Research by accountancy firm KPMG (of all people) has revealed that five million workers in Britain are paid less than a living wage.
24% of workers in Northern Ireland, and 23% in Wales, earn less than a living wage. 90% of bar staff and 85% of restaurant waiting staff earn less than a living wage, as do nearly 800,000 retail workers. As these are the jobs where many young people and working students are able to find work, young workers are overwhelmingly faced with poverty pay.
Capitalism needs to keep workers going. If we are too sick to keep turning up to work every day, capitalists can’t make profits. As Karl Marx puts it in Capital: “The maintenance and reproduction of the working class is, and must ever be, a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital.”
But our bosses just need to keep us going — and that’s it. If they can get away with it, they will screw down our wages to the bare minimum necessary to keep us fit and healthy enough to return to work every day. In other words: “The capitalist may safely leave [reproduction] to the labourer’s instincts of self-preservation and of propagation. All the capitalist cares for, is to reduce the labourer’s individual consumption as far as possible to what is strictly necessary.”
The minimum wage, introduced by the Labour government in 1998, meant that employers weren’t able to reduce wages below a certain amount. It was a step forward, but there is a huge gap between the minimum wage — the government-arbitrated minimum necessary to “reproduce” our labour from one day to the next — and a wage on which it is possible to live a decent standard of life, including spending on housing, transport, clothing, and leisure. The labour movement has traditionally counterposed the idea of a “living wage” — a wage on which workers can not simply scrape by, but live a decent life.
The KPMG research uses £7.20 (outside of London) and £8.55 (London) as its “living wage” figures. They are calculated based on cost-of-living assessments of expenses like housing and transport. But these are conservative figures. It is not much easier to support a family on £7.20 than it is on £6.19 (the current minimum wage rate), especially if you work in an industry or sector where your hours vary from week to week, as many low-paid workers do.
Research conducted by trade unions, such as the Industrial Workers of Great Britain and the Industrial Workers of the World, who have organised amongst cleaners and other low-paid workers in the capital, suggest that a real “living wage” figure is closer to £10 per hour. Taken at that level, the number of workers paid less than a living wage is vastly higher.
The low pay crisis is fed into by growing underemployment — workers who work fewer hours a week than they want. An Office of National Statistics report shows that over three million workers would work more hours each week if they were available.
Low-paid workers, such as cleaners at John Lewis and the Société Générale bank, have faced unilateral cuts in their hours, meaning they are expected to complete the same amount of work, for the same below-living-wage rates of pay, in a smaller amount of time.
Despite facing poverty pay, cuts to hours, and rising living costs, those workers have organised inspiring fightbacks. John Lewis cleaners won pay increases and a commitment from management to negotiate towards a living wage, and cleaners in a variety of other industries have launched strikes and direct-action campaigns. Low-paid workers in other sectors — such as parking attendants at Camden council — have also built strike campaigns, recently voting for a five-day strike and, if that fails to yield results, to move to an all-out indefinite strike to win living wage.
KPMG are attempting to promote a “business case” for the living wage, and building a bourgeois political consensus around it which now includes the Labour leadership and even senior Tories like Boris Johnson (whose Greater London Assembly endorses the principle of the London Living Wage). The “business case” for living wages is of no concern to us, or only of concern to the extent that it is a reflection of working-class social pressure. For us, the living wage is not a matter of economics or of figures. It is a matter of political principle. Every penny we force bosses to pay us above the basic minimum they think they can get away with is a small blow for the hegemony of our interests against the hegemony of theirs.
Enforcing the social principle of living wages would, like the Factories Acts of the 1840s and 1850s which introduced the eight-hour day, or the creation of the National Health Service, represent what Marx called “the victory of a principle”, a victory of “the political economy of labour over the political economy of property”.
Starbucks slashes workers' rights
Just days after it announced it would open talks with the UK government over paying more tax, coffee chain Starbucks revealed plans to cut paid breaks, sick leave, and maternity benefits for thousands of workers.
Staff at 750 stores have been told to sign new contracts on worse terms, with some reporting that they were threatened with dismissal if they did not. Starbucks bosses claims the plans had been laid “over the summer”, and are not connected to the recent scandal over its tax dodging.
Starbucks is a notoriously anti-union employer, but various radical organising initiatives have had success in forcing concessions from them. Unite (New Zealand) organised the world’s first ever Starbucks strikes in 2006/2007, and succeeded in winning significant wage increases for baristas. Starbucks workers in Chile also organised a strike campaign in 2011, and baristas in New York formed a “Starbucks Workers Union” through the IWW in the mid-2000s. These campaigns, rather than approaches based on consumer boycotts, show how to fight.
Activists in the UK involved in initiatives like UK Uncut, which have highlighted Starbucks’ tax avoidance, should now throw themselves into supporting Starbucks workers in fighting against this attack on their working conditions.