Just before the 2010 UK election, David Cameron famously declared that the living wage was an idea “whose time has come”. After four years, however, it seems that in-work poverty has become for many a more decade defining phenomenon, and you do not need to look far to find Dave’s vision illusory.
Just round the corner from his house, in fact, you will find 12 out of 17 Whitehall departments paying their cleaning staff below the Living Wage. The dark humour is certainly not lost when you consider this dozen includes the departments for Health and for International Development, the latter of which has a mandate for tackling poverty globally….
“[the lack of a living wage is]…an affront to human dignity”
The need for a proper living wage is self-evident. There are now more people in Scotland living in poverty in households where at least one person is working than in homes where no-one is in paid employment. There are fundamental flaws which mean that education and employment are not providing people with a route out of poverty.
However, just as spurious as Dave’s vision, is the belief that the manifestation of a living wage across society will neatly end in-work poverty.
It is a vital component in the campaign for a fairer society and a reduction in poverty. However, to regard it as the all-encompassing solution shows a lack of understanding of the intricacy of in-work poverty.
We need a deeper insight. We need to hear from the experts: people with experience of it.
The PovertyTruth Commission has been doing just this over the last few years. Our findings have revealed the numerous barriers which are everyday realities for many, but often fall below the public radar. These include: lack of support for training and development; expensive and inflexible childcare; caring responsibilities going unrecognised; limited opportunities for career progression; the inflexibility of the current Benefits System and the rising trend of underemployment.
This is set against a backdrop of rapidly escalating costs for food and fuel in particular. In addition, it has been matched by a trend of decreasing working conditions for those on the lowest incomes. The increasingly ubiquitous zero-hour contract has brought no guarantee of working hours and, as such, no assured income. In addition, these working arrangements are extremely unlikely to leave their recipients with any holiday entitlements or pension contributions.
Challenges for all of us
It is palpable that the Living Wage Campaign needs continued support from all of us across society. It is deeply connected to legislation decided at Westminster and energy should be expended there. However, it also has a local current to it. Campaigning for it to be part of procurement considerations at both Holyrood and at local authority level is just one step we can all take.
However, we must also stop perpetuating the myth that work is the route out of poverty for everyone. It is only the case in the right environment and unless we make a concerted effort to address that context, we will remain in an age of in-work poverty.