This Living Wage Week, we must fight for the real living wage

This week marks Living Wage Week, a time each year to talk about making work pay, while remembering that millions of people in our country still work for poverty wages.

They may have been sat next to you on the bus this morning. They may clean your office. They may be your neighbour. They might even be you.

The national minimum wage was a proud achievement of the last Labour government, but while it set a legal floor and tackled the very worst low pay abuses, it didn’t eliminate poverty pay.

That’s why the living wage campaign (and since 2011, the Living Wage Foundation) are so important – setting an independent and verifiable level of pay which meets the most basic needs (quite literally, a wage upon which someone can be reasonably expected to live) and then campaigning for employers to pay it.

UNISON has been proud to support and campaign for the living wage from the outset, and the living wage has become an integral part of our own campaigning, whether in the social care sector or in Britain’s water industry.

Yet the risk of any successful campaign is that those with ulterior motives will try to hijack it. That’s exactly what happened last year when George Osborne (remember him?) announced his “national living wage”.

Yet the government’s “national living wage” – while a welcome increase in basic pay for many – is a living wage in name only.

In reality, this is a rebranded national minimum wage for the over 25s. It pays more than a pound an hour less than the real living wage  – £2 less than the London living wage.

It only applies to those over 25, leaving many young low paid workers stranded on poverty pay. And there’s a real risk that employers “level down” to the new national living wage, even though it’s still hard if not impossible to live on it.

But implementing the government’s so-called national living wage will cost the NHS over £250m by 2020, as well as rising costs for local government and other public services – yet the government is silent on where the cash will come from.

Of course it’s positive to see low paid public sector workers getting a rise, but there’s a real risk that this will be coupled with even greater cuts to the services they work in, at a time when these services (and those working in them) are already at breaking point.

That’s why this year it’s more important than ever to make a noise about the real living wage – a wage people can actually afford to live on – and calling on the government to put their money where their legislation is on low pay.

Let’s see the national living wage match the real living wage in the years ahead, rather than trying to legislatively undercut the work of campaigners.

And let’s see the government invest in real living wages for all public sector workers – showing by example that we can eliminate poverty pay in this country, if we have the will to do so.