The budget, ah the Budget. Being the huge and confusing, media-charged behemoth it has become, I lack the patience or wisdom to poke my nose into more than a fraction of 'the Budget'. One of the key points for me was the raising of the National Minimal Wage to a 'living' wage of £7.20, rising to £9 by 2020. There are two issues with this: firstly it's only for over 25's which condemns struggling young people trying to make their way in the world to a potential life of hardship, until they are deemed worthy enough to earn the same as their slightly older counterparts. Secondly, when you factor in benefit and credit cuts, it's still crap. A higher wage, lower welfare state is all well and good in theory, but the simultaneous tax credits, cuts and additional freezes are predicted to leave lower income earners up to £1000 worse off a year, despite the raised minimum wage.
The Tories, with all their big pals in the City, argue that to demand any further increases would bankrupt businesses and stagnate growth. Admittedly there may be lean times for fresh start ups and small businesses. But if a marginal pay rise is consistently out of reach for the company, then perhaps there is an underlying flaw in the business model. It would be far more transparent if firms applied to the state to support their workers if it is needed, rather than paying low and expecting the government to make up the difference.
Pandora's box. Credit: HM Treasury via Flickr
For an example of the big businesses accused of chronically underpaying staff and relying on the state to top up wages to subsistence level, see Tesco. It seems that the retail giant is never out of the news for its poor sales performances. You could be forgiven for thinking that Tesco's growth had reversed or stalled at the very least, given the apocalyptic headlines. However, the reality is that Tesco ONLY made £3.3 billion in profit in 2013, and £1.4 billion last year! To put that in some perspective, its annual profits in 2013 equated to well over 10% of the entire UK Council tax receipts. With this in mind, Tesco's pleas of poverty with relation to staff pay become even less convincing.
Even then, many will argue that supporting those on lower wages simply isn't the role of the state. And I don't necessarily disagree, as long as workers are entitled to earn enough to live a lifestyle befitting of someone undertaking full-time employment in the world's sixth largest economy. With falling unemployment figures appearing to vindicate the Conservative's plans to get people back to work, it is important to remember that 2013 was the first year where there were more working people living in poverty, than those not working - a whopping 13 million. This should be seen as an embarrassment, and highlights that the assault on lower wage earners is only going one way.
People supporting these cuts and the subsequent slamming of those further down the payroll will often claim that that they work harder, are maybe more intelligent, and have generally striven harder to better themselves and their families than those currently supported by the state on low incomes. And all I say to them is: lucky you. Just as my current, relatively cushy existence is largely down to numerous factors outside my control, your success has very little to do with you. Whether it was your parents paying for your Saturday classes or that private education, that guy you met who knew someone that got you an internship, the interviewer who said you reminded her of her son and gave you a knowing smile as you strutted out of the office - success is arguably just a combination of lucky breaks and parental influence (see current Parliament for examples).
I've worked with people on minimum wage, predominantly eastern Europeans who were some of the hardest grafters I have ever come across, being paid pittance for jobs that most British people (myself included) couldn't hack for any great length of time. They had dreams, drive and some even had degrees. They were physiologically no different from someone earning £60,000, but were constrained by the country of their birth and other social constructs.
Nonetheless, this is the world we live in, and people do develop talents as they go through life, while certain things some find easier than others due to their upbringing and choices. So while I'm not calling for a universal wage average or something of that nature, don't begrudge those on lower incomes getting a bit of a helping hand - because it could just have easily been you. As Prince Charles has shown, people aren't born better - despite what we're told.
Also published on darrow.org.uk