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Thousands of South Tyneside workers ‘trapped in poverty’ without living wage

Amelia Luffrum
Amelia Luffrum

MORE than a quarter of workers in South Tyneside don’t earn enough money to live on, according to union chiefs.

Figures released today show that 26.1 per cent of people in employment in South Shields and 25.6 per cent in Jarrow are paid less than the living wage, an amount calculated to cover the basic cost of living.

The number of women below the living wage threshold is even higher – standing at 32.8 per cent in South Shields and 32.7 per cent in Jarrow.

The living wage sum – which was set up by the Living Wage Foundation – is set annually and stands at £9.15 an hour in London and £7.85 in the rest of Britain.

Unlike the national minimum wage – which is 6.50 – employers are not legally obliged to pay the hourly rate to employees.

Union body, the TUC says that the figures – released by the Office for National Statistics to cover the period of April 2014 when the living wage was set at £7.65 – are leaving millions of employees across the country trapped in ‘in-work poverty’.

Northern TUC Regional Secretary Beth Farhat, speaking at the start of the second week of the union’s Fair Pay Fortnight campaign, is calling for a strong commitment to the living wage from employers and the Government.

She said: “These figures show that huge numbers of working people in the North East are struggling to bring home a wage they can live off.

“Extending the living wage is a vital step towards tackling the growing problem of in-work poverty in parts of the North East – and Britain as a whole.

“Working families have experienced the biggest squeeze on their living standards since Victorian times.

“Pay has been squeezed at all levels below the boardroom, and the government’s mantra about ‘making work pay’ is completely out of touch with reality.

“The number of living wage employers is growing rapidly and unions are playing their part in encouraging more employers to sign up and pay it.

“But we need to see a far wider commitment to pay the living wage from government, employers and modern wages councils – to drive up productivity and set higher minimum rates in industries where employers can afford to pay their staff more.”

Amelia Luffram, project co-ordinator of Hospitality and Hope, a charity based in the former Hampden Street Day Centre in South Shields, which runs food banks and soup kitchens across the town, says many cash-strapped residents are forced to make an unenviable choice between heating and food to get by.

She said: “We have seen a huge growth in people using our services.

“A lot of this will definitely be due to the amount of people struggling to make ends meet due to low wages.

“Many families are having to make a choice between heating and food.”

Council raises pay for 1,000 staff

SOUTH Tyneside Council will begin to raise minimum pay for for around 1,000 members of its workforce in April.

Councillors agreed to roll out a phased implementation of the basic living standard at a town hall meeting last December.

From April, the council will raise its minimum pay for employees to £7.29 per hour.

The local authority says it wil then bring all workers’ pay up to at least the living wage figure of £7.85 in 2016.

Coun Ed Malcolm, Lead Member for Resources and Innovation at South Tyneside Council, says the council is able to bring pay up to £7.85 immediately as it deals with the effects of budget cuts imposed by the Government.

Coun Malcolm said: “We are working towards permanently protecting our lowest paid workers for the future. This is not about giving staff a pay supplement which could be taken away at any point – this is about making significant, lasting changes to our salary structure. Staff affected will not only benefit from the extra money in their wages but also from additional benefits like increased pension provision.

“As a council we are committed to the social justice agenda and trying to bring real change to the lives of people in South Tyneside.

“There is a compelling case to introduce a living wage because it brings dignity and pays families enough to enjoy a basic but acceptable standard of living.

“However, it is important that we consider this very carefully in the context of ongoing Government budget cuts and our commitment to protecting vital services in South Tyneside.

“Of course we would have liked to implement the full living wage with immediate effect but, given the unprecedented cuts imposed on the authority, we have had to take a prudent approach.

“When we have further information on our future funding, we will sit down with our trade union colleagues to consider the affordability of implementing the full Living Wage from 2016 with a view to eliminating low pay across the council’s workforce.”

The council established the Independent Wage Commission in June 2013 to examine the benefits and challenges of adopting a living wage in South Tyneside.

The commission found that a living wage would make a positive contribution to reducing poverty and promoting well-being among low paid workers.

The living wage is set independently, updated annually, and is calculated according to the basic cost of living in the UK