The concept of the living wage has really taken off in London with campaigners claiming that more £70 million has been put into the pockets of the poorest people over the past 10 years.
Among the highlights have been getting the London Mayor to adopt the idea for staff within his remit and setting a guiding level for the living wage each year. The present mayor Boris Johnson recently set the living wage level at £8.30 an hour for the next year.
Another big success was getting the organisers of the 2012 Olympics to make the site a living wage area. This saw games organiser Locog confirm that the £700 million of contracts would be awarded only to companies agreeing to pay the living wage.
Others signing up to the living wage include HSBC, Barclays, Standard Chartered and KPMG from the private sector. In the public sector there were four hospital trusts and local authorities like Tower Hamlets, Islington, Camden, Greenwich, Ealing, Waltham Forest, Hackney, Hounslow and Lewisham signing up. Some 12 universities, two museums and four central government contracts have become living wage employers. The idea is now spreading out beyond the capital to Oxford, Norwich, Preston and Scotland.
There has been political backing with Prime Minister David Cameron describing the living wage as “an idea whose time has come.” Labour leader Ed Miliband has also supported the idea.
Now the living wage campaign has set itself wider targets, seeking to get Tesco to use some of its £3.8 billion profits to pay all its 280,000 staff the living wage. At present the groceries giant pays its cleaners and other lowest paid people the minimum wage. The living wage campaign wants the company to pay the £8.30 living wage in the capital and £7.20 outside.
The idea of a living wage came from America but the motivation here came at community level where due to poverty pay people were having to do two and three jobs a week to try and keep their families above the poverty line. As Deborah Litman, a national officer at Unison and vice-chair of the London Living wage campaign pointed out “two thirds of low income households have someone in work.”
As a result the community organising group London Citizens began the campaign for a living wage. Research was commissioned from Queen Mary University to find what the level of wages should be for people to be able to live above the poverty line in London. The initial rate was set in 2003 at £6.30 an hour.
Low pay does not make sense for workers, employers or society as a whole. Employers who have taken on the living wage report better motivated staff, less turnover and absenteeism. It is also good news for the tax payer as previously companies paying low wages have effectively been subsidised by the payment of tax credits to bring people up to a minimum standard of living.
The Churches have played a central role in the living wage campaign. It was endorsed in its early days by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor when he was Archbishop of Westminster. The present Archbishop Vincent Nichols has continued support for the living wage campaign. Bishop Thomas McMahon of Brentwood has been a keen backer of the campaign for the past 10 years. He recently drew comparison with the days of Cardinal Manning and the 1889 dock strike when the Cardinal said that "a worker’s wage should be sufficient to keep his wife and children, to provide them with decent housing and a healthy diet and to educate them." Southwark Diocese too has backed the campaign.
Catholic churches and parishes make up around 45 per cent of the membership of the community organisers London Citizens that have pushed the living wage campaign. The big question though is are the Churches practicing what the preach?
The Million Minutes organisation have set it as a criteria for any organisation they give money to that they must be paying the living wage to all workers. Danny Curtin, the founder of the Million Minutes initiative to raise funds via a mass sponsored silence for youth based projects has his doubts. "It is very very sad that there is any diocese or church organisation that is not paying or making the living wage a priority. And I know there are different diocese not paying the living wage," said Mr Curtin. "If the Church is supporting the living wage campaigns it should be leading by example. We should be treating employees well with dignity in the workplace."
In 2002, Church Action on Poverty conducted some research in Greater Manchester across 190 churches from the Catholic, Anglican, United Reformed Church, Baptist and Methodists. They found that of 850 people employed by the Churches, two out of three were paid less than the living wage (set at £5.80 for outside London at that time). In another sample of Church organisations it was found that of 145 people employed by 21 organisations, 57 per cent were not receiving a living wage. Among 20 church schools some 7,850 employees were being paid less than the living wage out of 20,000 low paid employees in schools in the Greater Manchester area
“When Church Action on Poverty surveyed the pay of church employees in Manchester, we found that nearly 2 in 3 church employees and about half of Christian organisation employees were paid less than a living wage. This very disappointing situation has not changed much on the ground since then, despite some very promising commitments by some of the churches on a national level,” said Niall Cooper, director of CAP. “It is essential that the churches lead the way in paying a living wage. Not just because it reflects gospel values, but because it will enable them to speak out prophetically and clearly when other employers exploit and degrade vulnerable people. We will continue pressing the churches on this issue.”
Among the diocese supporting the living wage, Westminster claim “the overwhelming majority of staff directly employed.. are paid at or above the London Living Wage".
"The pay of a small number of staff falls below this level. This principally reflects the limited financial resources of some of our parishes. Adopting the London Living Wage as a minimum pay level has been considered by the diocese and discussions on how this can be achieved will continue,” said a spokesperson for the Westminster diocese.
A spokesperson for the Brentwood diocese said: "The living wage has been put into effect in the diocesan offices at Cathedral House and the Trustees of the Diocese of Brentwood are in the final stages of agreeing a policy to recommend the payment of the living wage for all those employed by parishes around the diocese.”
Southwark Diocese failed to respond.
A look at the how the Methodist Church has gone about implementing the living wage offers an interesting lesson on how important it is to follow through on commitments.
The Methodist conference first declared in 2003 that “pay and benefits should be set in relation to need. Four years later, it declared that “all Methodist employees should be paid the living wage.” However, this did not happen, the Methodists found that few knew about the ruling outside of those directly involved in employment relations. Anomalies became apparent with two people sitting next to each other doing similar work but both being paid a different living wage. Other various comments came forward like staff did not want a pay rise or “we don’t get the living wage” from some clergy.
Something had to be done so in 2010 the conference decreed that “there should be a workable plan for implementation on the basis of costs.” The plan put in place was implemented by the Joint Public Issues team working for the Methodists, Baptists and United Reformed Church. Implementation meant all those in the Methodist Church who could afford to pay the living wage were told to do so. If there were genuine reasons in a local situation why not then they would have five years to implement with help from the Joint Public Issues team that would help with business plans and such like.
Dr Paul Morrison, a policy advisor with the Joint Public Issues team working for the Methodists, Baptists and United Reformed Church, recommends education and campaign work on the living wage both inside and outside the church. “A Church paying the living wage should be pleased about it,” said Dr Morrison. “Church members should ask employers do they pay all staff the living wage.”
So what the Methodist Church experience teaches is that it is no good organisations just committing to the living wage, there has to be an active audit style process undertaken to ensure that the various parts of the organisation are complying with the directive.
There is still a long way to go with CAP particularly keen that the Catholic and Anglican churches start stepping up to the mark when it comes to paying the living wage. For the moment it would seem many of the churches are talking the talk but not walking the walk on the living wage.