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163 colleges are ‘Real Living Wage’ employers, more need to follow.

Stephen Lambert, Director of Education4Democracy.
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LOW PAY remains a pressing problem across the North and elsewhere in the country, despite the introduction of the national minimum wage, brought in by central government in 1998. 400,000 workers in the region are low paid.

According to a recent report by the think tank IPPR North one in four of the region’s employees experience poverty in work – a sharp increase since the noughties.

Many of these are women, young people and some BAME groups. (black, Asian and minority ethnic) Many are in part-time jobs in the educational sector often juggling between three roles, including caring responsibilities – a situation described by some economists as “under-employment”. Others are caught in the ‘gig economy’ working zero-hours contracts.

Newcastle City Council was one of the first local authorities in the region to introduce a ‘Living Wage’ rate of pay back in 2012. Whilst the current Newcastle Living Wage is £8.75ph this will rise to £9 from May 2019.

The implementation of the ‘Real Living Wage’ will benefit approximately `1,200 council employees. These staff are primarily based in schools and colleges or are ancillary workers, such as cleaners and cooks. Most will be £1,100 better off this financial year thanks to the new rules.

163 colleges in the UK have already signed up to become ‘Real Living Wage’ employers, more need to follow.

According to charity, The Living Wage Foundation, the introduction of the ‘Real Living Wage’ of £10.55 in London and £9 outside the capital can bring positive benefits both to employers and their staff. It could make a big difference to weekly pay packets.

The upsides of the policy include easier recruitment and retention; higher quality staff; better attendance and reduced sickness absence; improved productivity and loyalty to the company and better quality of services.

Such a policy also helps to address deprivation across the region. The ‘Real Living Wage’ can help combat child poverty too. 25 per cent of youngsters in the city are in poverty, lacking the necessities of life. They are therefore excluded from the social and extra-curricular activities which most middle-income families take for granted.

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It’s been argued by the equality body, the Fawcett Society, that RLW can help close the pay gap between men and women. The pay gap between the two genders remains a staggering 18%, despite the 2010 Equality Act.

Many of these women are heavily concentrated in the “three Cs foundational sector” – namely care, catering and cleaning. They are working long shifts hours, including antisocial shifts, for paltry wages.

For a growing number bosses the concept and principles behind the RLW have been endorsed. The decision of big colleges like NCG and nearby Academies to adopt the RLW is to be commended giving recognition of the hard work and dedication of their support workers in helping vulnerable students and service users.

Contrary to popular belief paying people at least £9 an hour doesn’t cost jobs. Employment is at its highest across the UK. The jobless rate is at its lowest for 40 years.

Of-course, some small training providers with high overheads may experience difficulties in bringing in the RLW in a period of austerity. The Government, with will and commitment, could address this issue by giving tax breaks to small providers employing less than 10 people which introduce the RLW.

And it’s not just a socialist policy. Ben Houchen, Conservative Metro Mayor for Tees Valley, has got more businesses and public services to bring in the RLW. Why can’t thousands more employers across the North and elsewhere in the UK do the same.

If we’re serious about creating a financially inclusive, productive and more equal region, the RLW must be a cornerstone of government employment policy both nationally and regionally.

Councillor Stephen Lambert is a member of UNISON, the public sector union. He writes in a personal capacity.

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