Friday's news - that Lidl is to pay every member of its staff the Living Wage and more - is a massive shift in Britain's retail sector.
To be clear, we're talking about the Living Wage started by Citizens UK in 2001. Its level is set according to the cost of living, not set by politicians. It is voluntarily adopted by those who want to better than the legal minimum. It is significantly higher than the new statutory minimum which this summer's Budget has introduced for over-25 year olds. It is the fruit of the kind of active citizenship and corporate social responsibility which the Prime Minister has always been keen to praise.
Lidl UK has committed to pay its staff £8.20 per hour outside London and £9.35 within London. These are impressive rates, going markedly above the Chancellor's new rate of £7.20 per hour and even going further than the current Living Wage rates of £9.15 in London and £7.85 across the country. Crucially they will also up their rates of pay to the new Living Wage rates which will be announced on 2nd November at the start of Living Wage Week.
All parties have welcomed the Chancellor's increase in the minimum wage - but there is significant and legitimate concern that its impact for many people will be cancelled out by the cuts in tax credits. Just as this debate is heating up in Parliament, one of our most cost-conscious retailers has shown the way forward. We are seeing more and more companies sign up to pay our higher, voluntary Living Wage. It is the one measure that will both help the poorest families and cut the welfare bill.
It is striking that the first High Street supermarket to pay the Living Wage is known for its low prices. If Lidl can do this, no other big firms on the High Street have an excuse. Lidl shows you can compete on cost and keep quality high without making your workforce pay the price. Ikea, likewise famous for value and for quality, also announced its commitment to the Living Wage in July.
Today's good news shows we shouldn't leave it all to the State. It is the power of organised citizens - churches and mosques, schools and unions - which have won this victory. When Citizens UK began to campaign for the Living Wage in the retail sector we were told it wasn't possible. We were told that no supermarket could implement the Living Wage; that this was only possible in sectors like finance and professional services where low paid staff constitute a low proportion of the workforce., We carried on fighting. The retail sector has one of the highest proportions of low paid workers, and the communities in which they live and worship wanted to stand with them. We stood in a silent vigil during Tesco's corporate AGM whilst shareholder after shareholder asked when the company was going to commit to the Living Wage. Our partner ShareAction staged stitch-ins outside M&S branches and presented its board with Living Wage handkerchiefs, bearing the message that poverty pay needs to become a thing of the past. We publicized the cost to the welfare bill of these wage levels; the amount of money the government is paying supermarket workers to cover the basic costs of living like food, shelter and fuel. And we sat in front of decision-makers in private meetings, hearing how they care about their people but simply can't put their money where their mouth is.
Lidl has proven its competitors wrong. It has become a champion for the Living Wage movement and a huge victory for all who have fought long and hard for fair pay.