In 2021, the fight for Britain’s low paid is needed now more than ever

Paula Barker
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

After all they have done for us during this crisis, it is a disgrace that three in four care workers don’t even earn the living wage. But it is even more scandalous that many of our care worker heroes are being paid less than the minimum wage for the hours that they work.

That is why in parliament today I was due to introduce my private member’s bill, the ‘National Minimum Wage Act 2020’. Its purpose is simple – to end this scandal once and for all, stop the exploitation of homecare workers by private companies and right the wrong of over one in five of our lowest-paid workers being denied their legal wage.

The leader of the House of Commons, Jacob-Rees Mogg, decided to deny MPs’ proxy voting for private member’s bills and then scrap them altogether for this session – but no amount of parliamentary chicanery will silence us. Far from it.

The national minimum wage was undoubtedly one of the last Labour government’s crowning achievements. It followed a long and concerted campaign by the wider labour movement to eradicate the worst excesses of grotesquely low pay in an era of deindustrialisation and declining collective bargaining. 21 years on, it is now a fundamental tenet of our economy.

This pandemic has shone a spotlight on work previously deemed unskilled, pushing to the front and centre of the national conversation the kind of work – and workers – that keep the cogs of the British economy turning.

Let us not underestimate the scale of the problem: last year the Low Pay Commission estimated 422,000 of the two million lowest paid were not receiving their full entitlement under the law. Predictably, women are even more likely to be underpaid than men.

No worker should be exploited in this way, and the government must prevent unscrupulous employers from exploiting vulnerable and low paid workers. That is what my bill would do, and why they must find time for this bill to be debated, voted on and passed into law.

Over the last decade, the perfect storm of Tory cuts and the need to deliver more with less has inevitably led to the marketisation of public services with little accountability for the bosses of private companies who, even when receiving public money, maintain their profit margin by underpaying staff.

In the care sector, this is often in the form of employees not being paid for travel time between individual home care visits – resulting in their pay packets representing far less than the minimum wage rate for the hours they work every day.

It is sadly all too easy for employers to shirk their obligations under the law, leaving our homecare workers particularly vulnerable to non-compliance. Where homecare staff and unions have the courage to raise concerns, protracted court proceedings between employee and employer have ensued, and I pay tribute to the Haringey care workers for their legal victory after so many years of struggle.

The spectacle of Tory ministers clapping for key workers on their doorsteps on a Thursday evening to clap for key workers, including on Downing Street itself, has returned. But clapping has not and nor will it ever pay the bills.

My bill is just one part of the wider change that is needed to end low pay, insecurity and exploitation in our economy. Our movement’s aspirations must be much more ambitious if we are to be considered a government-in-waiting. A real living wage, the restoration of sectoral collective bargaining, as well as the professionalisation and insourcing of the care sector should be some of those aspirations.

As a backbench opposition MP, opportunities to propose legislation are few and far between. If I can use those opportunities during my time in parliament to champion the cause of our lowest-paid, undervalued and exploited workers, that will be a job well done. Hopefully, our care workers won’t have to wait too much longer for this bill to become law.

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