Minimum wage should be a living wage

Rodney BickerstaffeThe minimum wage has been named as the most successful government policy of the past 30 years in a survey of British political experts:  Prior to its introduction in April 1999, former UNISON General Secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe was the foremost trade union campaigner against low pay and for minimum wage legislation. Writing for a blog on 6 September 2010 Rodney responds to the survey and outlines his perspectives on the future of the minimum wage:-

From self-made men and women who worship their creators, to the jawless wonders who can barely hold in their mouths the silver spoons planted there at birth, once more the old game is afoot

The goal of the game? The statutory national minimum wage level and possibly the law itself. Already in Ireland, a reduction in their legal minimum wage has been introduced as “an emergency measure” (an 11% cut from €8.65 to €7.65 per hour)

In Britain at the same time as some employers including Tory ones are being pushed into backing “a living wage”, siren voices from the right are preparing the ground for something else.

Whether it is natural greed or genuine fear of the economic times and the globalised “need” to race down wages to the bottom, the new and old right wing are saying the same things. “A job at any price is better than no job at all.”

The continuum between choosing freely to work at a job you enjoy and on a good salary, concludes with not choosing to work at a job that you don’t like with no wage level at all and yet being forced to…Some call that slavery.

The Chinese cockle-pickers died on Morecombe beach. They were “earning” £1 per day each. Fear, desperation, exploitation – whatever the mixture of reasons, they weren’t freely choosing as grownup and rounded individuals to take on this task. Slavery still abounds in the world today. I know that there are still those who argue that the dignity of work even without any wages is better than no work at all

A clown like the Conservative MP Christopher Chope, only months ago introduced a private members bill to “allow” choice to workers to keep their jobs by being privileged to accept an even lower pittance – as though there is some in-alienable duty to work for next to nothing:

A more sophisticated though slithery path is taken by the likes of Irwin Stelzer, who started life by “just selling flowers” and now is comfortable enough to tell BBC2 Newsnight viewers that the way to grow an economy is on the back of sweated labour (for which read, freely chosen poverty wage levels by consenting adults).

In passing, don’t let the welcome concept of the living wage undermine defence of the minimum wage. It is true absolutely that those who fought from the start of the last century for the introduction of a law to ban exploitation of men and women, black and white, young and old here in Britain had the absurd belief that a minimum wage should in fact be set at a living wage level. They did not want or expect a safety net with huge holes.

And now we have a government coalition of wealth and contrived and flexible morality, who may not dare to abolish the minimum wage legislation, but will certainly mark time on the rate, so that it eventually will wither on the vine; will reduce even further the numbers of inspection; who will welcome the rising profits of their business friends as they save on wage levels, health and safety cost and industrial relations generally.

Trumpet fanfare – the big society – work for free and call it volunteering. It is true, that bankers and politicians and captains of industry don’t work for free or indeed for even little, but then they are special, aren’t they? There is a fine line between volunteering because you really want to and “volunteering” because you are forced to. Let’s be careful.

Stand up for the legal minimum wage at a living wage level. Whose side are you on?

And by the way, what about a maximum wage level?

Rodney Bickerstaffe

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