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Stepping forward as Living Wage Leaders; let’s create change

By Amanda Powell-Smith

Originally published by the Living Wage Foundation

This week, nearly 7000 employers are celebrating their role as accredited Living Wage Employers and we are one of them. It is right to be proud – we know we are making a life changing difference to over 250,000 people on the low wages. But is it enough?

These are extraordinary times and now, as the country enters a second lockdown period in an attempt to reduce deaths from COVID-19, the balance between employment and survival is becoming increasingly precarious for many people. Sarah O’Conner’s article on inequality in a UK factory production (Financial Times, 20 October 2020) is a reminder of the reality of job insecurity that is damaging the lives of people across the country.

There is much talk of ‘build back better’ in response to the pandemic.  It is a phrase that started with Richard Curtis in conversation with the Financial Times’s Gillian Tett on 26 March this year and has become widely used, most recently as the backdrop for the Conservative Party conference. The reality is that it is up to us as business leaders to help convert that phrase into reality.

As Living Wage Employers, we have recognised the links between healthy, motivated employees and a thriving business and made a commitment. We know that this is good for our people, our business and society overall.  And, let’s not shy away from it, we are leading change; 6881 employers represents considerable growth for the movement but with an estimated 6 million businesses in the UK it is less than 1 per cent of the market. The number of jobs paid less than the real Living Wage now stands at an estimated 5.5 million.

With leadership comes responsibility. We’ve already stepped outside the expected and made a commitment; now it is time to be braver and ask ourselves some critical questions about how we can help accelerate the payment of a wage that covers the real cost of living for everyone working in the UK.

It starts by each of us understanding our personal ambition around the Living Wage and whether we, as Living Wage Employers, are really satisfied that our action is enough.  If the answer is no, then we need to look at how to use all our assets and levers to inspire change – starting with our employees themselves.

Do our colleagues across the business really understand our Living Wage accreditation, how to talk about it and what they can be doing to support its implementation?  Unfortunately, many policy decisions stay stuck in company headquarters and while the details are known by a few, employees who are unaffected are unclear and unlikely to recognise their role in creating change.

We need to think about the Living Wage as a campaign, with all our employees (regardless of how much they earn) as champions.  Everyone needs to know what it is, why it matters and critically the action they can take.

This can be as simple as talking about it outside the office, building awareness and sign-posting individuals to information.  By breaking the silos between different types of employer we can make the real Living Wage expected, not a nice-to-have.

We need to change our behaviours around purchasing and recognise how many of our suppliers are paying the real Living Wage. If we’re serious about a Living Wage for all then we need to audit and select the organisations we work with on this basis.

We are not alone in this drive for change – as the Government pushes forward Social Value procurement and movements such as B Corp continue to build – and our collective weight will make a difference.  Yes, it takes bravery to make a public commitment to only purchase from Living Wage Employers but without putting a marker down then change will never happen.

And we need to help inform and educate our investors so that they can increasingly use Living Wage accreditation and supplier selection as proof of walking the ESG talk, not tick box selection.  With fingers burnt around BooHoo and UK sweatshop labour, now is the time to differentiate ourselves and drive investor expectations from all.

So yes, let’s celebrate but let’s also use our strength and commitment as the starting point for broader change and put the Living Wage at the heart of a healthy and just economy. The pandemic has highlighted the impact of inequality and the time for action is now. We can be a force for greater change.