Coronavirus.
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