Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, visiting the TUC's annual conference, said the party was absolutely committed to introducing a national minimum wage. But he refused to be drawn on the value Labour would set or whether it would be announced before the next general election.
'We recognise completely that Britain cannot compete in the world on the basis of poverty wages,' he said, adding that issue of any formula would be debated at next month's party conference.
The issue is typical of tensions arising between the party and the unions over specific policy demands. Labour remains reluctant to flesh out specific policy statements while the unions want firm pledges on employment law and the minimum wage.
Alan Jinkinson, general secretary of Unison, the largest union with 1.4 million members, said he had 'reservations' about Labour's willingness to adopt the same value for the minimum wage as the TUC. 'There should be not be a shadow of doubt about our commitment to half of male median earnings. Too low a level will simply mean that the minimum wage will be ineffective,' he added.
The TUC's formula applied to today's wage rates would give an hourly rate of pounds 4.05p. It would raise the wages of more than 7 million workers, including 2.5 million men working full-time. A further 2.5 million full-time female workers are below the level as are 2 million part-timers, nearly all of whom are women, according to estimates from the Low Pay Unit. Labour has avoided setting its own figure. Mr Brown said the party's first target was to win public support for the principle of the minimum wage against Tory claims that it would cost jobs. The CBI has estimated that it would add 1.2 per cent to the national wage bill.
Mr Jinkinson, in proposing yesterday's TUC motion in support of the minimum wage, said the latest evidence suggested that far from losing jobs, a minimum wage could increase employment.
'Workers should get a decent reward for their efforts and no disadvantaged groups should be exploited. A national minimum wage would provide the quickest, most effective way of tackling the deep-rooted problem of unequal pay,' he said.
Margaret Prosser, of the Transport and General Workers' Union, said the Government's abolition of the wages councils, covering more than 2 million low-paid workers, had resulted in wages falling by more than a quarter in the industries they covered.
She urged the unions to join the campaign to save the Agricultural Wages Boards, which the Government has announced that it wants to abolish.
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