Paying a Living Wage

Rev Inderjit Bhogal, last year's President of the Methodist Conference, reflects on his experience of living off the equivalent of the minimum wage for lent.

"People are only poor because they don���t work. I have worked hard to get where I am and to be comfortable. They should work!" This is the kind of view I often hear in churchy meetings, especially where we might be discussing the scandal of poverty.

One thing no-one should suggest about those trapped in poverty is that they are lazy. Many of them work very hard. The Living Wage Campaign has focused on the poverty of people in full time work who receive low wages. The Living Wage pledge begins with the words "We believe that no-one working full time should live in poverty." Some of the poorest people in the world are also some of the hardest working ones.

I decided to join the Living Wage Campaign and to sign the Living Wage pledge to help raise awareness of this situation. My wife Kathy and our two children are also committed to the campaign. When I was explaining "minimum wage" to my children, their first question was "What is the maximum wage?" I���d just been reading about one celebrity on ��250,000 per week, and footballers demanding between ��80,000 and ��150,000 per week, and the discrepancy between workers being offered a 3% wage increase while the boss was offered a rise of 58%.

As a Methodist minister, I am among the comfortable. But I am uncomfortable about hard-working people on low incomes, including church employees. The commitment to live on the minimum wage during Lent is an expression of solidarity with those on low incomes. Of course, it���s not the same as being on a low income long term. But it has been possible during 40 days to experience something of the injustice and discomfort of low income. As a family, we have prioritised to ensure that we obtain the essentials like food. But there has been the pressure on parents and children to make choices. Spending has required conscious decisions about what, when and where to buy. I personally have become more aware of the pressure to turn up at one supermarket and to load up the shopping trolley without paying much attention to prices. I have paid more attention to how much the basics like bread and milk cost. We have shopped around for cheaper goods and bought only what we needed. I used to do this with my mother as a kid, but it is more time consuming, and reduces time for more important commitments. We have had no take-away meals. We have not automatically filled up the car, and having to purchase a six month road tax disc was a shock we had not budgeted for. Our social life normally revolves around meals with people at our home. We���ve not been able to sustain this. Instead, we have received the hospitality of family, friends and neighbours quite a lot. We have felt a constant pressure of thinking about money ��� whether we have it or not ��� and that has been very draining.

Our children have felt the pressure more than us, with cutbacks on swimming, cinema and burger bar foods. We have become acutely aware of the pressures parents on low income feel.

Our conclusion is that while we can just about eat on the low income, it is boring and bland, and hard work. There is little room for spontaneity. We have been quite disciplined about spending within this limited period of time. In reality, on low income we would not be able to buy clothes or household items without getting into debt. And on a low hourly rate, I wouldn���t be able to afford to take time off to spend with the children.

When churches, employers and government make decisions about levels of wages, they should not just think about pensions and how to make ends meet in retirement. Pay just wages that ensure that working people can move out of poverty, are not dependent on charity, and can live "life in all its fullness".

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