2021 marks the twenty-year anniversary of the UK Living Wage campaign, which for the past two decades has campaigned for employers across Britain to voluntarily adopt the “Real Living Wage”: an independently calculated, hourly rate of pay that is argued by the campaign to better reflect the real cost of living than existing legal minimum wage rates, with a separate figure for London to also better reflect the higher cost of life in the capital.
While the campaign initially emerged in 2001 from the concerns of a small group of families and community organisers in the East End of London, stemming from a concern about the impact on children of both sets of parents having to work multiple jobs to get by and avoid the effects of in-work poverty, it now has a national reach and focus across the length and breadth of the UK, with over 7,000 employers from the Orkney Islands to Cornwall officially accredited with the campaign as “Living Wage Employers.” In 2019 the campaign passed the milestone of putting over £1 billion back into the pockets of low-paid workers through their efforts since the beginning of the century.
However, while the existence and success of the UK Living Wage campaign over the past two decades has placed a sole focus on the importance of the raising of wages to higher hourly rates of pay to both counter the effects of in-work poverty and provide individual workers with better working standards, it has become increasingly apparent since 2001 as the employment landscape has evolved that a solitary focus on hourly pay is not enough to successfully tackle either of these issues. As new forms and models of work have emerged during that time, from the misclassification of delivery drivers as self-employed to the thousands of individuals performing “micro-jobs” via online platforms, the parameters of what is financially required for workers to be able to successfully maintain pace with the cost of living, and what is considered “decent work”, have both widened considerably.
In relation to decent work, debate has focused on a number of aspects, notably whether people are entitled to a sufficient number of regular hours per week to maintain income security, to the complexity of establishing systems in which pension contributions and other forms of social protection can follow workers from job to job. A further issue that has generated discussion is whether people should have the financial freedom to save for their future even in the most minor or ways. All need to be considered under the ‘decent work’ banner, and addressing these aspects may determine how effective policy responses will be in protecting low-paid workers.
Over the past few years, the UK Living Wage campaign have noted these changes to the employment landscape and labour market, and have launched a series of new projects that has widened their campaigning focus beyond only higher hourly rates of pay. The two most notable of these are the “Living Hours” project, launched in 2019, which establishes a separate accreditation model overseen by the Living Wage Foundation in which employers take the voluntary decision to commit as employers to providing their workers with a sufficient number of hours of work over a monthly period to ensure financial stability, among other employment protections. Secondly, this month, the Foundation have also announced their plans to campaign for a “Living Pension” for workers, to ensure that a decent standard of living is guaranteed to them beyond their immediate working lives. These changes reflect how discussion and debate surrounding what constitutes decent working standards is no longer focused around solitary measures such as the raising of wages, but with wage rises now increasingly viewed as part and parcel of a wider policy package in helping to support low-paid workers.
Across Britain more widely, the rise of the decent work agenda has seen the launch of a number of independent accreditation schemes aimed at persuading employers to voluntarily decide to raise their working standards, in a number of different regions. Many of these schemes have a clear design overlay with the Living Wage Foundation’s own accreditation model, and in many cases require that organisations become accredited Living Wage Employers as part of their own scheme’s criteria. This can be seen in the 2019 establishment of the Mayor of London’s “Good Work Standard,” and the 2020 launch of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s “Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter,” to take just two examples.
These developments reflect the evolution of the dual issues of how best to effectively tackle both in-work poverty and indecent working conditions across the UK, and how the “Decent Work Agenda” is increasingly becoming a central point of discussion and debate within the work and employment relations field. It seems likely that as the labour market becomes ever more fragmented through the establishment of new non-standard forms of employment, seen most prominently in the rise of the gig economy in recent years, these issues will only continue to gain in prominence and importance, as actors across the employment landscape continue to consider how best to support workers at the lower end of the income scale.
Dr Calum Carson is a recently-graduated CERIC research postgraduate student, with research interests in the Real Living Wage, decent work, and wider issues surrounding low pay and the lived experiences of low-paid workers. He is a Labour Market and Policy Research Officer at ERSA, and continues to work on several academic research projects with CERIC colleagues.