Read Emma’s speech on the Living Wage

November 8, 2013

Emma Lewell-Buck 09 smallThis Thursday Emma spoke at the Northern Living Wage Summit in support of Living Wage Week. The event, which was held at South Tyneside Town Hall, was attended by a number of high-profile speakers including Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves and the TUC’s General Secretary Frances O’Grady.

Emma told the audience about the difference the minimum wage had made to her at the start of her working life, but criticised the Coalition Government’s failure to help wages keep pace with the rising cost of living.

Emma warned that in David Cameron’s Britain work was no longer a reliable way out of poverty. She said that “A living wage is not a luxury, it is a necessity if we are to tackle poverty and disadvantage in our country.”

The new Living Wage for the UK was announced as £7.65 at the Start of Living Wage Week on 4 November.

Ed Miliband has committed to strengthening the minimum wage, and providing incentives to employers who pay their staff a Living Wage.

You can read the rest of Emma’s speech below:

What the Living Wage means for Hard Working people

“Thank you, apologies if I repeat some of what has already been said today but our message is always worth repeating.

I remember when I got my first job – or should I say, when my mam came home and declared that I was going to work in the local shop.  She told me that I needed to know and understand the value of work, and contribute to our home otherwise I would never really understand what it was all about.

It was 1992, and I was fourteen years old. I got paid just under one pound per hour for that job.

It was enough for me because I was living at home and didn’t have to worry about bills, mortgages or the future.

When I finished my GCSE’s I wanted to do A Levels, but my parents wanted me to continue working. This was before Labour’s educational maintenance allowance, which helped support young people through their A Levels up until the Tories scrapped it three years ago. So as a compromise I left the job I had and was lured to another higher paid one, for just over a pound per hour.

I and millions of others needed the minimum wage. When it came in, in 1999, the difference was incredible. To go to work and be paid £3.60 per hour was amazing.

There were lots of scare stories in the press at the time about how it would endanger jobs, employers making people redundant or reducing their hours so they could match the demands of the minimum wage.

An aspiring Tory candidate in Stafford wrote in the local paper during the 1997 election campaign that the minimum wage would “send unemployment straight back up.”   This candidate was David Cameron.

But the fact is that none of these scare stories happened. What did happen was people felt valued and more respected and as a result; morale, retention and recruitment improved. The Tories were proved wrong.

People like David Cameron now support a minimum wage. It has been such a success that to criticise it now is unthinkable, and even the Tories’ own Business Minister agrees that it is time to strengthen it.

But of course the Tories have not learned their lesson. In Cameron’s Britain the gains for working people won by Labour and the Trade Unions are starting to be undermined.

Millions of people are on zero hours contracts, energy bills are out of control, food banks are at the highest level they have ever been, homelessness is on the rise, welfare reform is pushing millions into poverty, stagnant long term and youth unemployment are at some of their highest ever levels.

Those lucky enough to be in employment have seen the national minimum wage fall compared to inflation for the last four years in a row. The minimum wage is now £6.31 an hour – significantly more than the £3.60 that was a godsend back in 1999 – but if it had risen in line with prices it would be 45p an hour higher. The minimum wage is still vital for poorer families, but as prices rise it becomes less and less effective at warding off poverty.

This has nothing to do with austerity. The Tories will tell you that we’re “all in this together” and that people have been living beyond their means – that a minimum wage that enables people to heat their homes and provide for their families is a luxury the country cannot afford.

But as always with the Tories, there is one rule for the rich and another for the poor. If the minimum wage had risen in line with the wages of the top one per cent then the minimum wage would now be nineteen pounds per hour.

A full time worker on minimum wage earns a little less than a thousand pounds a month. They would have to work three hundred and eighty hours per week to match the wages of the top one per cent of earners in the country.

A living wage is not a luxury, it is a necessity if we are to tackle poverty and disadvantage in our country. We are not asking for much. My constituents under a Living Wage would get £7.45 per hour, nowhere near nineteen pounds but enough to keep them above the poverty line.

The Living Wage is essential in a country where it is no longer the case that work is a way out of poverty.

It is completely unacceptable that over five thousand children in Shields live in poverty, many from households with a working parent.  The Government’s own Social Mobility and Child Poverty commission said that ‘for decades policy makers have worked on the assumption that a job was the best way to get someone out of poverty.  Work does remain the best safeguard against being poor but it is not a cure for poverty.  Today child poverty is overwhelmingly a problem facing working families, not just the workless.’

In the North East and here in Shields we have the shameful situation where many work for their poverty, not to escape from it; one in three workers in the North East are paid less than the living wage.  In Shields retail and leisure sectors are some of the biggest employers in this constituency, they are also the areas where zero hours contracts are the most prolific.

And despite what the Tories will tell you, the damage done to people’s job security and living standards is not benefitting the economy.  In fact, the attack on the incomes of the worst off raises the need for income support and housing benefit, placing a further burden on the tax payer.

More than a third of my constituents receive housing benefit and many are turning to pay day loans to help support their families.

Last year in Shields the average borrowing constituent had debt to the tune of one thousand six hundred and ten pounds. And we all know how quickly this debt can become unmanageable, with dire consequences for those who owe.

My constituents need the Living Wage, they are hardworking proud people who know the true value of work but this value is being eroded as they are losing their homes, becoming saddled with debt, turning to food banks and pay day loans.

My surgery, the Citizens Advice Bureau and all of the local charities I have spent time with tell me they are struggling to cope with the demand and the level of people coming to them for help.  And increasingly, these people are in work.

So what difference would the Living Wage make? We already know that an estimated forty five thousand families have been lifted out of poverty as a result of it. How many more of the four point eight million people in the UK currently earning less than the current Living Wage could benefit in the same way?

What could it do for the position of women – who make up the majority of low paid and part time workers and already earn 15% less than men in the UK? Women have already felt the impact of Government cuts harder than most, thanks to cuts to Sure Start and childcare, as well as widespread job losses in the public sector.

What could it do for our economy? A study by KPMG has shown that the Living Wage, like the minimum wage before it, can contribute to a more prosperous and stable economy. It improves recruitment, retention, morale, motivation and increased productivity.

It benefits employers too. Well-paid, well-treated staff are more willing and able to take on new working practices and go the extra mile for their employer. Employers who pay their staff fairly can also expect to attract more talented staff, and encourage those staff to remain loyal to the business.

So what is standing in our way?  Our biggest problem is that we have a Prime Minster who doesn’t understand the world of work. A Prime Minister who has never struggled to get by on minimum wage, who has never had to fear the arrival of the next bill.  To him the Living Wage is an idea to be argued in the opinion columns of the broadsheets, not something that people feel in their pockets. He simply does not understand what a difference it can make to ordinary people.

He didn’t understand that in 1996, when he opposed the minimum wage. And he doesn’t understand it now, as he stalls on implementing the Living Wage.   Prior to the 2010 election he said that the Living Wage was a ‘good and attractive idea’ but he has yet to adopt the practice in Whitehall or take any meaningful steps to implementing it.  I doubt he ever will.

He should come and meet some of my constituents, he should come and look at the shame and pain that I have seen on their faces when I have volunteered at food banks.

Working people will not get a fair deal until they have a Government that understands their lives. Labour introduced the minimum wage because it wanted to see an end to the appalling poverty of the Thatcher years.

And today that commitment is as strong as ever. Ed Miliband pledged at conference he would raise the minimum wage, he and Rachel Reeves have also asked the deputy chair of KPMG to consult and research on how the government can strengthen the minimum wage and adopt the living wage. The next Labour government will do all we can to promote the living wage, and make sure employers do the responsible thing and pay their workers fairly.

Labour Councils are already putting this principle into practice. South Tyneside Council whose buildings we are in today are amongst a raft of Labour led Councils who are committed to the Living Wage and showing that just because we are not in government our principles and values remain steadfast.

I know personally what the minimum wage did for me, my friends and family; it paid us a fair wage for a fair days work and made us feel valued.

Imagine what a Living Wage could do for my constituents and millions of others; imagine that and you’ve imagined a life under the next Labour Government.”


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