What Can Happen When We All Pitch In

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lwlogoOireachtas committee reports aren’t usually very exciting or overtly progressive. This one is different: the Report on Low Pay, Decent Work and the Living Wage produced by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation should be read by everyone concerned with these issues. This should feature highly in the upcoming election debate. It should also be a template for progressives; what can happen when we all pitch in.

Here are just a few of the 28 recommendations:

  • The Low Pay Commission consider the findings of the Irish Living Wage Technical Group to make the minimum wage a Living Wage by increases in the minimum wage and investment in public services.
  • The Low Pay Commission should include the living wage as a key target and explore how it can be reached when making its recommendation of an appropriate minimum wage.
  • The state should become a living wage employer and that payment of the living wage should be stipulated as mandatory in government procurement contracts.
  • The Government should set a goal for the elimination of low pay and set a target for halving the number of workers affected by in-work poverty within their term of government.

The Committee makes a number of other recommendations; if you don’t have time to read the full report, at least look at the recommendations on page 13 of the text. They go beyond just the Living Wage – they address low pay and working conditions. Just to recap:

  • The Living Wage is €11.50 per hour – it is estimated that 345,000, or 26 percent, of all employees earn below this amount.
  • The low pay threshold is €12.20 per hour – it is estimated that over 400,000, or 30 percent of all employees earn below this amount. The low pay threshold is two-thirds of the median wage which, in turn, is the wage at which 50 percent earn above and 50 percent earn below.

The Committee has gone further than just calling for the Living Wage (though it has done that), it has called for the end of low-pay itself. This is truly a far-reach recommendation.

How did we get to this point that a parliamentary committee made these proposals? Let’s go through the elements of the campaign.

  1. Early in 2014, the Living Wage Technical Group began work on estimating the Living Wage. This was led by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, based on their work on the Minimum Essential Standard of Living which they had been researching since the 1990s. They were joined by the Nevin Economic Research Institute, Social Justice Ireland, TASC, SIPTU and UNITE. They produced the Living Wage for 2014 – at €11.45 per hour. A key element of this estimate was the detail and robustness of the methodology. Though opponents tried to undermine the concept and the method, they were unable to find any fault.
  2. Several sections of the media immediately took this up because the Living Wage seemed so darned fair. What could be more common sense than that people who work full-time should be paid a wage that ensures they don’t live in poverty. This should remind us that the media in its entirety is not some right-wing conspiracy against the people; there are many journalists, presenters and producers who are progressive and many more who are concerned that issues are thoroughly explored and all sides presented fairly.
  3. Civil society groups immediately took up this issue – those working on poverty, migrants’ issues, and community concerns. In particular, the trade union movement got involved with many unions producing policies in pursuit of the Living Wage. ICTU, in particular, played a strong role. The theme of its 2015 Biannual Conference was ‘Living Wage, Strong Economy’; they further produced a Workers Charter incorporating the Living Wage and which they asked general election candidates to sign up to.
  4. Political parties which straddled the Government / Opposition divide contributed to the growing support, creating a broad progressive front in political society. The opposition parties – Sinn Fein, PBP-AAA, including independents – were joined by the Labour Party in supporting the Living Wage. Parties outside the Dail (e.g. the Workers Party) also joined in support. A particular intervention was made by the Minister of State for Business and Employment, Ged Nash.
  5. He sponsored a Forum on the Living Wage which brought together trade unions, employers and civil society groups to listen to the arguments. The Forum featured UK employers who supported the Living Wage and which made our own employer representatives uncomfortable. This shows that while you may oppose a particular government, this doesn’t mean you can’t work with supportive elements in that government.
  6. Individuals and groups contributed through social media – with websites, Facebook pages and Twitter being used to promote the Living Wage and various proposals to further its implementation. Many used official channels to put forward the case – for example, submissions to the Low Pay Commission.
  7. Such was the robustness of the method, the fairness of the proposal and the broad support it received, opponents were put on the defensive. Business representatives, in particular, have never been comfortable arguing against it; ‘we don’t have enough money’ is becoming less credible as the economy experiences a tsunami of growth, profits and spending (and the notion that profits grow while the employees who help create those profits live in poverty seems particular miserly). Even Fine Gael, who wouldn’t usually support overt interventions in the labour market (at least, not on behalf of labour) has had to respond; though its proposals to subsidise employers from public funds is poorly thought-out, potentially very expensive and ultimately unworkable. All this led to the Committee report. That it was supported by all members – including Fine Gael and Fianna Fail members – again should remind us to avoid the trap of seeing political opponents as some impenetrable hegemonic force. With a robust, fair and common-sense proposal, unified opposition can be undermined and support gathered across a broad spectrum. This helps us to isolate the opposition.

The success to date of how the Living Wage has caught on should be a template for how progressives should approach issues:

  • Develop a proposal with a robust methodology and strong evidence.
  • Ensure that it is, and appears to be, fair and common-sense.
  • Engage with the media constructively, identifying allies and those who are concerned with being objective.
  • Create a platform that is open to all groups in civil and political society to participate – even if you disagree with them on other issues.  In short, avoid sectarianism – this only limits your capacity to promote change. This goes even for members or parties in a government that you oppose.
  • Let many voices go forth – not only in an organisational capacity but on the social media; promoting issues like the Living Wage cannot be directed or top-down.
  • Seek to exploit the cracks in the political opposition, detaching elements with robust arguments for a fair proposal.

There are positive lessons. There was widespread cooperation around the Living Wage but not because everyone sat around the table and planned it. Cooperation happens when an issue impacts on groups and people, and a platform is provided that allows them to participate in their own way in their own sphere.

In a relatively short-time the Living Wage is now a major and popular issue. Let’s learn from that. There is a progressive majority in Irish society. Let’s reach out to them.

The pluralist campaign behind the Living Wage shows the way.

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