Blog: Fighting for a real Living Wage for all, 20 years on from the National Minimum Wage

Twenty years ago today, the National Minimum Wage (NMW) came into force. For the first time, there was a legal wage floor below which working people should never fall.

Today, it’s easy to take that change for granted, but it was the result of decades of campaigning from the trade union movement – particularly UNISON and our predecessor unions – often in the face of opposition from Conservative politicians, employers and even some within the trade union movement. Fighting for the National Minimum Wage was a passion I shared with our much-missed friend Rodney Bickerstaffe, who played such a pivotal role over so many years when a legal floor for wages seemed so far away.

Yet in 1999 it was achieved. Twenty years on from the rise of Thatcherism, a Labour government introduced legislation that guaranteed a legal minimum wage which guarded against the very worst excesses of the market.

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We were told that the result would be millions of job losses – yet the naysayers were wrong. Instead, twenty years on, the minimum wage has made a real and positive difference.

So as we mark this anniversary, our union and our movement should rightly look back with pride at what we achieved. Yet we must also be realistic about where the Minimum Wage has fallen short and how much further we have to go.

Far from resting on our laurels, we have to continue to build the case for a Real Living Wage for all, with everyone – regardless of age – earning at least £10 an hour for the work that they do. The reality is that too many working people find themselves trapped either at the government’s fake “National Living Wage” (which isn’t the Real Living Wage) or are forced to work for wages that are less that the independent Living Wage Foundation believes is the minimum salary someone can actually live on. Meanwhile there are also those, including some UNISON members working in areas such as social care, who can even find themselves continuing to earn below the legal minimum, through lack of payment for necessary travel time and other means by which employers take up their time without paying them for it.

For young people in particular, the National Minimum Wage has been a missed opportunity. Baked into the original NMW were different wage rates for different age groups – something which George Osborne hardened when in 2015 he decided that under-25s wouldn’t receive his new “National Living Wage” (which of course, is too little to actually live on). Paying different workers different wages for the same job purely because of their age is discriminatory, and that’s why UNISON has been proud to lead the fight for equalisation of the minimum/living wage – and why our young members will lead the fight for #OneWageAnyAge.

Paying a 24-year-old differently to a 25-year-old for doing exactly the same job is a blatant injustice in the workplace and a terrible, discouraging introduction to the world of work for young people. And the scale of the difference between the full adult rate and the youth rates means that a 20-year-old minimum wage worker in a full-time job earns almost £4000 a year less than the (already very low) wage of a 25-year-old minimum wage worker doing the same job. That’s surely something which can’t be allowed to continue.

Twenty years on from the bold, landmark decision to establish a National Minimum Wage, it is time for a new landmark – a real Living Wage for all, regardless of age, that everyone in work can afford to live on. Doing so would meet the original aim of the National Minimum Wage – a decent salary for all. And that is what our union will continue to fight for.