The future of the left since 1884

Bottom Up

A real living wage for workers must be at the top of a new government’s agenda, writes Bethan Spacey



In 2001, amidst the increasing prevalence of low paid and insecure work, Citizens UK started the campaign for a living wage. Not to be confused with the “national living wage” introduced by George Osborne in 2015, the ‘real’ living wage is the only UK wage rate based on the cost of living. It is voluntarily paid by over 14,000 UK businesses who go above the government minimum to ensure their staff are paid a wage which reflects their needs, from the weekly shop to a surprise trip to the dentist.

The impact of low pay on workers is difficult to overstate. Last year, the Living Wage Foundation’s Life on Low Pay Polling found that 60 per cent of workers earning below the real living wage had turned to a food bank in the last 12 months, with soaring inflation forcing many to decide between “heating and eating”.

Since the Living Wage Foundation was set up in 2011, the movement has put £3bn back into the pockets of low paid workers. Yet, with 1 in 8 UK workers earning below the real living wage, our work is far from done. Earlier this month, IPPR research for the Living Wage Foundation’s The Real Living Wage in Social Care showed that in social care, one of the lowest paid sectors, 43 per cent of workers are paid below the real living wage, rising to 80 per cent in London.

In the context of a recruitment crisis, it is hard to fathom how endemic low pay has been allowed to persist. As Rachel Kelso, a care worker from Nottingham, told us:

“The insecurity of hours and low pay associated with domiciliary care work makes it impossible to forecast how much I can expect to earn from one week to the next.

“My work involves travelling between clients in their own homes and it is very common for that travel time to go unpaid, despite the fact HMRC clearly classes it as legal working time. Since the order and amount of client visits on a given shift regularly change, unpaid travel time is a key reason why domiciliary care work is a particularly unreliable source of income, alongside widespread reliance on zero-hours contracts.”

Change is already happening at a regional level. In April, people affected by the issues of low pay and insecure work came together via Citizens UK to host mayoral assemblies. These assemblies secured support from mayors in London, the West Midlands, the Northeast and Greater Manchester for a real living wage for all social care workers. And in June, 19 local authorities signed an open letter to Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer asking for a meeting to discuss how to ensure that care workers in England can earn the real living wage, as they already do in Scotland and Wales.

The upcoming general election is an opportunity to build on this local progress at the national level. The next government has a chance to impact the lives of millions by committing to a real living wage in social care, strengthening workers’ rights to sufficient and predictable hours and encouraging a race to the top in public procurement.

Citizens UK has co-produced three overarching asks to the future government with those impacted by low pay and insecure work.

What needs to change

1. Ensure all social care workers in England are paid at least the real living wage, building on the example set by Scotland and Wales.

2. Embed and promote the real living wage and ‘living hours’ through UK procurement and grant-making, supporting a race to the top where employers who provide the real living wage and living hours are recognised and incentivised with government contracts and grants.

3. Strengthen people’s rights and access to predictable, sufficient hours, learning from the Living Wage Foundation’s Living Hours standard.


The full asks can be found in the Citizens UK manifesto. To support the ask that all social care workers in England are paid at least the real living wage, you can sign the online petition. If we are to achieve these vital wins for workers, we need your support.

Bethan Spacey

Bethan Spacey is partnerships and campaigns manager at the Living Wage Foundation. She leads on health and social care campaigns and initiatives, both in London via the Making London a Living Wage City project and nationally.

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