20% of workers earn below the living wage.

20% of workers earn below the living wage.

For the first time ever I heard a phrase that I never knew existed. It was part of a headline for a news article I read. The bold line read “20% of Workers Earn ‘Below Living Wage’”. ‘Living wage’ is an actual term which I’m certain most workers are probably not familiar with. I only just educated myself on what it was which resulted in me educating myself on what it actually means. 20% of workers in this country do not earn enough money to actually have the bare essentials of living. The basic living wage in London is £8.55 per hour (£7.45 outside of the capital). That is considerably higher than what most jobs will pay. The national minimum wage rate as of October 2013 will be £6.31 per hour for those of the age of 21 and over. I’m not here to break in to mathematics and work out the difference between earning the basic living wage to the national minimum wage. But it’s as plain as day that it is considerably lower. Surprised? Well no, not really.

I used to work at Sports Direct from 2008 to 2010. My wage was £6 per hour. At the time I was still studying at university and being partially supported by my parents. Despite my wanting to be independent of them, I wasn’t. I also had a student loan to pay rent in an overpriced apartment I shared. At this time in my life the basic living wage had no bearing on me, although I was working to pay bills, rent and use whatever was left over on fast food and alcohol. The job wasn’t world changing or much to shout about but what did I care. It wasn’t a career path I was ever going to follow, no matter how much my manager told me “You got what it takes Greg.” I only showed up for the money, I wasn’t spending my days in the library as university took up 9 hours of my week. Also as a full time student I wasn’t being taxed. So at the end of the month I was bringing in a healthy sum of cash.

But there’s another side to a story like this. Whilst I’m living the university lifestyle spunking money on booze, there’s another worker who we’ll call James. James immigrated to England from an Eastern European country; he earns the same amount as me but has to save every penny to pay for rent, bills, travel and food. He doesn’t have a student loan, or student oyster card. So every hour he works it means a lot more to him simply because he is trying to survive in London on his own. Now most of the people currently working in retail would comfortably fit in to my shoes, there is a small percentage that don’t. James is part of that small percentage. Working at sports direct earning £6 per hour for a 20 hour week. That’s £180 per week. Now that’s definitely better than claiming JSA, in fact it’s double. However, that isn’t taking in to account the rent he pays for his single room in cheapest part of London. The travel card he buys every week to get to and from work, or the money for food and other basic living essentials.

Now a case such as James’ usually has the same reaction from people. They take aim at his self ambitions or claim he should move back to his own country. Now obviously James would if that was a feasible option, but it isn’t. He managed to find a job because he is a hard working individual. But Sports Direct will only offer him the national minimum wage on a zero hour contract. This means that Sports Direct is under no obligations to give him any hours to work. Resulting in James earning zero pounds for every passing hour that he doesn’t work. His manager pulls him aside and explains to him that the months after Christmas are really slow so some employee’s will have their hours cut. James is one of those employees, picking up a five hour shift here and there a week is no use to him. The cost of his travel exceeds the money he would make at work. Calling his boss on a daily basis hoping someone has called in sick racks up his phone bill. Although he sits in his room most of the week he is not unemployed.

The bright side of this free time allows James to look for work somewhere else. He doesn’t tell potential employer he’s currently employed, instead he informs them of his retail experience at Sports Direct. After numerous applications and interviews he finally lands a job at a supermarket. The pay is the same as Sports Direct but he has a set number of hours to work each week. Whilst picking up a few shifts here and there from Sports Direct, James is earning more at the end of the month. His customer service and retail skills are getting better and better along with his work ethic. His manager at Sports Direct notices this and wants him to stay on a bit extra one day because someone has called in sick. James can’t because he needs to get across the city to the supermarket. While going through the security check before leaving his manager notices the uniform for the supermarket in his bag. He question’s James loyalty to the company and informs him that “While you’re working here we are you’re number one priority. No one or nothing else.” He is expected to show loyalty to a company that has no intention of showing him any in return. A week later James’ hours are cut once again, in fact he hasn’t worked a shift for Sports Direct for nearly a month. He is back to budgeting very carefully his £180 per week. He works hard at the supermarket but the chances of a pay rise or a promotion are slim. He sometimes is able to pick up extra shifts but those are only on rare occasions.

A case such as James’ is where a difference between minimum wage and living wage shouldn’t exist. A case such as James’ may be rare but something should be done to support those who want to work but aren’t able to earn enough to live. As long as companies are able to offer their employees zero hours contracts on minimum wage nothing will change. I understand from a businessman’s side that it may not be possible to offer their employees more money or more hours in case of looming bankruptcy. But also think from your employee’s point of view. It doesn’t make sense for them to pay for travel that costs more than their wages. They may as well just sit at home all day and claim benefits.

Greg J Allman.