We need a national living wage

I was heartened to see this week that investigations by Revenue and Customs inspectors have led to more than 700 employers being penalised for paying their workers less than the national minimum wage. The complaints last year led to 26,500 workers getting an average of £300 in back pay, and it was a real insight to see once again, the methods and the lengths that employers will go to, to get round it.

It is often assumed that it is just small employers trying it on, but complaints included the case of a major fashion chain ordered to pay 90 unpaid interns. Another retailer forced staff to buy from their range of clothes, and in one case staff were told they must work before and after opening times, without pay.

These penalties represent some success, but the sad truth is that the ones who are caught are the tip of a much larger iceberg. UNISON has had a lot of success in challenging employers – and winning – but I know that there are still homecare workers out there who do not get paid for their travel time – and there are always more scams going on.  

The rise of zero hours contracts in health and homecare, in charities and residential care is a growing problem. It is more and more often the result of government policy, but is another way that employers can duck their responsibilities and avoid paying the rate for the job.

UNISON fought hard for a minimum wage and its introduction is an achievement we can all feel proud of. Protecting that right as a safety net is a vital part of helping to keep workers out of poverty. But in the face of rising prices for basics such as food and fuel we need to look for a more realistic rate – a Living Wage.

The Living Wage is the minimum that workers need to provide themselves and their families with the essentials of life. The current rate is set at £7.45 per hour or £8.55 in London and we have had some real success in its introduction in areas like higher education, spreading to a small number of Labour controlled councils.

However, the reality for many thousands of local government workers is that their pay is hovering just above the minimum wage.  

Clearly we have more work to do and we will be working through the TUC to make headway for the benefit of all. It’s shameful that working people should be forced into claiming in-work benefits, because of poverty pay by scrooge employers. We won the minimum wage – I want to add a Living Wage to the list of the union’s achievements.