When the Lewes for a Living Wage group planned their round table discussion ‘What is work worth?’ for March 16th, they did not realise that it would fall on the same day as the Government’s Budget. The outrage caused by the attempt to deprive disabled people of benefits to provide tax cuts for the better off was already hitting the headlines when we met that evening at the Elephant and Castle.

   Despite appearances, there is poverty in Lewes; many people attending the food banks are in work and cases of scurvy and rickets have been reported.

It is important to distinguish between the national living wage announced by the government, which is £7.20 per hour from April 1st, for over 25s, and the Living Wage calculated for the Living Wage Foundation, which is £8.25 outside London and applies to all employees over 18. This is based on a more realistic estimation of what people have to earn to sustain life for themselves and their families in a civilised society.

For some employers, for whom wages are their largest outlay, this is not a simple issue. So we decided to invite employers large and small to join us to discuss the benefits and problems of paying the real Living Wage. Our 20 or so invitees all contributed to a very positive and wide-ranging discussion, expertly chaired by Sir Richard Jolly.

Emma Kosmin from the Living Wage Foundation said 2,300 organisations are signed up to the Living Wage nationally including 30 of the top 100 FTSE companies. The Living Wage campaign was launched in 2001 by members of the parent organisation, Citizens UK, who were working on the minimum wage as cleaners around Canary Wharf. 23% of jobs nationally are below the Living Wage.
 
Employers locally can also sign up with the Brighton and Hove Living Wage scheme, which is a shorter process – several have started with this scheme and gone on to be accredited with the Living Wage Foundation. Many employers in Lewes already pay the Living Wage although have not yet signed up.

It is difficult for many businesses, especially in the hospitality sector, to pay their owners or managers the Living Wage, let alone pay it to all the employees. These businesses are often supportive of the Living Wage and do their best to provide a good working environment and valuable training in order to reward their employees as much as possible.

Sussex Community NHS Trust, which covers most of Sussex including the Lewes area became accredited to the Living Wage Foundation in 2013 and employs 4,800 staff. Cleaners are included in their staff list, not contracted out. The trust’s decision to become a Living Wage employer was welcomed by its workforce. A local residential home for adults with severe disabilities pays the Living Wage – this is consistent with their caring ethos: the home is like a family. This is more possible because it is a charity, with no paid, profit-taking directors.
 
There may be signs of a change in mindset among employers: an employee of a local larger business, part of a chain, said that they were now paid a small percentage over the minimum wage and this has shown in less staff turnover, better morale and working atmosphere: ‘exploitation does not work’.

We were glad to have the attendance and support of David Clark, the President of Lewes Chamber of Commerce, who said he thought some more businesses would sign up to the Living Wage, and offered to help publicise it via their newsletter. His own jewellery business is now seeking accreditation with the Living Wage Foundation.

For more information about schemes to join and to contact the local group Lewes for a Living Wage, visit www.leweslivingwage.blogspot.co.uk

Linda Lamont and Ann Link