Podium: Decent pay for all, please, Tony

From a speech by the general secretary of Unison to the TUC in Blackpool
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The Independent Culture
OF ALL the times I've spoken on this subject, this is one of the most difficult. Part of me is cock-a-hoop, proud that we now have, for the first time in our time, a minimum wage law in this country below which no-one will be exploited. It is a tribute to the hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers who campaigned for its introduction. This was not a campaign of the great and the good. Few politicians proclaimed its virtues. Few economists lent their names and brains. Some feared it would undermine free collective bargaining and even trade union organisation. It was an unpopular cause, the lost cause of the forgotten third of the population - low paid, disregarded, excluded - the sweepers, the cleaners, the cooks and the carers who marched and lobbied and argued for the minimum wage, until they transformed it from the desperate cry of the few to the commitment of the many.

Yes, part of me is very proud and pleased. But part of me is outraged, that at the end of the 20th century, at the gateway of the new millennium we still will not pay a decent living wage.

I don't and I won't decry the work that George Bain and his colleagues have done on the low-pay commission. His report will rank with the great social reports of the post and pre-war years. And I don't want to appear grudging, an ingrate.

But there is no gentle, easy way to put this: pounds 3.60 per hour of work before stoppages cannot be fair and it cannot be an acceptable level. It is not enough for food, for clothing, for rent; not enough for a night out or to give the kids a treat. Not enough to sustain a life that we all have a right to expect.

I believe pounds 3.60 is a retreat from earlier commitments: Two-and-a-half million less people covered than the half male median earnings target we so long fought for; some 600,000 less people than the wages councils covered before their abolition.

I don't expect public confessions from my prime minister nor from you, Mr President, for that matter.

But these six coins in my hand are worth pounds 3.60, and I defy Tony and Cherie, John Edmonds, me or anybody to try and live for six months on that rate, let alone for a lifetime - and be happy and content. But it's only pounds 3.60 if you're 22 years old. If you're 21 or younger, not this year but next you'll get pounds 3 an hour - pounds 114 per week - not pounds 6,000 a year.

I tell you, it's bad news to short change anybody at any age, but to short change the future, our sons and daughters and grandchildren? What a message to the young. And of course the landlord won't charge any less, food isn't any cheaper at the supermarket check-out. No pub or disco will reduce its prices because you're on a second-class minimum wage.

It's an old trade union principle. If you're 61 or 21 and you're doing the job, you should get the rate for the job. And I don't believe that the jobs of the next millennium depend on pathetically low rates of pay. The danger, the fear has always been that if you set the minimum wage too low, if you fail to connect up with the collective bargaining agenda, it might become a maximum, rather than a minimum, level.

We need to refocus our efforts. The composite calls for a bargaining target of at least pounds 4.61, our current half male median earnings figure.

Before long no worker should have less than pounds 5 an hour negotiated by unions.

Additionally, there needs to be a new fair wages clause. Our last one, scrapped by the Tories, was to bring us into line with every other European country - requiring employers to recognise the going rate in the sector and not give cowboy contractors the chance to legally undermine public sector provision and standards.

And we need a mechanism for uprating the minimum wage annually. Without it the rate is static and loses even its little value.

Before the Minimum Wage Act comes into effect, my union hopes that trades unions, pensioners and community groups will rally together to not only mark the occasion of the new law but to highlight our commitment to press forward through the breached walls of poverty pay to our goal.

Plimsoll lines have been mentioned and our Prime Minister this very day spoke of sinking ships. We know that it's those in steerage who suffer when the water comes over. We want a way out of steerage.

Our time will come. We're not there yet. But our aim is, as always, the end of sweated labour, the end of wage exploitation, the end of poverty pay and the start of an era when the labourers are not only worthy of their hire but get it and at a decent level.

Tony said we're at the start of the "giving age". Give us decency and dignity. Support the cause, support the motion I move.