Life on low wages

Emily Kenway from the Living Wage Foundation says that to win the Living Wage, we must tell the stories of poverty pay

Emily Kenway
Mon 11 Apr 2016

We've all heard the facts about the state of UK pay: six million working people are paid below the Living Wage, and inequality is soaring. But these headlines obscure the grinding physical reality of getting by on minimum wages. I spend a lot of time presenting the case for the Living Wage to company executives, and their rebuttals show just how little they understand that reality. They query how such a small pay rise can really improve someone's quality of life; the difference between the minimum wage rates and the Living Wage is less than their morning Starbucks. Or they imply that we're encouraging recklessness in the poor, asking how we help workers to manage their additional cash when they're raised up to £8.25 an hour (or £9.40 in London).

The last time I was asked one of these questions, I told them about a lady I'll call Jane. Jane worked as a cleaner on the opposite side of London to where she lived. When her employer uprated her to the Living Wage, she added a little over £1 to her hourly rate. That extra money didn't mean a takeaway latte to Jane, it meant she was able to travel by bus to get to work instead of walking for over an hour.

I could have told hundreds of other stories like hers. For Zara, who works in customer services, life below the Living Wage meant constant stress. Like many on low pay, Zara is one of the best money managers you can find. She's honed that skill after repeatedly having to stretch £10 across two weeks, making harsh choices between travel costs and buying food. Now on the Living Wage, Zara has had about £46 a week added to her pay packet, and so much more added to her quality of life. She speaks compellingly about how good it feels to go for dinner with a friend and be able to have dessert or a glass of wine instead of just a main and tap water. Phu, who works in the finance department of a small company, echoes Zara's experience, highlighting the struggle of working long hours simply to afford to eat and then the shame of being unable to socialise because money simply doesn't stretch to a beer.

Both Phu and Zara are grateful to their employers for going above and beyond the legal wage floor. But, of course, gratitude shouldn't be necessary: paying people enough to cover the bare essentials should be a baseline requirement of doing business.

Nana-Ben, a cleaner in Whitehall, is still on the minimum wage, like most who work in our corridors of power. He has four children who are all adults now and he regrets not being able to spend more time with them when they were younger: he was busy working overtime to cover their basic needs. Ministers' offices were spotless, but his children went to bed without their father's good night. Nana-Ben's story illustrates the less tangible importance of the Living Wage; it doesn't just buy goods and services, it enables the fulfilment of our basic human need for social and familial bonds. The most heart-breaking stories of poverty aren't about paying basic bills. They're when people haven't been to a birthday party in years because they can't bear to turn up without a gift, or when parents have been unable to nurture their children because someone won't pay them a dignified wage.

Company executives rarely speak in stories. They stay safe with stats and spreadsheets that avoid the reality of their employees' struggles. Their discomfort on hearing such truths is palpable. Phu and Zara are better off now, but those six million in-work poor are still living the daily grind of poverty pay. It's for, and with, those six million people that the real Living Wage campaign lives on, and it will win by telling their stories to the people with the power to create change.

More information about the work of the Living Wage Foundation is available at:

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed – Mahatma Gandhi