Photo Credit: Keith Blundy

Work is a human good. We are designed to be active. Good work should be fulfilling. In the contexts where work is paid then it should be properly valued for its contribution to the good of all.

The pandemic has highlighted some real contrasts in the reality of work in our society.

The sentiment that the “pandemic has not affected us all the same” is true.

Some were able to continue their jobs from their living rooms, with the only inconveniences of lockdown being the background noise of family life.

Many others were not afforded such a luxury, and have found themselves out of job, out of pocket, or risking their own health to keep our society going.

When the ability to stay at home is the difference between life and death, the pandemic has by no means been an equaliser.

From delivery drivers to cleaners, and care-workers to transport operators, our essential workers kept the country fed and functional, whilst others baked bread and binged on Netflix.

There is a common denominator between those forced into not working from home in the pandemic: their precarity.

Unfortunately, precarity is intertwined with low pay.

Precarious or insecure workers make up 6.6 million people, a fifth of the entire UK workforce.

Of them, over half earn less than the real Living Wage.

Indeed, within the UK, a fifth of all jobs are still paid below the real Living Wage, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this.

When the country was facing the most difficult conditions it has faced in generations, two-thirds of workers already below the real Living Wage had their wages reduced even further.

This compounded existing anxiety over rent, groceries, and bills with the stress of a pay cut, wearing away at people’s mental health.

On an island where we like to think of ourselves as well-off, the tendrils of poverty continue to disproportionately reach into the homes, hearts and minds of the poorest in our society – this cannot continue.

On top of this, lower earners were more likely to be furloughed and lose their job or hours during the peak of the crisis; the pandemic exposed such working conditions for what they are – deadly.

Workers need liveable hours, in safe conditions.

Of those who had no option but to be in their place of work during the pandemic, many key workers have been let down by their employers. A total of 1.7m key workers earned below the real Living Wage at the height of the first wave.

These are the workers who kept our society afloat.

Sadly, most of them have been under-appreciated and undervalued by those who have benefitted from their very real sacrifices.

After helping put food on our tables, many have been left unable to do the same for themselves.

It is a disappointing truth that the low-paid but invaluable workers are being forced to bear the brunt of a global crisis, all the while with insufficient remuneration for them to even get by.

The failure to place a proper value on work and push people into precarious contracts with unlivable wages and hours also affects the youngest in our society.

In my diocese, over 30 per cent of children are living in poverty, that is nine in a classroom of 30; for them, the pandemic has been especially challenging.

Reliance on foodbanks and taking payday loans to cover essential purchases should not be an everyday facet of life.

If many of those below the real Living Wage cannot feed themselves or their children, we urgently need to reconsider the value placed on different types of work – no-one should be left unable to provide for their family after a hard day’s work.

Low pay is trapping people into compounded inequalities and reinforcing the traumatising grip of poverty. This cycle must be broken.

The pandemic has highlighted the inequalities that are the unfortunate reality in our country.

The recent announcement by the Chancellor of a six per cent increase in the ‘National Living Wage’ is welcome, but still does not go far enough.

Twenty years ago, a community came together to discuss the issues that affected them, finding a common theme to their complaints: low wages.

From there, the campaign to roll out a real Living Wage was born. Decent, fair wages are not just the right thing to do; they enable workers to live.

Since then, the Living Wage Foundation’s mission to eradicate low pay has gone from strength to strength, uplifting 260,000 out of in-work poverty.

In the North-East alone, we’ve seen 168 firms accredit as Living Wage Employers, from Sunderland City Council to EDF Energy, uplifting over 2,100 workers out of poverty, and on to a rate that sustains their basic needs.

Yet, there is a way to go.

As Marcus Rashford stated in his response to the government’s decision to halt the provision of free school meals in holidays, “child food poverty in the UK is not the result of Covid-19”.

With the temporary Universal Credit uplift of £20 now ended, fuel and energy bills increasing, and with 2.5 million food parcels being given out over the last year, the disconnect between the establishment and the working populace of our society is apparent.

The government has always believed that “full-time work is the best way to boost your income and quality of life”.

Yet when over half of the people in poverty are in a household with at least one worker, low wages ensure that many of those in work can no longer get by solely on employment.

As we build back a better society, a real Living Wage for all should be a key priority.

A real Living Wage would mean a society in which all can survive and thrive.

Five and a half million workers should not be struggling to earn what they need to live.

Our country was kept alive by supposedly low-skilled workers.

This work is inherently valuable in God’s sight, and their contributions must be honoured so they cannot simply survive but truly thrive – they need a real Living Wage.

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