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Rebranding Poverty: Why a living wage isn’t enough

by Chris Fisher

Recent statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) testify that an increasing number of workers aren’t earning a living wage – nearly 20% at the last count. Which, while reprehensible, implies the other 80% are doing just fine.

Not so fast.

In George Osborne’s first budget since the Conservatives’ election victory in May he seemingly outmanoeuvred the mainstream left in championing a ‘national living wage’ to be introduced next April for all over-25s. This national living wage, although higher than the national minimum wage, is still below the recommended living wage set by the Living Wage Foundation at £7.85/h. Despite Osborne’s claims, his ‘living’ wage is neither enough to live on, nor truly national insofar as it excludes the masses of under-25s. Anything worthy of the name must be both.

Better wages but getting poorer.

Behind the rhetoric this rebranding of the minimum wage does nothing to counteract the torrent of continued Conservative attacks on the working and non-working population. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, attacks to tax credits and other benefit freezes worsen the lives of the lowest paid despite the faux-living wage. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission notes with all changes taken into account, 45% of working families will see their income reduced –  over three quarters of which earn less than £20k a year. A living wage is worth little if it’s at the expense of the other hard-won benefits such as pensions, tax credits, employment rights, welfare and a reasonable work-rate.

So whilst we must fight for a real living wage we also must not confine ourselves to such a wage-limited terrain. The fight for a living wage cannot be enough if the lowest paid are cumulatively poorer despite increasing wages.

Closed for business.

In the concoction of competing notions of a living wage we must be firm in stating ours. According to the ONS some 6m workers  – 23% of all employees – aren’t paid the recommended living wage – a figure which is rising. The living wage is broadly supported (if voluntarily instituted) by many businesses and corporations which see it as a way to engineer higher productivity and an ethical image.

We cannot accept their premise that the lives of workers should be subject to the interests of business and ‘productivity’. Thus our fight for a real living wage must also include its compulsory introduction; whether workers can live should not be the prerogative of businesses to which they can voluntarily ‘opt-in’ when good wages are deemed financially advantageous.

To the wage-relation…and beyond.

Securing a legally-mandated living wage does nothing to further struggles of the multitude of carers and homemakers who work outside the wage. The debate also has a habit of excluding migrants, BME people, LGBTQ people, women and students, among others. The traditional focus on the class struggle and a particular type of worker within it (white, male, citizen) has often forced those ‘other’ struggles to be articulated in a similar manner, gaining validity in the eyes of the dominant workers’ movement only when they became mediated by the wage.

Just as it is necessary for people to be able to live from any work, it is also necessary to recognise the limits of a perspective that focuses solely upon the wage-relation. This focus privileges a certain type of struggle over many others whose injustices which cannot simply be reduced to being underpaid; many proletarians – from prisoners to undocumented workers – struggle outside the wage-relation. Therefore whilst fighting for a living wage we must avoid the trap of reverting to old perspectives which make this the fight and the struggle – not only because of real transformations in the capitalist economy in recent decades, but because of the cost of such a focus for other struggles.

Left behind.

The fight for a living wage should also indict the weakness of our movements in these times: that in one of the largest economies in the world so many aren’t paid enough to live. The solution is not to revert to an old workerism but to expand our horizons and look forward. Waged workers are a declining quantity. Just as capitalism evolves so must our opposition to it.

Much of austerity’s damage has been to life outside the wage; in attacks on welfare, housing, access to childcare, mental and physical health services. Simultaneously the fight against austerity has been most noticeable, and arguably most productive, in various communities’ responses to such attacks. So whilst the left must fight for higher wages on our terms, we also need to avoid a perspective which sidelines the multitude of struggles beyond the wage-relation. We cannot settle for a living wage – because we must reassert the necessity, and possibility, of life without a wage.

Photo: HM Treasury/Flickr

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Published 4th November 2015

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