Thursday, June 20, 2013

#UNDC13 "Do they mean us? The squeezed middle and the new politics of pay" fringe

Picture from fringe on Tuesday lunch time at UNISON National Delegate Conference 2013 chaired by Jane Carolan from NEC.

First speaker was James Plunkett (left) from the Resolution Foundation.

He reported on the collapse in pay increases since 2000 (Not just since the 2008 recession) and pointed out that only 1/3rd of welfare cuts have taken place so far. He described a "Epidemic of low pay" which he believes is structural. While there has been growth in high pay jobs, there has been a reduction in middle pay jobs and growth in low pay jobs.  He believes that better training is not going to be enough to change things. Why does Norway have 1/2 the number of low pay jobs than the UK?  It is because they have made different choices than us.

James thought that a way forward is the level of the Living wage but he does not believe it should be compulsory but there should be transparency and companies that can afford to pay should be named and shamed if they don't.

Next was  Faiza Shaheen from the New Economic Foundation (3rd from left). She agreed about the massive low pay problem. Not only is there the cost to individuals who face the choice of eat or heat there is an wider economic cost.  The cost of tax credits to subsidise low pay have increased by over 50%.  While even the IMF recognise that low pay has resulted in low demand in our economy. She linked pay levels to union density. The higher the density the better the pay. In the public sector unions have done good work especially on low paid but it is still a low pay sector despite the outsourcing of 400k jobs to the private sector. Faiza thought that looking at wage ratios may be better than the level of living wage. 

She posed the question - why is the gender gap bin the private sector between men and women significantly higher than the public sector?

Final speaker was Assistant General Secretary Karen Jennings (4th left). Karen reminded the fringe that UNISON use to be criticised within the labour movement for its support of the minimum wage and although it is not enough the minimum wage has made a real difference to the lives of the working poor. The growth in the pay gulf has led to many of the poor being dependent on food banks and payday loans. Despite the "bile" of the Tory press about public sector pay the reality is a massive increase in claims from our members to UNISON welfare.

A paramedic now earns  £5k less in real terms than 2010.  While a teaching assistant is £7k worse off. The way out of poverty is now not hard work. No matter how hard they work many are still stuck in poverty. The answer involves the living wage, spread of collective bargaining and ending of employment practises such as no zero hour contracts.

But we also need to get people to understand more about the politics of pay.  In a recent YouGov poll people listed their top 5 priorities.  They complained about high prices for goods and services but only listed pay as their 5th priority. They failed to make the connection between being unable to afford things and their low wages.

In the Q&A I asked about the possible role of wage councils in addressing this problem? Other northern European countries still have such bodies and have better pay levels, especially in industries which are hard to organise. James thought they could have a role. Another member reminded everyone that it was not the the traditional low paid who have difficulties. Even if you earn £30k per year. James said that the housing model for the squeezed middle is completely broken. They are unable to buy and pay high rents with no security. He is looking into the role of institutional investment in the rental market.
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