We all remember the fanfare when the government brought in their new ‘national living wage’ last year. George Osborne grinning, Iain Duncan Smith punching the air. It wasn’t really a living wage of course, just a small boost to the minimum wage if you are over 25, but it was still a rare positive move from a Tory government that had relentlessly hammered the low paid. Of course we in Labour we suspicious of Tory motives but still we cautiously welcomed this change of direction.
Now Osborne and Duncan Smith have left the scene after the Brexit vote and we have a new set of ministers in charge. But before they start planning new schemes and policies of their own, they should focus on making sure those they have already implemented are working as intended. In the case of the living wage this is clearly not happening. Just this week we have seen cleaners at the HMRC offices here in Merseyside going on strike because they are still not being paid the new minimum, months after it came into law.
This is a major embarrassment for the government, after all HMRC is the government department in charge of looking at wages and taxation. But more than this, it is a worrying sign that some unscrupulous employers are running rings around the authorities. In this case the cleaners were simply expected to do the same work in fewer hours, but there worrying stories from across the country of workers having their free lunches cut or being expected to work extra time unpaid so companies can get around the new minimum wage.
The most famous case is Sports Direct, now a by-word for bad employment practices, where staff were forced wait behind after work to get searched by security, time they were not paid for. But the problem goes so much wider than Sports Direct. Even chains like Marks and Spencer have been found to be cutting premium pay on Sundays, bank holidays and other unsocial hours. Clearly some employers are behaving outrageously, yet from the government there is silence and inaction. They brought in the policy and were happy to claim credit, but they are completely uninterested in making sure it is actually implemented.
This is a test for the new prime minister and her team. On the steps of Downing Street she talked of building a fairer country and cracking down on businesses that exploit their workers. Now that her own government departments have been caught treating loyal staff in this way there is no longer an excuse. The government has got to get tough with unscrupulous employers and make sure every firm abides by the letter and the spirit of the law. If you have seen your hours or other benefits cut as a result of the introduction of the new living wage then please get in contact with your local MP. It’s time to call this out and make sure that workers are treated with the dignity and respect we all deserve.