With the Assembly back it is now time that we finally address the acute levels of low pay here with a comprehensive plan to promote the Real Living Wage (RLW).  

In 2021, the NI Executive fulfilled a commitment in the New Decade New Approach document and took the lead in addressing low pay by signing up as a RLW employer.  

It was not before time; the Living Wage Movement in NI had never really taken off and we had held the unenviable record of having the highest number of workers paid below the RLW in the UK.  

With research showing that those paid below the RLW struggle to buy food, pay housing costs and heat their homes, the RLW is more important than ever.  

The RLW, as opposed to the National Living Wage, is independently calculated by the Resolution Foundation for the Living Wage Foundation and is based on what people need to get by. It also differs from the National Living Wage in that it is paid to all those 18 years old and older. It is currently £12.00 per hour across the UK and £13.50 in London. Signing up as a living wage employer is voluntary and, importantly, means paying all directly and indirectly employed staff a living wage.  

There are now 14,418 organisations in the UK signed up as Living Wage employers which has delivered pay rises to more than 460,000 people.  In NI, 93 businesses and organisations are signed up compared with 3,516 in Scotland and 563 in Wales.  

The data from 2023 continues to show that we have one of the highest rates of workers being paid below the RLW in the UK. Currently, it is 15.6 percent compared with 10.1 percent in Scotland and 12.9 percent in Wales.  The UK average is 12.9 percent.

If we look beyond the average, NI contains some RLW ‘hotspots’. In three council areas – Belfast, Mid Ulster, and Causeway Coast – one in five workers (20 per cent) were earning below the RLW.  Women are also more likely to be earning less than the RLW at 18 percent compared to 13.2 percent of men. And part-time workers are 29.5 percent are three times more likely to be paid below the RLW than their full-time counterparts at 10.1 percent.

While these figures are bleak, there are signs of hope.  I have been leading the Living Wage Campaign for east Belfast since August 2022 on behalf of the Scaffolding Project, an anti-poverty project based at Eastside Partnership. 

To date it has been the only dedicated Living Wage campaign in NI and whilst only one day per week, it has demonstrated promotion of the RLW at a local level has had an impact. 

In my experience of promoting the RLW, I found there was a great willingness among local employers to sign up as Living Wage employers, they had just never heard of such a scheme. Last year was the best year for the Living Wage movement in NI with 29 organisations signing up, the highest ever and an 80 percent increase on 2022.  Vitally, this resulted in 931 employees getting a pay rise.  

Among those who signed up were Belfast City Council and Ulster University.  These are important milestones for the movement here. When public sector organisations sign up it uplifts the wages of large number of people, and has a ripple effect influencing their supply chains and local employers.

NI is the only devolved nation without an agency on the ground promoting the RLW and signing local businesses up to the scheme.  A report by the Smith Institute found that if 25 percent of workers were uplifted to the RLW it would contribute almost £85 million to the local economy.  

The evidence is clear, the RLW is good for people, businesses and society.  The RLW needs to be central to both anti-poverty and economic strategies as we move forward.  It is time we all put our shoulder to the wheel to ensure that we are no longer a place characterised by low pay. All workers in NI need to be paid at least the RLW.

Mary McManus is a living wage campaigner and currently co-ordinates the Living Wage for East Belfast Campaign. 

If you would like to know more about signing up as a living wage employer, then visit https://www.livingwage.org.uk/.  For more information on the Living Wage for East Belfast Campaign, contact Mary McManus on livingwageforeastbelfast@outlook.com or on twitter @LivingWageEB

NIAPN is proud to be accredited as a Real Living Wage organisation.

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