How Low Can We Go?

First, the good news. A recent government report shows that unemployment in Scotland is it an all-time low. However, another recent survey shows that 240,000 Scottish children are currently living in poverty and over two thirds of these children have parents in work. Employment used to mean security and prosperity, but now people that have jobs may be the same people that live in poverty. Whilst government celebrates low unemployment, it is low wages that may be the more accurate measurement of social well-being. Low wages mean low living standards, they also mean low expectations and low self-esteem. What’s gone wrong, has work stopped working?

The 73% rise in the use of foodbanks in the UK over the past five years is a sign that the economy is not working for everyone. When I recently visited the Trussell foodbank in the Southside of Glasgow, I met people balancing work with childcare who visit the foodbank to pick up three-day emergency food packages. Audrey Flannagan, Project Manager at Trussell, told me why so many people still rely on emergency feeding from foodbanks: “People don’t have enough money and that’s the simple thing. Minimum wage even on a forty hour week is not enough to live on.” This isn’t a problem experienced by just a handful of people, what used to be an exception is now the new normal. Audrey told me: “In the year 2012/13 we fed 700 people, last year we fed just over 11,000 people, and the overall figure for Trussell Glasgow was over 38,000.”

It’s clear that The Minimum Wage is not a solution and one positive response to in-work poverty has been the introduction of the voluntary Real Living Wage of nine pounds per hour, but Audrey is passionately direct about what is needed to help the people she works with: “The reality is that the only thing that will make things change is full job security, with people earning a decent wage and housing security. It certainly doesn’t look like that’s going to happen any time soon.”

This year Glasgow celebrates its tenth anniversary of the introduction of the Glasgow Living Wage. I met with Liz Maguire, Senior Development Officer at Glasgow City Council, who agreed that although it’s a step in the right direction, it is not the answer to ending poverty. Liz said: “I’m not sure that The Living Wage in itself is the solution. The real thing that would reduce poverty is to increase the National Minimum Wage.”

For the younger generation, the outlook seems to be particularly bleak. Young people under eighteen are in a category of their own when it comes to minimum wage, and it means they’re one of the most vulnerable groups in society.   

Year25 and over21-2418-21Under 18 Apprentice

As a society we claim to reward hard work but instead of encouraging those who prefer to start working at a young age we punish them with low wages. One young person I interviewed said: “Sometimes I think the older people put in less effort than the younger ones and they still get paid more. Also it’s the exact same job, why should we get less?”

Perhaps the explosion of mental health problems experienced by young people is not just a matter of too much time spent in front of screens and on social media? It may not be a coincidence that the rise in young people’s ‘low mood’, low self-esteem and associated harmful behaviour occurs at a time of low unemployment and low wages.

Eric, now in his mid-twenties, shared his early experiences of employment with me: “I remember a lot of times I used to serve someone and get a really bad experience and I would go in to the dish-room and I would just cry by myself because I was just so stressed I didn’t know what I was doing and it was very difficult to deal with.” This was Eric’s take on his first few bar jobs he had in Glasgow. We went on to discuss the main issues he had, and what seemed to be the recurring theme was the lack of support or care that was provided by the managers. Eric said: “Being young and maybe not being educated at university level I feel like companies and institutions exploit you and they try to take the most of you and then just spit you out.”

The Trade Union Congress reported that in 2018, 900,000 people were on zero-hour contracts across the UK. Although the flexibility may suit some, the TUC’s figures show that 66% of people on zero-hour contracts would prefer an alternative work agreement. These flexible work contracts solely serve the employer, it is an unbalanced play of power in which workers are exploited and often miss out on key rights, such as, unfair dismissal and holiday pay. Zero hour work makes for an unstable and poor quality of life. Eric discussed the impact unstable work had on his overall well-being: “For about 3 months and they kept telling me ‘we’ll get you shifts’ but nothing was happening and that was probably the worst parts of my life because I couldn’t really afford to eat and I couldn’t call my parents so I would just stay home and I couldn’t do anything.”

For many people, feeling like a valued member of the company, and as part of a bigger ‘family’ which appreciates your time spent working is a thing of the past. Several businesses now want flexible workers that they can pick up and drop whenever they see fit.  Little wonder that research suggests that buying a home is now seen by young people as a fantasy rather than a feasible goal to be worked for. Young adults are now struggling to lay the groundwork for a happy and secure future, how can they plan ahead when employers won’t provide the basic structure for that future, such as a decent wage and stable employment?

More young Scots are choosing to rent, or to extend the period spent with parents at home. Eleanor Harvey of Buy Association makes the point that: “The overriding reason that those aged 21 to 35 gave for still living at home, or with family, is that they can’t afford to buy their own property, or even move out into rented accommodation, with 41% citing this reason.”

So what happens to the many young people on minimum wages who can’t afford to rent and whose parents either cannot or will not support them? Could this be contributing to the rise in youth homelessness and sofa surfing?

Laura Batchelor, Youth Development Officer at Night Stop Glasgow, said: “It’s estimated that 83000 of young people across the UK experience homelessness every year, of which 42% are in education, work or training.” Laura works with 18-24 year-olds living in temporary accommodation and helps to lay the groundwork for getting young people to get back on their feet. Laura explained that, “It’s a very tricky situation for young people, they’re locked into a place where they can’t really work their way out of.”

Simon Community Scotland in Glasgow

Laura describes the trap that’s set for people to fall into: “It takes your breath away how sometimes the system almost seems designed to keep them in the position that they’re in.” Through the introduction of universal credit and other means tested benefits, it can mean that whilst young people remain out of work they get their expensive temporary accommodation paid for by the state, but when they find work they become obliged to paying rent which Laura describes as “nigh on impossible” on their wage. In effect young people are offered the option of remaining on benefits and having a roof over their heads, or going out to work and risking becoming homeless.

Simon Community Glasgow Helpline

What is being done to help young people who are working and poor?

Some politicians have taken up the cause of young people, for example, at a recent Labour Party conference, Jeremy Corbyn discussed his aim to abolish a lower minimum wage for under eighteen-year-olds. Corbyn made the reasonable point that if you’re eighteen, “You don’t get a discount when you go to the shops” and suggested that if a Labour Government were put in power, under eighteen-year-olds would be paid ten pounds per hour by 2020. Not all politicians share the belief that young people are entitled to fair pay and Jeremy Corbyn is currently some distance from power.  Conservative MP, Nigel Adams, took to twitter to make light of the idea that young people should be paid enough to live on, “Why not throw in a free iPad and free Spotify subscription?” Although a view not endorsed by his party’s leadership, Adams’ tweet does capture a more generally negative appraisal of young people as indulged and entitled. All caricatures have some basis in truth but the danger here is that ‘jokey’ negative views of millennials disguise the economic reality of low waged employment tipping it to exploitation and the despair that comes with it.

Some organisations, however, are not waiting for parliamentary legislation and are taking matters in to their own hands. Cosgrove Care is a non-profit organisation that supports the persons and families of those with additional support needs. Heather Gray, the Chief Executive of Cosgrove described the company itself as: “A relatively poor organisation.” However, despite Cosgrove being a charity that struggles to generate money, when I asked Heather why they are a living wage employer she replied: “we decided it was the only right thing to do.”

This hasn’t been without its struggles as it’s a huge financial strain on the business. As well as cut backs they’ve had to start charging more for their services, however Heather made the point that: “We’ve got the lowest paid workers in Scotland delivering these complex difficult services, it’s only right that we pay them the living wage. Care generally isn’t looked upon as a particularly high end career so Scottish living wage has helped with how care is perceived that at least you will be paid the Scottish living wage and we are recognising the value in that so its helped the reputation of the care sector.”

Listening to Heather, it is refreshing to hear someone talking seriously about the importance of doing the right thing. Through justly supporting their workforce Cosgrove are valuing everyone involved in their business- workers and customers alike- and creating something that attracts loyalty and admiration, which is what every business should endeavour to do. If we can move into an era where this attitude is the norm, not the exception, perhaps then, work can work for everyone.

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