4.1.4 Issues in working life

Back to 4.1.3

Unit 4 Contents


What issues are central to whether people’s experience of working life is good and satisfying or frustrating and demoralizing?

Here are some:

    • The level of pay
    • Whether working conditions are safe
    • Long hours
    • Whether one day off per week is guaranteed (if not two)
    • Unemployment – when people who want to get work can’t
    • Whether workers can exercise their abilities and develop their skills
    • Access to work for disabled or ill people
    • Whether bosses relate to employees as people or as instruments
    • Bullying
    • Whether workers can join together with others to ensure that difficult issues are addressed



Are there difficult issues that you and your friends and family have had to face at work?  Are they in that list?

Were they able to be addressed adequately?  Or did they seem too big or hard to tackle?  If the latter, why?


When wages are low, this is often the biggest issue.  This is even though low pay is commonly accompanied by other difficult issues, such as job insecurity.  Ever since publication of the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, CST has insisted on one main point about wage levels.  This is that pay for a full-time job should be enough to enable a worker to look after a family.  Rerum Novarum referred to such a level of pay as a ‘just wage’.

Note the significance of this: one person’s full-time wage should be enough not just for himself or herself alone.  It must be enough also for their dependents, which means at least for a spouse and for children they have (or might have in future – workers need to be able to prepare to care for a family).  Note that this doesn’t mean that some family income should not come partly from state benefits, like Child Benefit in Britain – but this is a separate issue.

The idea of a ‘just wage’, understood in this way, is controversial.  This is partly because, when Pope Leo XIII first insisted on it, the clear assumption was that he was speaking mainly about a man’s wage.  However, it doesn’t need to mean this and it can apply equally to a woman’s wage.

The term ‘family wage’ has often been used in the past to refer to such a wage level.  This term has been replaced within the last couple of decades by a different one, ‘living wage’ – and in Britain, especially in London, Catholics have been prominent in a body called Citizens UK which runs the Living Wage Campaign.  Citizens UK is a coalition of many local churches and mosques, other faith groups and community bodies – we shall give more attention to what kind of organization it is later in this unit.

To ground this unit in real working lives, we begin by looking briefly at this campaign.  First of all, watch the following short video on YouTube.


Video (1.44 mins)

Citizens UK, ‘The Living Wage’


The Living Wage is an hourly pay rate that is significantly higher than the legal Minimum Wage.  There is a Living Wage rate for London and a different one for the rest of the UK. The London Living Wage is higher, which aims to reflect the fact of higher living costs in the capital (especially housing and travel-to-work costs).

In 2014 the statutory National Minimum Wage for workers aged 21 and over is £6.31 per hour.  The rate for people aged 18-20 is £5.03 an hour.

In 2014 the London Living Wage is £8.80 per hour. The Living Wage for the rest of the UK is £7.65 per hour.

Citizens UK has campaigned for many large employers (e.g. Barclays Bank, the Tate Modern and the University of London) to commit to paying their lowest-paid workers, often cleaners, the Living Wage. The opening statement at Citizens UK’s website about this is: “The Living Wage Campaign calls for every worker in the country to earn enough to provide their family with the essentials of life.”1 The basic argument it has made is that real living costs in Britain mean that the statutory Minimum Wage is simply not enough to enable a full-time worker to look after themselves and a family.

The campaign has been highly successful so far.  The detailed work to make a reality of the Living Wage is now done by a body called the Living Wage Foundation, which, in 2014, has more than 500 accredited Living Wage employers, some with staff of tens of thousands.  You can see an impressive display of who they are here: Living Wage Employers. The campaign has increasingly gained support from other organizations, most prominently the Trade Union Congress (TUC).

Now watch a second short video, made for Living Wage Week in November 2013.  This gives a good sense of the main arguments for the Living Wage and the range of support it has attracted.


Video (4 mins)

Citizens UK, ‘Living Wage Week 2013′


According to laissez-faire or economic liberalism (see 2.1.4), it is fine if wage rates are determined simply by whatever people are willing to work for.  In other words, if people are willing to work for the Minimum Wage (or even a lower rate, if the law allowed it), there would be nothing wrong with employers paying this.  This would simply be the rate set by the market.  Indeed it would be better for employers because it would keep their costs lower, so enabling either higher profits or sale of their products at more competitive prices.

The idea of the Living Wage rests, in part, on a very different approach to how levels of pay should be determined.  It claims that employers have a moral duty to pay on the basis of the needs of workers’ families (current or future).

But the difference is only partial: the Living Wage Campaign aims to convince employers to decide freely to pay the Living Wage; it does not seek to require them to do so by law.  Employers should fulfil their duties freely, not simply under the duress of legal sanction.  In this way, paying the Living Wage remains the result of free agreement in the market place.



In work you have done, were you paid less than, at, or more than the Living Wage?

If you were paid less, were you receiving enough to look after not only yourself but also family members (actual or potential)?  In thinking about this, you can take into account benefits to which you are or would be eligible, such as Child Benefit in the UK.

If you were paid more, how much worse off would you have been if you had been paid the Living Wage or the statutory Minimum Wage?

If you were an employer faced by campaigners from Citizens UK asking you to pay the Living Wage, what are the factors you would weigh up before deciding whether to do so? What if you thought that your business could not afford to pay it…?



End of 4.1.4

Go to 4.1.5 What this unit is about and not about

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  1. See www.citizensuk.org/campaigns/livingwage/ (accessed 28 Mar. 2014).