To Live or to Exist? The Case for the Living Wage
As a fresh-faced young buck who only recently left university, I don’t have a great deal of experience with wages. I usually tune out when the business and economics section comes up on the news. So I was glad to be enlightened after attending a recent talk hosted by Catholic Voices (see http://www.catholicvoices.org.uk/) on “The Case for the Living Wage.”
“What is the living wage?” I hear you ask. Most of us think of wages in terms of the minimum wage. Yet the two concepts are very different, both financially and in terms of the relationship they posit between human beings and the economy.
According to the Living Wage Foundation, the living wage is an hourly rate which covers the basic cost of living. It currently stands at £8.80 for London and £7.65 for the rest of the UK. It is calculated by the Greater London Authority (for London) and Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University (for the rest of the UK). The speakers at the above-mentioned talk explained what is included in the calculation of the living wage. Some of the items include:
- Accommodation for the individual and their family
- A basket of nutritious food
- Education for the individual and/or their children
- Transport (e.g. an Oyster card)
- A mobile phone
- An annual holiday somewhere in the UK
Some of these are taken as read: shelter and food are basic necessities of life without which we perish. Others might raise questions: is a mobile phone or a holiday really an essential element which should be covered by a person’s wages?
At this point, it is helpful to introduce the minimum wage. According to Gov.uk, the current minimum wage is £5.03p/h for 18-20-year-olds or £6.31p/h for over-21s. To emphasise the difference between the minimum and living wages, consider the example of an 18-year-old Londoner who is:
- Paid the minimum wage of £5.03p/h
- But needs the living wage of £8.80p/h
There is a deficit of £3.77p/h, which adds up to £30.16 per day (based on an eight-hour shift). This is the gap between what the person actually earns and what they need to earn in order to get by each day.
The minimum wage does have the positive effect of preventing employers from abusing their workers by making them work for nothing. However, as you can see, it does not adequately provide for the needs of those who receive it. Its guiding principle is: “What is the minimum amount we can pay without causing reduced demand for employment and a potential market crash?” The market trumps the individual. On the other hand, the living wage puts the individual first. Its guiding principle is: “What is the minimum amount we can pay people so that they can have a decent standard of living?”
So why does the living wage matter to us as Catholics? In November 2012, the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW) passed this resolution:
“The Bishops’ Conference recognises that fair wages are essential to the common good of our society. In accordance with Catholic social teaching, and as part of its mission to support the poor and vulnerable, the Bishops’ Conference fully endorses the principle of the Living Wage and encourages Catholic organisations and charities in England and Wales to work towards its implementation.”
As the CBCEW notes, the living wage is consonant with Catholic social teaching. The Catechism states that:
“A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice…’Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level…’” [#2434]
From the Catholic perspective, wages shouldn’t just cover the bare necessities but should enable persons to participate fully in the cultural and social life of their communities. Which is where a mobile phone comes in handy!
Another principle of Catholic social teaching is subsidiarity. This defines the relationship between the state and the individual:
“A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” [CCC #1883]
In other words, the individual’s needs and rights should come before those of the state: the greater must support the smaller, not suppress it. As I mentioned above, the living wage prioritises the individual before the economy, in contrast to the minimum wage.
The living wage is an important issue for all people. For us as Catholics, it takes on an added significance. Human beings are made in the image of God and are made for life in all its fullness (cf. Jn. 10:10). They are not to be treated as labour-units which are squeezed for the sake of greater productivity. Their hard-earned wages ought to support them and their families to grow and flourish. Wages should enable human beings to live, not simply exist.
For more information on the living wage, see http://www.livingwage.org.uk/home.
For resources on Catholic social teaching and the living wage, see http://www.catholiceducation.org.uk/campaigns/living-wage.