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Taking the Living Wage Lead

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.

Fringe Benefits for Who?

Mary Alexander is a member of the Edinburgh Poverty Commission, and Assistant Scottish Secretary of Unite.  During ‘Living Wage Week’ she reflects here on the experiences of workers in Edinburgh’s Festival Fringe.

In August this year Edinburgh was once again buzzing with Festival activity as performers, producers, storytellers, and singers gathered for the city’s annual frenzied outpouring of all things creative.  Meanwhile, the hospitality sector flexed its ample muscles to accommodate, fuel, and refresh around a million visitors who descended on the city hungry for culture.  

This festival experience is one of the features that makes Edinburgh a unique city and a vibrant economy. Behind the scenes, however, those who are struggling with the challenges of poverty in this unequal city find little refuge in the work and income opportunities afforded by the Fringe.

A survey by The Fringe Society last year found that 54% of Fringe Workers paid by the hour received less than the then national minimum wage of £7.50 per hour or were paid youth rates.  The survey also found that 34% of those contracted to work were on zero-hour contracts despite the fact that nearly 48% of them worked more than 49 hours a week.  Some 31% of respondents were working more than 10 hours per day and 49% of Fringe workers reported to not having breaks factored into their shifts.  If these abuses were not enough, there is significant and supported evidence of verbal and physical abuse of staff, not to mention sexual harassment. 

A quick glance over the myriad of adverts for the Fringe are revealing with very few mentioning any remuneration.  The 2019 Fair Fringe Advertising Exploitation report highlighted numerous examples of exploitative practices which took place during this year’s fringe. Purple Martian Comedy’s advert for their Street Team stated that workers will receive “1 full day off in the middle of the Fringe” and PQA Venues expected workers “to be available to work every day throughout the Fringe, working an average 4-6 hours per day including weekends, so plenty of time to enjoy the festival, see shows and have fun!”. 

C Venues hit the headlines last year for using volunteers to cover paid work.  This year in response to an email inquiry for work, they generously explained they would “reimburse expenses of up to £3.00 per day for a shift of between 3 and 5 hours, £6 per day for each voluntary shift of between 5 and 10 hours and £9 per day for a shift of more than 10 hours”.  If you total up the volunteering programme for those working the full shifts between 15 July to 30August for C Venues this adds up to income earned over the Fringe of between £250 to £300.  The Fair Fringe report on poverty pay points out “you can’t pay bills or buy food with experience, and volunteers don’t have the same employment rights as workers and employees”.

Writing for The Scotsman earlier this year, Cliff Hague of The Cockburn Association suggested that Edinburgh is now effectively run by the tourist industry and more importantly the “idea that Edinburgh City Council exists to serve the citizens who live there may seem quaint, but it is important”. I wholeheartedly agree.  

The unions across Edinburgh including The Fair Fringe and Edinburgh TUC have been campaigning for ‘Fair Rights’ for Fringe workers for some years, and the Council have set out expectations for businesses who lease Council venues during the Fringe which include paying the living wage of £9.30 an hour; appropriate rest breaks (16-18 year olds should have a 30-minute rest if working more than 4½ hours); no unpaid trial shifts; and equitable distribution of tips. 

After unanimously supporting the Fair Work Hospitality Charter in 2017, we would hope to see a further firm steer from the Council to look after all citizens. This means raising the bar regarding hospitality businesses paying at least the living wage of £9.30 per hour; transport home for staff after 12 midnight; the cessation of abusive zero-hour contracts; paid breaks for all; the payment of all tips to staff, and robust policies against sexual harassment at work. 

There are some beacons of hope in the generally gloomy picture.  Edinburgh’s fifth largest employer in the hospitality business, Summerhall, last year signed a union recognition agreement and are working with Unite to promote the ‘Fair Fringe Campaign’ with drop in sessions on workers’ rights held regularly at their venue throughout the Fringe.  As Unite Hospitality member Steph Leach commented “I used to have to put up with terrible conditions in a Mexican Restaurant, now that we have a Union we enjoy decent conditions at Summerhall”. 

The Stand Comedy Clubs in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Newcastle too have recently agreed to sign up to the ‘Fair Hospitality Charter’, which will see their workers receiving an immediate pay rise to the living wage; moving staff onto minimum hour contracts and off zero-hour contracts and paid transport home after 11pm.  Fair play to New Town Theatre too who, this summer, signed up to the ‘Hospitality Charter’ giving 135 staff £9 per hour, paid taxis home after 11.30pm and minimum hours contracts.

The Fringe Society estimate the value to Edinburgh of this event is £200 million. The citizens of Edinburgh should see their fair share of this value and the Council, venues, visitors, and businesses, all have key roles to play in ensuring the benefits to the economy can be shared by everyone. 

These are all issues on which my Edinburgh Poverty Commission colleagues have been reflecting during our work this year to design the steps needed to end poverty in Edinburgh.  The Festival Fringe is far from the only part of the Edinburgh economy in which the challenge of fair work and living wages needs to be taken up.  It is clear, however, that poverty in Edinburgh will not end without positive action to improve the pay, terms and conditions that the majority of Fringe workers experience every year.

Commissioner Craig Sanderson comments on the pressures of poverty

Commissioner Craig Sanderson recently wrote an opinion piece in the Evening News (14 October 2019) reflecting on his career and the opportunities that the Edinburgh Poverty Commission has to end poverty.

I have recently retired, having been CEO of the Link group of housing associations and social enterprises for 31 years. 

Last year, I was honoured to have been approached to join The Edinburgh Poverty Commission and I’m enjoying meeting and discussing issues with people working in frontline service who I didn’t get to meet often enough before.

We have a crisis in housing, health and social care throughout Scotland. If you add those issues to austerity measures which have seriously adversely affected both national and local government social services budgets, It can’t be any surprise that poverty (even in an apparently prosperous city like Edinburgh) is on the rise.

But you have to look under the surface to understand it. And this is what we’re doing at the Edinburgh Poverty Commission.

Welfare and wages ‘freezes’ and cuts and increased transport, food and fuel costs have all put pressure on household budgets, particularly those with the lowest levels of incomes and wealth.

But in my view, the most serious problem is the mushrooming price that has to be paid for sustaining a secure, safe, comfortable home, whether it is to rent or buy.

The pressures experienced on the housing market in Edinburgh have led to high housing costs and unmet need. The income inequality is large and growing and the tight housing market is expected to be under increasing pressure as the city grows at a faster pace than elsewhere in Scotland.

So how do we create a housing system which means that everyone can have a home they can afford to live in? Is this not a fundamental Human Right?

For a start, we must recognise that a house is somewhere to live, not a commodity to be traded for profit. The latter view has fuelled an obsession with home ownership which has only led to an explosion of house prices, shattering the ‘dream’ for many, especially the young.

Couple this with burgeoning demand for a home as a result of population growth and we have an impossible situation, again especially in the Capital.

The solution is to increase the supply of good quality homes for rent which someone in low-paid employment or on a limited fixed income can live in and bring up their kids and enjoy satisfactory levels of health and wellbeing.

This needs a significant social housing programme.

The Council has signed up, committing to build 20,000 homes during the next decade. This is one of the largest council-led housebuilding programmes in the UK and an investment of around £3billion is expected to deliver over 4,000 permanent jobs, as well as bringing wider economic benefits.

This will make a significant contribution to the Scottish Government target to deliver 35,000 new social-rented homes by 2021.

Social rent levels can only be achieved by substantial capital subsidy from the Scottish Government.

This has been called ‘a grant’ (ie a free gift). It is not. It is an investment.

Because these new homes will be owned by the Council or local, not-for-profit housing associations then they are assets which will contribute to the wealth of the whole nation, both now and in future.

And, more than anything else, they will be available for those who need them most at a price they can afford.

I’d encourage everyone to have their say on this important issue by getting involved in our latest call for evidence at the Edinburgh Poverty Commission website.