On the walk from London Bridge to City Hall, I have a dozen choices of where to buy a coffee.
However, the only place I can guarantee buying a morning coffee served by someone paid the London living wage is in City Hall itself. None of the coffee shops on my route in to work are accredited by the Living Wage Foundation. The lives of those working in the coffee shops and the lives of those on significantly higher wages in the accountancy and law firms next door typify the ‘tale of two cities’ often associated with London.
The former mayor, Boris Johnson, was great on a press release and photo opp. He continued Ken Livingstone’s policy of making sure nobody in City Hall was paid less than the London Living Wage (including interns) and could talk a good talk. Sadiq Khan has inherited a legacy of laziness from his predecessor but putting his considerable energy in to addressing low pay would be a significant part of the legacy he himself could have in tackling poverty. Over 60 per cent of those living in poverty are from a working household, and around a million Londoners are paid below the London living wage. Ensuring people get a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work trumps most other changes that could be made.
Boris Johnson was not particularly good at getting stuck in, rolling his sleeves up and doing a job of work. He squirmed when challenged on the rising number and proportion of people paid below the London living wage. He refused to meet trade unions and low-paid workers campaigning on the living wage, a high-profile example being those from the Ritzy cinema in Brixton.
Having struggled to get access to the previous mayor’s correspondence on the London living wage, the assembly’s economy committee used a rarely applied power of summons. Legally I am restricted in what I can quote from the letters we were subsequently sent. However, the correspondence revealed that Boris’ much heralded letter writing campaign was largely composed of standardised letters offering some of the biggest names in business meetings with highly competent but comparatively junior members of staff.
The biggest difference the mayor could make is to make sure that senior figures are met by equivalent figures from City Hall. Lobbying by mail merge simply does not work. It needs a stronger grip by the mayor and his personal role, as he himself has expressed, should be one of co-ordination – convening and cajoling.
The mayor has clearly indicated that his planned economic fairness unit will look both at pay AND other aspects of fairness.
In moving forward on low pay, it is also vital to learn the lesson from the introduction of the national ‘living wage’ which is that unless you look at the wider context, the other characteristics of low paid work – including insecure contracts and variable hours – other conditions may decline when pay rises. Going back to the coffee shops and how they reacted to the national living wage, Nero cut free food for staff and Eat cut paid breaks. Starbucks in contrast applied the same rate to under-25s and Pret added 5p to a cup of coffee in part to pay the additional wage bill.
We shouldn’t just wait for people to rise up and object to being treated badly. They may not have enough time or energy to do much more than work. Equally, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to have an internalised point system for being ethical – notably the low paid Ritzy workers were serving fair trade coffee while not being paid a fair wage themselves.
Telling your story also only helps if someone is prepared to listen and act. The Ritzy workers couldn’t even get in the door of City Hall when Boris Johnson was mayor but their imaginative approach to industrial action caught the imagination of journalists and local people and the cinema chain had to concede or lose business. As it happens, they are still yet to be paid the London living wage but they are closer to their goal and still fighting.
Consumer power matters. This means where we buy our coffee matters. However at the moment there isn’t always an obvious choice to make and we need one of the major chains to see the benefit of being a pioneer so others follow. The mayor can encourage this to happen by rolling up his sleeves and banging heads together. He has the status to influence and is clearly intending to use his role to be a mayor for all Londoners.
Image: Daniel Hoherd