Living on less than the Living Wage Gordon Cotterill
The young girl stood before a packed Westminster Central Hall. She spoke, we listened, she sobbed and we reacted. The power of genuine testimony is that it never leaves you. Facts and figures disappear, policies and ideas are replaced, but real life encounters expressed authentically tend to stick in the mind and galvanise.
May 2010, days before the General Election, a small timid voice highlighted an uncomfortable truth to a London Citizen gathering. While many there will forget the sound bites from Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron, each desperate for votes, none will forget the tears and desperation of a young girl speaking of the reality of family living in London on the minimum wage. The girl’s mother was a cleaner who couldn't afford to travel to the offices she cleans without catching three buses. She needed to leave in the early hours of the morning, getting back late having completed another cleaning job in an effort to live. The young girl painted a picture of poverty, of family corrosion; a result of outsourced profit margins and the reality of living. She presented a family fragmented by the desperate need to capture every penny, to work every minute - the reality of living on minimum wage. This was a girl too old for her age. Supporting her mother, her job was to feed the family – usually on lentils. Her story became too much for her and disappeared into deep uncontrollable sobs. The audience, there to see the political leaders, clapped in comforting support. I won’t forget it!
Something is happening. The minimum wage, while protecting from unscrupulous exploitation, seemingly no longer protects from poverty. The minimum wage has become a poverty wage. People who want to work and to pay their way are being kept in poverty, as they are paid the least that is possible.
In 2001, the Living Wage campaign was born out of the frustration of those wanting to work but finding that two minimum wage jobs were fragmenting family life. Embraced by community organisers London Citizens, 45,000 families have been offered hope and dignity as a direct result of the Living Wage. It’s a wage that allows for more than basic
requirements, in that it provides for necessary choices and opportunities that facilitate full participation in society. Theologian Miroslav Volf calls us to exist â€˜against the tideâ€™; to embrace love as action, as a way of being that seeks the flourishing of others. This is a challenge to us as a Salvation Army church. We are setting up an independent coffee house and profit margins are tight, so paying just enough could have been appealing. Applauding an overwrought 12-year-old from a comfortable seat is inadequate: Being part of a solution when the opportunity arose to pay a living wage seems better. Being part of a solution that allows for hope and dignity does not seem to be too much to ask for.
I can't remember the name of that young girl, I can remember the impact she had.