Living wages: how development doesn’t end at home
Living Wage Week 2013 is over, but this Monday and Tuesday there’s an important living wage conference taking place in Berlin. Trade unions will be there, of course, including the New Trade Union Institute of India, as well as the ILO and Oxfam. Because this conference won’t be about the living wage in Germany (although a quarter of German workers now earn less than 60% of the median wage), but in Asia.
The Living Wage is a concern all over the world, and it’s a perfect example of an idea that brings development abroad and economic justice at home together. The Living Wage shows that development isn’t just about developing countries.
This week’s Living Wage Week showed how important wages are in British politics: as my colleague Nigel Stanley has pointed out, a living standards election is really about pay, not prices. But wages are, of course, central to the fight against global poverty – especially for women – and unions and NGOs are increasingly working together on the issue. This week saw a series of blogs on the website of the tripartite Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) about the issue, and of course the demands of Bangladesh garment workers for fair pay, as well as factory safety and the right to form trade unions, have put the issue high up on the global agenda.
There will be differences ahead about how to achieve a living wage in developing countries: it’s not exactly an uncontentious issue in the UK, after all! But whatever the methods used – legislation or collective bargaining – supply chains and procurement will be key tools for the foreseeable future, which makes a global approach all the more important.
We certainly don’t want to see UK corporates achieving Living Wage status by shipping low paid jobs overseas, but conversely, it isn’t difficult to build a living wage into overseas supply chains. The TUC issued an infographic on the subject after the Rana Plaza factory disaster earlier this year, sowing that wages for t-shirt workers could double at a cost of 2p per t-shirt. Rachel Wilshaw of Oxfam makes the same point about cut flower workers in Kenya:
“In a poverty footprint study of the cut flowers sector of Kenya, Oxfam calculated that just a 5p increase on a £4 bunch of roses would enable wages to be doubled to a living wage.”
Whether in the tea industry or banana trade, living wages are a big issue, and initiatives such as the union-NGO Asia Wage Floor initiative show how much is going on around the world. A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay has been a demand of the trade union movement ever since we began, and now politicians are beginning to listen.