If you walk down Oxford Street, London’s busiest shopping thoroughfare, you might think that you’re in wealthy country. Bulging bags hang from shoppers’ arms, enticing window displays beckon you inside, where racks are packed with expensive temptations.
Yet what few shoppers know is that the assistants who serve them have no chance to participate in this cornucopia, or even, most likely to buy themselves a cup of tea as they take the weight off their feet. For as a report in the Evening Standard newspaper revealed today, just two — TWO! — of the 300 shops here pay staff the London living wage – the hourly rate calculated as the minimum necessary for a decent basic standard of life in the British capital.
There was much excitement when the Labour government introduced a national minimum wage in the UK in 1999, and certainly that’s better than the previous situation, where employers could legally pay peanuts, but that full-time work can still leave many in a state of poverty cannot be acceptable in a rich country like Britain.
A couple of things make this possible. One is a culture that regards far too many jobs as not proper jobs at all. They’re “jobs” done by students, by “resting” actors, by short-term immigrants, not proper professions in which you can spend career.
The second is the fact that the country seems prepared to accept huge numbers of adults, and of children, living in poverty. A recent report showed that 2.1 million British children whose parents work still be in poverty. When attempts have been made to do something about this, they have come in the form of government payments, not action for fair pay. This amounts to corporate welfare; payments that allow companies to keep scooping up excess profits, and paying their executives farcically high salaries and bonuses, while resting on the back of the taxpayer.
It also makes no economic sense. There’s plentiful evidence that employers actually benefit by reducing staff turnover, improving productivity and company image.
Those are solid, but the benefits for society are irresistible. As the brilliant book The Spirit Level explains so clearly, large inequalities in society are bad for every member of that society, rich as well as poor, into poverty pay is a huge contributor to the dreadful inequality in Britain today. And if large numbers of people are on poverty pay, they can’t participate fully in society, either as consumers, or often, as parents, volunteers, or just productive members of the community.
Working several jobs, or just having to worry about every penny, consumes energy, drains enthusiasm, simply wears people out and makes them ill. It should not be countenanced in 2011.