TUC Conference: Minimum Wage - Unions seek pounds 5 an hour basic pay

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The Independent Online
TONY AND Cherie Blair were challenged to live on the pounds 3.60 an hour minimum wage yesterday as the big battalions of the union movement called for the rate to be increased to pounds 5.

Rodney Bickerstaffe, head of the public service union Unison, declared his pride at the introduction of the statutory floor on pay but registered outrage that so many workers were not paid "a decent living wage".

Mr Bickerstaffe, whose union is the largest Labour Party affiliate, said the planned pounds 3.60 rate before stoppages did not constitute a fair wage.

"It cannot be an acceptable level. Not enough for food, for clothing, for rent. Not enough for a night out or to give the kids a treat. Not enough from paid work to sustain a life that all people have a right to expect," Mr Bickerstaffe said.

"These six coins in my hand are worth pounds 3.60 and I defy Tony and Cherie, John Edmonds, or me, to try and live for six months on that rate - let alone for a lifetime - and be happy and content."

Mr Edmonds, TUC president, who denounced "greedy bastards" in Britain's boardrooms on Monday, is paid pounds 57,000 a year and Mr Bickerstaffe is on pounds 64,000.

The Unison leader and Bill Morris, leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, called for a minimum of pounds 5, compared with the present official TUC target of pounds 4. Mr Morris said the statutory minimum, to be introduced by the Government next April, would do nothing to alleviate poverty. At pounds 3.60 taxpayers would continue to subsidise bad employers through the payment of state benefits. He said the union would continue to fight for a rate struck at half male median earnings - which would currently equal pounds 4.61.

Also addressing the congress was George Bain, chairman of the Low Pay Commission, which advised ministers on the rate. He defended the recommended minimum, but took issue with the Government's decision to cut the rate for younger workers.

The commission recommended pounds 3.20 for 18 to 20-year-olds, but the Cabinet decided on a rate of pounds 3 per hour for 18 to 21-year-olds. Professor Bain said the commission stood by its advice to the Government.

He commended the "bloody-mindedness" of Mr Bickerstaffe in fighting for a national minimum wage. There was "real exploitation and abuse of working people" today. The view seemed to be that the well-off could be motivated only by high pay and generous benefits, while the low-paid could only be made to work through "desperation".

He said that the earnings gap between rich and poor had increased markedly over the past 20 years and those at the bottom of the pile were significantly worse off.

During the commission's evidence-gathering initiative, it found that some security guards were paid less than pounds 2 an hour and many had to supply their own uniforms. Some were forced to take their own guard dogs to work.

Homeworkers were often paid pennies to produce goods that eventually fetched pounds in the shops. Professor Bain said the commission's deliberations provided proof that social partnership could work. Commission members included employers, trade unionists and independent members.

The concept of a minimum wage was now broadly accepted throughout society; two million workers would see their pay rise. Some three-quarters of the people who would benefit were women, often working part-time, Professor Bain said.

The congress overwhelmingly passed a motion calling for a campaign to boost the statutory floor on wages to pounds 4.61 and registered its disappointment over the treatment of young workers. Responding to union claims that the levels of the minimum wage still meant poverty for many workers, David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, told BBC Radio: "A fact of economic life is that the national minimum wage coupled with the Chancellor's Working Families Tax Credit will lift literally millions of people out of poverty next year for the first time."