As the battle to stem the coronavirus epidemic rages on, Britons have woken up to the realisation that it is often the lowest-paid among us whose jobs are most vital in a time of crisis.
Minimum wage workers across industries, from shop workers, to delivery drivers, to cleaners, carers, porters and many more are the key workers who are keeping the country going under an emergency lockdown that could last weeks or even months.
But for all their hard work that is now very literally saving others’ lives, they earn barely enough to decently live their own.
On Wednesday (April 1), the government’s minimum wage – re-branded as the National Living Wage in 2015 – increased to £8.72 an hour, up from £8.21. This rate only applies to workers over the age of 25, and is still far below a real Living Wage, calculated each year by the Living Wage Foundation.
The LWF estimates that a real Living Wage, which reflects the actual cost of living and is the minimum needed to cover basic expenses such as rent, food and bills, should be £10.75 an hour London and £9.31 in the rest of the UK.
While thousands of employers have over the years signed up to be accredited Living Wage employers, far too many pay the bare legal minimum, despite in many cases reporting substantial profits.
As a huge proportion of the UK’s 4m minimum wage workers are forced to keep working amid the crisis, they’re risking their lives in work environments that are now doubly dangerous and stressful.
The BBC this week paid homage to the UK’s minimum wage heroes on its Panorama programme on Monday (March 30) night.
Four million people in the UK earn around the minimum wage and many have been asked to keep working during the #coronavirus crisis.
We’re relying on them for food, to care for the most vulnerable and to protect the #NHS.
— Panorama ? (@BBCPanorama) March 30, 2020
The programme featured a series of minimum wage workers, including a hospital cleaner, a delivery driver, a supermarket shelf-stacker and a medical courier, among others.
“It’s been really busy, really tiring,” Marco, the food delivery driver said. “Where we usually load five or six lorries a week, it’s been 15, 20 so far.”
Pat, who works at a supermarket, told of the risks she’s taking to keep the nation fed.
“I do worry about being exposed because I’ve got elderly family and I’ve got young children that have got their health problems,” she said. “And I do get concerned about being in amongst the crowds.”
Alex, a medical courier who carries blood samples to and from hospitals, highlights the fact that he has to keep working – if he doesn’t, he’ll only be entitled to statutory sick pay, which isn’t enough to live on.
“Who could live off £94.25 in a week?” he said. “The reason I’m out on the street is because I can’t afford to miss work to self-isolate.”
The Low Pay Commission, which advises the government on setting the minimum wage floor, came in for harsh criticism after it said on Tuesday (March 31) there may need to be ‘an emergency brake’ on hiking the minimum wage in the aftermath of the epidemic.
“The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic clearly represents a very challenging set of circumstances for workers and employers alike, and will require us to review whether the emergency brake is required when we next provide our advice to the government,” the Commission’s chair Bryan Henderson said.
But as many highlighted, if anything the epidemic and the heroes battling it have shown the need for more and faster wage hikes, not less.
Commenting, Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell said, “It is appalling that anyone is advocating depriving the poorest in our society of this minor improvement in their wages. Have these economic bullies learnt nothing?”
Even the Financial Times, a newspaper that champions big business interests, today (April 1) highlighted the need to end low pay and insecure work.
“In the short-term, having splashed a lot of cash on the unemployed, the chancellor should pay a ‘national gratitude bonus’ to every key worker who is risking his or her own health to keep the rest of us comfortable at home,” wrote Financial Times columnist Sarah O’Connor.
“Once the economy has recovered, these jobs need to be made better. Insecure contracts and loopholes should be replaced with permanent jobs, better wages and more training and accreditation.”
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey welcomed today’s minimum wage rise but added that our nation’s minimum wage heroes deserve much more.
“Of course we back any measures to get more money into workers’ pockets but this rate is still not a real living wage,” he said. “The country is fast realising the true worth of our low waged workers while they clean, care and deliver for the nation during the crisis. These workers surely deserve a wage that reflects their huge contribution to our country, one that lifts them off the breadline and truly is an income that can be lived on decently.”