Friday, January 3, 2014

The Problem with the Living Wage Foundation

Since the 1970s, the British trade union movement has increasingly used the underpinning of legislation, directives and guidelines to protect working people. This has had numerous advantages – the protection of mostly vulnerable un-unionised workers being the most obvious, such as through the National Minimum Wage Act. It has, in many areas, however, made the movement dependent on state action, rather than action that has liberated workers themselves. In some cases we have become beholden to it – such as the growing panic about what a renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership of the EU would result in. We've lost the confidence, and some might say that ability, to win these basic protections through fighting employers. It’s the deepest wound of the servicing culture which the movement is trying to heal.
Increasingly too, unions have worked with other groups, and built new partnerships not only in the context of changing civil society, but also as a result of the changing expectations of potential members in a neo-capitalist world. There have been great benefits to this, and there is no denying that some corporate responsibility programmes, or working to access hard-to-reach workers through community groups like churches have bought real changes. The negative side of this has been the creation of campaigns which have too narrow a focus, often removed from grass-root issues, or have been driven by values not entirely in line with the principles that (should) drive the movement, like agitation, education and class solidarity.

The Living Wage Foundation and its accreditation is a manifestation of the real pitfalls of this approach in two critical ways: firstly, its narrow focus makes clear the problems in alliances with other groups, particularly apparently friendly employers, secondly its failure to implement those values that should drive our movement is marginalising the true voices of working people.

In terms of the alliances, it’s not helpful to talk in terms of the groups who support living wage campaigns. All (with the exception of some employers) do so out of a genuine desire to improve the lives of those in their communities, so a critique is not aimed at their intentions. Rather, a narrow alliance on a simple hourly rate ignores the improvement of other hard-won rights – such as the right to know how many hours you’ll be working in the first place. In some instances the campaign has actually negatively affected workers – with the TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady noting some employers who have reduced sick pay or other entitlements in order to simply pay the higher rate at no extra cost, and gaining the shiny certificate as their reward.

You can have one employer with generous sick leave, family-friendly policies and the Living Wage, the other with statutory minimum terms on all else – not to mention associated negative workplace cultures – but both get their celebratory pat on the back. The former may struggle to provide those terms, the latter may breeze through. But it’s not just that employers’ terms and conditions are not comparable, it’s also pretty clear that their means are not the same either.

Because of the nature of the campaign, and the alliances that it has built, it is a contentious topic to suggest that some employers proclaiming payment of the Living Wage can actually afford more. The sentiment that businesses should not operate unless they are paying workers enough to live on is tragically radical enough – but why can they not share in the benefits of their labour, when their labour generates vast profit? Why should a multinational retailer only be paying enough to live on, and be applauded for it? A fair wage is very, very different from a living wage, and the focus of the campaign on simple accreditation of the latter is a serious deficiency.

Which is at the heart of the second, and much more fundamental, problem for the labour movement, going right back to the increasing dependence on regulation to obtain the results that we’re looking for. We’re not just looking for the end result, we’re looking for workers to take ownership of their working lives, and have a say in the workplaces and the system as a whole; this can only be done through collective bargaining. The Living Wage campaign in and of itself does not, and will not, do this. Its terms are not negotiable, and the rates of pay it suggests are set by a third party. Workers have been excluded from this by a compassionate, but distant, elite. So excluded are workers from this process that the Living Wage Foundation website states proudly as its aim: ‘The Living Wage Foundation supports, recognises and celebrates the leadership shown by Living Wage Employers in the UK. We believe that work should be the surest way out of poverty.’ It’s 21st Century Bismarck.

What working people need are campaigns to meaningfully improve, expand and re-energise collective bargaining. The Living Wage Foundation does not involve working people in this struggle, and it removes them so completely from the process of what a fair wage is in their workplaces that not even the employer who they see every day, or governmental policy in the structure of representative democracy, sets the rate. To my mind there is something quite sinister about a third party deciding what is reasonable to live on - how reaosnable a holiday you should take, how many children you shoudl reasonably have, how far you can reasonably travel...

There are workers who support being agency staff. There are workers who would rather have a defined benefit pension scheme than £7.65 an hour. There are workers who would rather have piece-work than the hourly rate that the employer has tried to foist on them for decades. The right to be asked, the right to refuse, and the right to fight for are more important than the right to be handed down.
There are other issues with the Living Wage, which I’ll return to later – as well as some loosely thought through ideas on how to combat them. Again, who am I to condemn those who genuinely put more money into the pocket of working people – if the lives of ordinary parents are made marginally better tomorrow than they are today by the actions of conscientious citizens. This is true of many of the community groups who take up local fights - but is it true of KPMG, their first listed principal partner?! It’s up to the Labour Movement to spread true solidarity and understanding in local campaigns, and not to regard the Living Wage Foundation as our natural bedfellow.