The government recently announced that the national minimum wage is to rise from October 2012 for those 21 years and over – by 11 pence, from £6.08 to £6.19 an hour. For those aged 18 to 20 years, the princely sum of £4.98 an hour; 16- and 17-year-olds the luxurious sum of £3.68 an hour; and “apprentices” move up 5p to £2.65 an hour.
When it was introduced in 1998 the national minimum wage was trumpeted as an attempt to address low and poverty wages across workplaces and industries. And indeed an estimated 1.5 million workers benefited from the introduction of the minimum wage. But this has to be set against a history of Wages Boards having been in existence in Britain for the previous 80+ years setting minimum wages, for example in agriculture, hairdressing etc where it was felt workers could not fight for wages.
But what was seen by many as progressive in 1998 has now clearly shown itself as regressive, with employers trying to drive wages down from established higher bargaining rates won by the trade unions to a one-size-fits-all application of the national minimum wage for all.
And if the minimum wage is one form of the state depressing wages then so is the so-called campaigning for a “living wage”. Elaborate calculations which demonstrate that if only “nice”, “decent” philanthropic employers would pay £1, or £2, or £2.50 more than the minimum wage then we could obliterate poverty in our cities and all workers could happily raise their families secure, well-fed, warm, housed and smiling.
And there’ll have to be a living wage campaign running differently in different regions because these do-gooders have swallowed hook, line and sinker the government’s lies and fantasies about regional pay.
We are all for the abolition of poverty but it is not achieved by begging campaigns or shaming campaigns against employers. Nor is it about believing that all work is the same or all skills are the same or that all wages should be the same.
It is a depression of wages to clamour for a living wage level as much as it is a depression of wages to set a national minimum wage as a safety net. It is not safety nets we want but springboards for driving wages up.
Some of the arguments presented for a living wage, or a “real” national minimum wage etc are as ridiculous as those demolished by Karl Marx in his Wages, Price and Profit, written in 1865 [£3.00 including postage from WORKERS]. The employers always try to depress wages; workers should try to raise wages.
Workers perhaps have forgotten how to do that after many years of pay review bodies and such like bailing them out. We have to challenge this almost benefit-dependency culture in our class of always waiting for a handout, always waiting for someone to do it for us. We should not fight for wages as individuals dependent on a state mechanism to set pay rates.
Wages in Britain are being driven down; the value of our take home pay is diminished as other necessities of life – food, shelter, clothing, fuel – are rising in price. We have to fight for wages, and do so collectively. That means combining together, building the trade unions – rebuilding them in some cases – and re-directing our unions if needs be. ■