‘Waging the Future’, Low Wage Event Comment Piece.

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‘Waging the Future’, Low Wage Event Comment Piece.

Waging the Future

The following article was written by Jack Welch after his day at the Model Westminster Low Wage event:

Since the National Minimum Wage (NMW) was only legislated by the previous Labour government in 1998, it has become one of the mainstays within our society. In many ways, it would almost be unimaginable to think that any government would repeal the Act – like the NHS or the welfare state, it has been elevated beyond political status. It was therefore a slight surprise when at the latest event for Model Westminster, which was looking into the future prospects of this area that the Chair of the Low Pay Commission (LPC), David Nosgrove, commented in his speech that it was voted above the NHS as the most important initiative by the public. What was most striking in his speech though, and all the more perplexing, was his mention that the minimum wage itself was not created for the purpose to live from alone. The observation created strong debate throughout the consultation onwards that even as many people who had to live from this arrangement alone, it therefore strengthened the case that a Living Wage was all the more urgent in the face of numerous challenges the lowest paid workers still faced.

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The debates rolled on though, as the room was divided in two for a series of mini-arguments to be prepared on the broad theme of ‘How much am I worth?’ With employer pitted against the employee, questions centred around if a living wage should be established in all parts, if young professionals were wrongfully taking the jobs of working families and if it was morally right for employers to pay a fair way to their workers. Arguments across both sides of the room became increasingly emotive, as employers increasingly took the line of businesses being only primarily concerned with profit over the individual and that threats of outsourcing from abroad were completely empty. Fighting from the side of employers, which I initially believed as assuming the devil’s advocate, I became much more sympathetic from our discussions to plan the debate in that paying living wages on the part of small businesses would be unsustainable for many and it would be devastating for many local communities if they were to be lost in high streets because of legal obligations they could never meet.

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The afternoon saw the groups getting stuck into two intensive sessions on how to plan a fairer wage system in the city of London, where 18% of the working population are paid under the living wage which exists in the city. Many of the ideas for the ideas for groups shared common themes around a stakeholder scheme in which employees would take a share of the profits earned by businesses, which is typically unpopular for many businesses, but practiced by others such as John Lewis. A redistribution of job choices was also in demand, with many opportunities being seen as far too London-centric. The Apprenticeship wage, where under-19s currently receive £2.73, is seen to be far too complex and where enforcing a consistent wage is difficult for all employers to comply by and many court cases can result afterwards. The presentations by groups demonstrated an inventive range of solutions extending from apprentice advisors in FE institutions to a UCAS similar site that would be dedicated for the purpose of finding the best opportunities. Most agreed though that a wage closer to what workers are paid otherwise has to be the way forward in order for apprenticeships to be sustainable in the long term.

As the end of the event approached, I perhaps only realised the finer complexities that the NMW plays within policy making. Our group ideas, though reasonable on the surface, seemed to come with a number of drawbacks and limitations to which politicians can both damage the economy, whilst impacting the lives of many ordinary people. We can hope though our final report will help to pave the way for some meaningful reforms in years ahead. Although one day on this kind of consultation feels not enough to refine our points, we at least had the fun of imagining a world in which wages would be paid upon the sweat produced in a working day.

 

Jack Welch

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