One in five people working in the UK do not earn enough to live on – that’s about 5m people earning below the Living Wage, a rate calculated by an independent foundation to reflect the real cost of living.
It’s a voluntary wage that many employers have signed up to and is separate from the government’s minimum wage, which doesn’t take into account living costs and is now set at just £7.83 for people aged 25 and over.
We know the minimum wage, especially in high-cost areas like London, is not nearly enough to get by on but what is the lived reality of the many millions on such a low wage?
A new Living Wage Foundation report published today (April 20) attempted to find out, as it surveyed just over 1,000 parents working full-time on less the real Living Wage, which the Foundation calculates to be £8.75 an hour outside London and £10.20 in the capital.
More than a third reported that they regularly skip meals for financial reasons, and about 40 per cent said they had fallen behind on household bills, while one in three are behind on rent or mortgage payments.
Borrowing is unsurprisingly high among parents working in low-wage jobs, with more than half reporting having borrowed from family or friends and about one in five saying they’d taken out a pay day loan to cover basic expenses.
Feeling like you’re always behind is just one of the many frustrating realities of life on the living wage. But what many might not realise is the heavy toll it takes on relationships, and on physical and mental health.
In fact, a separate Manchester University study found that those in low-paying work do not enjoy any better health than do those who are unemployed.
In the Living Wage Foundation report, the vast majority – 71 per cent – of parents on a low-wage said they worried so much about money that it affected their daily lives. Nearly half said the stress they endured had an impact on their work, while 35 per cent said they felt lonely always or quite often.
Helen, who is employed as a cleaner at a gym at rate of £8.05 an hour says “it can be real struggle some weeks because I have to be in work at dawn to start at 6am every day so I always miss taking my children to school.”
Other parents reported missing out on time with their children because they had to work long and hard hours to make ends meet – and one in four said they felt it affected their relationship with their children. A third said they felt the quality of the relationship with their partner was negatively affected by low pay.
One thing, however, was certain in the survey – the vast majority felt that being paid the real Living Wage would make a substantial difference in their lives.
More than eighty per cent reported that a Living Wage would improve their overall happiness and their relationships with their families, while 78 per cent believe their mental health would improve and 71 per cent believe their physical health would improve.
Lynne, a cleaner at Aviva Norwich, which has become an accredited Living Wage employer, knows first-hand the difference decent pay makes.
When she was on low pay, she struggled to make ends meet caring for her granddaughter Aaliyah.
“Financially it was very difficult so you lived from hand to mouth,” she told the Living Wage Foundation. “It made a difference where when Aaliyah would say ‘Can I go to McDonalds nanny?’ I would then turn around and say ‘Well no, we can’t.’”
In 2014, Lynne says the Living Wage was introduced and she was finally able to give up another part-time job so that she could spend more time with her family. She was also able to buy her granddaughter a laptop to help her prepare for her GCSEs. More than anything, Lynne said, being paid a Living Wage made a big difference to her self-esteem.
“It gives you more confidence,” she said. “You can hold your head up high. It makes me feel quite emotional to think about it and it’s made me want to stay there. I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.”
Living Wage Foundation director Tess Lanning said the findings in today’s report “reveal the desperate choices low paid families have to make, and show why it’s so important that more employers take a stand by paying the real Living Wage, based on what they need to live, not just the government minimum.”
Minimum wage now call
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner agreed but argued a Living Wage should be made obligatory.
“It should be considered a source of national shame that parents working full-time – often taking on second jobs too – must skip meals to provide for their children,” he said.
“The government’s minimum wage is lagging far too behind a real Living Wage and it needs to catch up quick – we at Unite support Labour’s call for a £10 an hour statutory minimum wage now.
“Workers have suffered the longest squeeze in living standards in recorded history in recent years, thanks to the actions of this government and its predecessor,” Turner added.
“An increase in the minimum wage to £10 would benefit those on the lowest wages and is one of a number of measures that need to be enacted to prevent the economy and peoples’ living standards from plummeting. These include ending the freeze on working age benefits and the real cuts to public sector pay.”
“Most importantly of all, we need public investment to create jobs and stimulate the economy and an end to the Tories’ counter-productive reign of austerity.”