07/11/2013 12:11 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Living Wage Week: Decent Pay Needs to Be a Given, and That Means a Compulsory Living Wage

There's been a lot of discussion recently about the "cost of living" problems being experienced by millions of Britain, and a rightful focus on the way on which our privatised services, from electricity, gas and water to the railways, have failed to deliver affordable, sustainable provision. (Green MP Caroline Lucas's private members' bill calling for the railways to be returned to public hands, and the Green push to get serious about energy conservation, particularly home insulation, are ways forward on those issues.)

There's also been some attention to the complete failure of our housing system to deliver homes affordable to rent, buy and run. The Green Party is calling for a mass building programme for council homes, and curbs on the excesses of private landlords and agents, plus a regional development policy that could return demand for many of the nearly one million homes now vacant, to tackle that.

What's been missing in the public debate, and deserves particularly focus in this, Living Wage Week, is the failures of distribution of the wealth of our society that has seen millions left without the means of basic survival; that half a million people are, today, in the sixth-richest country in the world, dependent on food banks, should be considered a driver for major, immediate, change.

One side of this is the government's slashing of essential benefits that have hit single parents and disabled people terribly hard. But this week is a good time to focus on the other side: our low pay economy that's also built around unstable, insecure employment - millions of jobs that it is impossible to build a life on. We have one in five workers being paid less than a living wage, one in 10 working fewer hours than they'd like, and somewhere between one and five million on zero-hours contracts.

That's not something that's gone unnoticed. The continuing downward trend of real wages, particularly for the lowest paid, which extends back well before the current economic crisis, has provoked a powerful effective, civil society campaign that's behind Living Wage Week. That wage has just been lifted to £7.65/hour, and £8.80 an hour in London.

In London, it was the initiative of Green Party London Assembly members that led to the formation of the London Living Wage Unit. There are now nearly 300 employers accredited or awaiting accreditation in the capital, and around 19,000 workers have benefited.

It's great to see that Brighton and Hove has just, during Living Wage Week, celebrated the sign-up of its 100th business to being a living wage employer - which means a commitment to ensuring not just staff, but also contractors' staff, are paid enough money to live on.

This voluntary campaign has come a long way. But its advance has been accompanied by a continuing slide in the value of the minimum wage - the reality for millions of workers. Asking employers nicely to pay it has clearly worked only with a tiny minority. Offering them tax breaks, as has been proposed by Ed Miliband, is offering a bribe for what should be happening anyway, and will only add further complexity to what should be a simple action. (And the potential for abuse when you look at what's happened with other elements of the tax system.)

It's time to say that a person who works full time should earn enough money to live on. In fact that's not really a radical statement. (It's not even a very new idea - Independent Labour Party leader James Maxton proposed a bill introducing a compulsory living wage in 1931) and good on the Labour members of the London Assembly who are pushing Miliband to adopt this long-time Green Party policy as Labour policy.

The previous Labour government chose not to tackle this issue, indeed after introducing the minimum wage soon allowed its value to slide, propping up living standards with state money, particularly in the form of family tax credits and housing benefits. That is corporate welfare - subsidies for already high corporate profits coming straight from public coffers that allow firms to pay poverty wages. (After all it mightn't be written in most job descriptions, but a basic requirement for workers is that they continue to live - eat, sleep in a bed, take showers etc.)

In a new living wage world, think of Sue's cafe, on a high street dominated, as most of them now are, with chain stores - clothes shops, supermarkets, phone shops - in which the vast majority of staff are on pennies more than the minimum wage. Raise that payment to the living wage (and get rid of the obscenity of zero-hours contracts), and those retail staff, when they've finished their shift, might be able to afford an after-work cake with their coffee before they head home, and the passing hard-pressed social care workers (now, in many cases, on significantly less than the official minimum wage) would if the law was enforced be able to afford just a nice 50p cup of tea that's now beyond their means.

That thought experiment is backed up by research by Landman Economics that suggests a living wage would boost employment. Not only would there be the impact that low paid workers would be able to afford essentials and little luxuries they are now skipping, but employers would enjoy productivity gains (just how efficient is an exhausted staff member working three jobs to make ends meet?) and reduced staff turnover costs - both effects seen by current living wage employers.

We've got huge problems in our society with the giant multinational companies that are increasingly dominating our economy being terrible citizens, whether it is relying on developing world sweatshops and dubious supply chains for their products (horse meat anyone?), blocking city streets with giant HGVs for endless just-in-time deliveries or destroying small suppliers with delayed payments.

We can start to turn this around by insisting that they pay their staff enough money to live on. Then we can start to work on them paying their taxes...