Sandy MacDonald is a member of the Edinburgh Poverty Commission, and Head of Sustainability at Standard Life Aberdeen plc. As the Chair of Living Wage Scotland’s Leadership Group, he discusses during ‘Living Wage Week’, how employers can make a positive difference.
Poverty is a complex topic.
Over the past two years, I’ve been involved with a number of initiatives that have given me different insights. I’ve been a member of several Living Wage leadership groups and programmes, a Prince’s Trust taskforce, and most recently the Edinburgh Poverty Commission. I’ve met a huge number of people with different perspectives on the challenges and on specific aspects of it. I’ve read books and articles or spoken to experts about, in no particular order… food poverty, period poverty, funeral poverty, pensioner poverty, child poverty, in-work poverty, poverty of aspiration, poverty of opportunity and even ‘shoe poverty’.
Of course, on another level it’s simple – these are all just different symptoms or manifestations of the one problem: poverty. The fact we’ve been able to develop such a lexicon of terms and descriptions for how it manifests in the UK, should be a source of considerable shame for us all.
Through the Edinburgh Poverty Commission, I’ve heard from some amazing people who have generously shared their lived experiences.
I met two young women who described exploitation and harassment in their workplace as the promise of future work shifts was held against them.
I met people who turned up to work having already shelled out for childcare and travel only to be told they were no longer required.
Or single parents who spent weeks trying to balance impossible demands of school times and childcare alongside variable shift patterns, before being forced to admit defeat.
I even met people having to choose whether to keep their children warm or fed on a given day.
Patterns also emerge.
The disproportionate number of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people among those we met.
The clear toll that living in poverty takes on mental wellbeing.
People of different ages describing an endless cycle of programmes and courses giving them qualifications and skills, but that never led to an actual job.
And, more often than not, people being in work, but not earning enough, nor having a predictable and stable income.
Many areas intersect to drag people down further and trap them in to poverty, such as the obvious disparity between how childcare and rental costs have grown compared to wages and welfare. Far too frequently, people living in adversity are treated with stigma and suspicion. Given no first, never mind second, chances.
But, at the Commission, we’ve also heard from a number of different organisations providing approaches that work to help support people. This included some that make the experience of being in poverty more bearable. This should not be underestimated, in terms of the humanity and kindness we ought to all be able to expect.
There are also some approaches that we’ve heard time and again that make a genuine, tangible difference in the longer term. Crucially, this is often both in terms of how people feel and their ability to take control of their future.
One example was educational institutions who help people from different backgrounds access, and sustain, affordable study and work. As Chair of the Living Wage leadership group in Scotland I’m obviously going to say that another is paying the ‘real’ Living Wage, calculated to keep pace with the cost of living. People who work for a Living Wage employer describe the positive difference it makes in their lives, to them and their families, on a very practical level and also in the fact they feel valued by their employer.
Employers who go further, and put programmes and support in place to ensure recruitment is inclusive, offer apprenticeships that pay enough to be accessible to those without wealth behind them, or provide genuine opportunities for meaningful training and progression, were talked about in glowing terms by their employees. It was obvious the impact it had on loyalty, advocacy, engagement, retention and productivity.
The problem of insecure and volatile work, with unpredictable shift patterns, came up repeatedly in Edinburgh. The new Living Hours programme currently being piloted by four organisations including two headquartered in Scotland – my employer Standard Life Aberdeen plc, and also SSE plc, offers huge potential to address the key concerns raised by employees, by ensuring decent notice periods, and a right to a contract offering guaranteed minimum hours of work, unless the worker requests otherwise.
This final point, about control being with the individual is hugely significant.
Living in poverty in a city of such wealth (and therefore inequality) as Edinburgh means having very little control. People have a right to expect equality of opportunity, for hard work to pay fairly, and for there to be routes out of poverty. People want to have control, not rely on the charity and kindness of strangers. If you’re in a position where you can offer any of the positive interventions mentioned above – a supported and inclusive route in to employment, paying a ‘real’ Living Wage, high quality training and progression, family friendly policies and practice, secure contracts of employment, then I’d urge you to do so. These are practices that the people who know best – those with lived experience – have told us work for them and make a tangible, long-term difference. They’ll pay off for you, for the people you want to make a difference to your bottom line and to the communities in which we live.