Tackling In-work Poverty in a Post-COVID-19 Landscape by Calum Carson

Calum Carson

by Calum Carson (www.instagram.com/carsoncalum/)

In 2001, a small community organisation in the East End of London called Citizens UK launched the “London Living Wage campaign”. With low-paid workers (predominantly women, and predominantly women of colour) fed up with having to work two or more jobs and sacrificing time with their families to barely keep up with the cost of living, the message was simple: the gap between legal minimum wage rates and what people needed to get by in London at the time was too far apart, and employers had a moral duty to ensure that their workers were not suffering from in-work poverty.

Today, almost twenty years later, the UK Living Wage movement continues to thrive, with over 6,000 individual employers now officially accredited as “Living Wage Employers,” committed to voluntarily paying a higher rate of pay to their employees that better reflects the cost of living than national minimum wage scales suggest is needed. And to their credit, many employers within Britain have accepted the rationale of these arguments, and voluntarily agreed to pay the Living Wage to their workers (and to be publicly held accountable by the campaign if they renege on this commitment). The number of organisations coming on board have been boosted in recent years by the increasing wealth of evidence that paying the Living Wage also has clear strategic benefits for employers itself, in areas from an enhanced public reputation, lower sickness and absence rates, to attracting higher quality candidates at the interview stage by individuals motivated by an employer’s high ethical standards. At the time of writing there are 6,486 accredited Living Wage Employers operating within the UK, in industries as diverse as construction and engineering to higher education and trade unions.

Nevertheless, the continued existence of the Living Wage campaign is evidence that the structural weaknesses of the British economy and the failures of public policy that have resulted in the continued growth of in-work poverty persist. While the UK Living Wage movement has achieved a tremendous amount of success since its creation, it cannot hope to eliminate in-work poverty on its own, nor hope to convince every single employer to pay the Living Wage. And it may be the case that right now, in a post-pandemic world in which the status quo of so many aspects of the labour market are changing and rapidly evolving, positive and permanent transformations in tackling in-work poverty within Britain have the best chance of succeeding in some time.

Recognition and Reward for Key Workers

Since the emergence of COVID-19, one notable change has been the outpouring of public support for “key workers”. This includes supermarket workers, putting themselves at risk of infection on a daily basis as they ensure that food supplies remain available and consistent; delivery drivers, ensuring that those in self-isolation can acquire the necessary resources while in quarantine; cleaners, whose jobs have almost overnight taken on a significant increase of indispensability; and (perhaps most notably) care home workers, many of whom have sacrificed seeing their loved ones for weeks and even months to protect the vulnerable and at-risk individuals during this pandemic.

This civic increase in recognition of the vital role that such key workers play is exemplified most strikingly by the “Clap for Carers” movement, in which the British public were encouraged to clap in appreciation each Thursday evening for (among others) “healthcare workers, delivery drivers, porters, cleaners, and all those who are out there making an unbelievable difference to our lives in these challenging times.” And for the July issue of Vogue, it was not supermodels or celebrities which graced the cover, but an NHS midwife, a supermarket worker, and a train driver, chosen for (in the editor’s own words) the fact that they and millions of other key workers “at the height of the pandemic, in the face of dangers large and small, put on their uniforms and work clothes and went to help people.”

This public support has been accompanied by a growing awareness that many of these key workers are typically paid below Living Wage rates of pay, and that they have long been inadequately rewarded in both public recognition and their salaries for the essential jobs that they do. It is particularly striking that so many of the industries that have been the most important in keeping things going in the past few months are the very same ones with high proportions of low-paid workers employed on insecure and precarious contracts, including retail, hospitality, cleaning, construction, and care work. This has led to a wide-ranging debate about what constitutes a proper financial reward for key workers, and how existing norms across the UK labour market may be transformed to reflect this shift in public attitudes.

Employer Responses to Pay during the Lockdown

The government response to this new climate of recognition and appreciation has thus far not gone beyond paying lip service to the vital role that key workers are playing. On an individual employer level, however, a variety of responses have been seen. Some employers have responded by introducing special pay rewards for front-line staff involved in working through a global pandemic, although as the lockdown is gradually eased many organisations are now winding such schemes down again. Other organisations have become accredited Living Wage Employers as a direct response to the current crisis, while some have claimed the uncertainty of current economic conditions as their reasoning to renege on previous commitments to do so. The Living Wage movement themselves have also entered the debate about the future of low pay in Britain, launching a comprehensive campaign around securing higher salaries for key workers by arguing that “they are the foundations of our economy and society” Additional efforts by already-accredited employers to reward their workers are also being highlighted, helping to demonstrate to other organisations that there is more they can do for their workers beyond simply paying the Living Wage itself.

An Uncertain Future

Of course, any optimism that a post-coronavirus Britain will be transformed into one in which low pay and in-work poverty are a thing of the past must also be tempered by the unprecedented economic conditions the UK and the rest of the world are now facing. And while it may be that the current public demand for greater financial reward for key workers represents the best chance in some time to tackle these issues, there is an equally high likelihood that substantial change at a structural level simply cannot be achieved when both the short and long-term challenges faced by the country and individual employers are so enormous. It is notable that the actor with the most power to fundamentally alter the low pay landscape, the British government, has been silent on promising any rises in national minimum wage rates closer to or even equal with the Living Wage rates campaigned for: whether this will change in time remains to be seen.

Much will rely on the Living Wage campaign ensuring that the new-found recognition and support for low-paid workers remains at the forefront of public debate, and that both the moral obligations and business benefits of becoming a Living Wage Employer are communicated to other organisations effectively. They already have one ally in translating these good intentions into solid change, however: the founder of the “Clap for Carers” movement herself, Annemarie Plas, has argued that it is time for the clapping to end and more “substantive measures” to be introduced to ensure that more workers across Britain are able to better afford a decent standard of living in a post-pandemic world.


Calum Carson is a final year doctoral researcher at Leeds University Business School. His primary interests are the impact of the Living Wage on the UK labour market, the evolution of in-work poverty in Britain, and the emergence of new inequalities within a changing employment landscape at national and transnational scales. He is on twitter @calum_carson.

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