Bean counters and the living wage

30 May

Colleagues at Business Fights Poverty have recently published a new report – The Case for Living Wages (https://businessfightspoverty.org/register-the-case-for-living-wages/ ). It shows that, for many companies, it makes sound business sense to pay a living wage rather than either a (lower) statutory minimum or whatever market conditions will let companies get away with. Offsetting a higher wage bill are benefits of higher productivity, lower turnover, greater loyalty and a potential sales uplift from socially aware consumers. It’s a good report.

But if it’s ‘good for business’, why don’t companies do it? For example, think of the UK Post Office, where paying low wages seems to trigger very high turnover (see https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/b/royal-mail-plagued-by-disease-of-high-worker-turnover). Even worse, why do some companies do a “P & O” and end up with ferries they can’t operate and a hostile government and press?

So somehow companies seem to be paying sub-optimal wages – which benefit neither the business nor the employees. Searching for reasons, the drive to cut costs without thinking through the consequences looks likely to be high on the list. The dreaded bean counter with his red pencil may not be optimising his companies profitability at all.

There are a couple of points worth emphasising here. The first one is highlighted in the report – it is easier if there is a collective push towards a living wage rather than piecemeal implementation – as Julie Vallat from L’Oreal says, ‘I always convey the message internally and externally that we should not be competitive on this issue. We will not achieve anything alone, if we are working in isolation on a systemic endemic issue’.

The second issue isn’t touched on in the report, but is important – the interaction of living wages with the tax and benefits system. A key reason businesses can get away with not paying living wages is that they look to the state to bail them out via the social security system. But this creates a massive hit to public expenditure and creates all sorts of bad incentives. Time for businesses – and the consumers they serve – to pay the living wage.

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