John Sentamu: In a decent society, all workers must be paid a fair wage they can live on

IT’S not fair! Switch on the radio, or the television, open a newspaper, listen to conversations in the pub and the likelihood is that before long there will be a discussion about the unfairness of wealth, and the tension generated by income inequality.

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu

At one end of the debate there is the outrage about bankers’ bonuses, MPs’ salary increases, failed CEOs being awarded huge pay-offs; and at the other end there is the dispute over welfare reform and benefit caps. We live in a world where income inequality means that the concepts of fairness and income equality are struggling to survive.

In November last year, I was proud to speak at the Church of England’s General Synod, in support of a motion on the Living Wage. It recognised that “the widening gap between rich and poor harms all of society and that paying a Living Wage lifts people out of poverty”. It went on to affirm the Christian values inherent in the concept of the Living Wage; and encouraged all Church of England institutions to pay at least the Living Wage.

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It was a motion which I was happy to see overwhelmingly carried. In fact this support by the Church for the Living Wage has deep historical roots going back more than a century. This has been, for us a symbol of justice for working people and a small step towards a decent society for everyone.

In these tough economic times we need to remember that not all in our society are blessed with good jobs, incomes, housing and leisure opportunities.

Indeed, one in five people in the UK who are in work are not paid a Living Wage – and six out of 10 families in the UK living in poverty have at least one adult in paid work. This is an absolute scandal – given our corporate wealth as a nation.

We will not make this country stronger by impoverishing others. Indeed the end result is more likely to be that our society becomes more dysfunctional and less cohesive as a result.

In 2011, it was my great privilege to be the Sponsor of The Fairness Commission in York, and one of its key recommendations was to call for a Living Wage to be introduced across the City. Last year, York City Council voted to do just that.

Introducing a Living Wage recognises that people should be paid a fair wage for a fair day’s work. Anything else is unjust.

We need to value each and every person, rather than cutting adrift those unfortunate enough to 
find themselves at the bottom of the pile.

Having launched the Living Wage Levels in York, it is my hope that the whole of England will follow the example. Paying workers a living wage for their endeavours should be a badge of honour for us as a nation. Why? Because it is a matter of justice.

The Fairness Commission in York, like many other such Commissions around the country, committed itself to ensuring the well-being of each person in the community. We recognised that, in the difficult financial situation the country finds itself in, it was vital that no-one should get left out.

I have always believed that the measure of a society’s health can be judged by how it treats the poor and the vulnerable. The guarantee of a Living Wage can give hope to those of the working poor who are struggling to keep their households together, healthily fed and cared for. We need to focus on what we are doing for the working-poor – rather than stigmatising and dehumanising those going through tough times.

Until we pay a proper Living Wage for a proper day’s work, we will always have the problem of some people being unable to provide for their families.

David Cameron himself has said that “we all know in our hearts that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side-by-side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it”.

Britain is, sadly, among the more unequal of the rich countries. Undifferentiated cutting of welfare benefits and squeezing the voluntary sector will result in more injustice and misery.

What we need to do is ensure fairness is put back at the heart of the decision-making process – whether that is in Whitehall or in our town halls – and we all need to do what we can to tackle poverty in practical ways, not ignore it and hope it goes away.

The stories of poverty are undramatic and unglamorous. The magazines we buy in their millions chart the spectacle of the rich and famous ostentatiously enjoying their possessions. But the unremarkable daily grind of poverty is a more private affair. You can’t afford to make a splash. Often you can’t even afford to go out.

The Living Wage hourly rates of £8.55 in London and £7.45 in the rest of the country are not far above the minimum wage of £6.19. And I believe those voices who are claiming that to pay the Living Wage will damage companies and lead to a loss of jobs, are just as mistaken as those who made the same claims about the minimum wage. The pursuit of profit must not outweigh the moral imperative that workers should be paid enough to live on.

Paying a Living Wage is not about generosity or charity; it is about fairness and justice. That’s why I was delighted to accept the invitation to chair this Independent Living Wage Commission. I am sure that its work will lead to a greater clarity about what justice and equality in incomes mean to us as a nation.

At the same time, we need to recognise that a living wage on its own won’t lift people out of poverty. At its present rate, many people who receive it still need income supplements, housing benefit and other benefits. Tax and National Insurance on low incomes are still going to cause problems if we are to provide an income that enables people to live decently and independently.

But the Living Wage is a first and vital step in challenging inequality. It is part of the compelling culture shift we need in order to achieve fairness.

So let us endeavour to emerge from the economic difficulties of the next few years a better society than we are now. We must all hang together, or we shall hang separately on the doomsday machine of Mammon.

• Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York.