January–February 2015        

Urgent need for a living wage

Tommy McKearney

If the slogan “A car in every garage and a chicken in every pot” was once used by a candidate for the US presidency as a definition of prosperity, then a charity shop on every street corner and a food bank in every town centre appears to have become the signal of “austerity for working people” in 21st-century Ireland.
     The problem of relative poverty, where people are unable to enjoy a basic or benchmarked standard of living, is still with us, and all too prevalent. However, that’s not all, because there are homes in this country where real or actual poverty is again a brutal fact of life.
     Christy Moore on the radio appealing for help for the homeless. Charities providing more Christmas dinners last December than at any time since the workhouses were closed. Inadequately dressed people lingering in supermarket aisles late on Christmas Eve, waiting for the shop assistants to mark down the prices before they rush to buy next day’s dinner.
     It is heartbreaking to report this type of misery at a time when others are revelling in the season’s festivities; but the pain is not confined to a particular time of year, nor is the problem experienced only in the southern part of the country.
     As David Cameron, Theresa Villiers and Charlie Flanagan—the most recent troika to inflict pain on the people of Ireland—were leaving Belfast after congratulating themselves on forcing the North’s political parties to accept what amounts to a ten-year austerity package, I listened as two impeccable sources recounted how children in a mid-Ulster town are going hungry to school. The youngsters affected are not the victims of deliberate parental neglect, nor are they from homes impoverished by debilitating addictions: they are the offspring of what is being described as the “working poor.” Parents straining to pay rent above their income range are forced to juggle their inadequate resources between keeping a home, heating it, and feeding the family.
     In an effort to alleviate the situation, local women devised what they make clear is only a stopgap solution. They encouraged a nearby supermarket to make daily donations of whatever bread, cheese and milk it has nearing its sell-by date to a registered charity. In turn, the charity offers the food to a school, which then allows its canteen staff to provide breakfast to all who arrive before classes begin.
     If this sounds a little complicated, it is, and is undoubtedly intended as such. Regulations mean that the shop can supply free goods only to a charity (which the school is not). The school can only pay its staff to cook meals for those recognised by the state as in need and therefore must ask for volunteer labour in the mornings. To avoid unnecessarily embarrassing any child or its family, the school offers the morning meal to all comers.
     The significance of this story is not just that the women took direct action to address the situation but that they recognise the limitations of their efforts. Rather than harbouring any sense of self-congratulation or smugness, they are outraged at being put in a position where they were obliged to make this arrangement. One of the women forcefully stated her view that only a profound change in how the economy is managed will permanently redress this injustice. In the meantime, however, she insists that a temporary but vital step would be to introduce a living wage for all.
     Her argument is powerful. Several transnational corporations have work-places employing many hundreds of workers within a few miles of her town. All are reporting substantial annual profits, and all are financially capable of paying a higher wage, something that would not only take many of their employees out of the poverty trap but would inject extra finance into the area.
     She says that the issue is not one of profitability but a matter of willingness, quoting the example of Glasgow, where the city council has introduced a living-wage policy (albeit an all-too-modest one) in relation to all local government contracts within its jurisdiction.¹ Furthermore, in the United States one of the most successful workers’ campaigns over the past year has been fought to gain a living wage; indeed some of the largest city councils, such as that of Seattle, have been forced to accede to such demands when faced by determined campaigners.²
     Free-marketeers will argue, of course, that any such move would merely drive the companies out of the area and towards regions where no similar regulation exists. This is not a threat to be taken lightly, as all too many redundant workers know to their cost. Nevertheless the women insist that difficulties should not be allowed to become insurmountable obstacles to progress.
     While recognising that it would be unwise to advocate premature action without proper research and reflection, the women say that it’s possible to make some useful observations. They point out that several of the companies in the town in question are retailers, which would be reluctant to surrender market share or risk unsavoury publicity if placed firmly in the spotlight. Other companies in the locality, they say, have mature and developed supply chains that are difficult to replace. Large corporations may be powerful but are not invulnerable.
     In the light of the extent of poverty, it is surely time to call for concrete proposals supported by well-considered action in order to rectify the situation. There is no reason, for example, why trades councils throughout the country could not take inspiration from the women in that mid-Ulster town and launch an initiative supporting the demand for a living wage. Properly promoted and structured, such a campaign would draw involvement from both the organised labour movement and sections of the working class not at present unionised.
     The value of such action is that after a lengthy period of hardship and setback, working people would be advancing positively. Moreover, while such a campaign would benefit greatly from concerted and co-ordinated countrywide organisation, it would not be dependent on the “slowest ship in the convoy.” Nor would success be contingent on vulnerable workers taking all the strain in a risky confrontation with the management, as the wider community would be committed to the struggle.
     Finally, wouldn’t it be sweet justice in this modern age to see consumer power turn for once against the corporations and deliver a reward for the producers of wealth?

1. Glasgow Living Wage (www.glasgowlivingwage.co.uk).
2. Jake Richards, “How the living wage movement is re-energising the US left,” New Statesman, 24 October 2014 (http://bit.ly/1shpuTU).

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