Labour Market Injustice

Labour markets are rife with questions of justice. This series of blog posts explore cases of injustice, highlight theoretical puzzles and point towards possible solutions. They emerged from debates at the ‘Labour Market Injustice’ Workshop co-hosted by Newcastle and Durham Universities and generously sponsored by the Society for Applied Philosophy.  In this second blog post Ben Sachs offers reasons to be wary of the campaign for a living wage.

Those who support the Living Wage Movement (LWM) no doubt have their heart in the right place. They support the LWM because they care about the poor or specifically the working poor. However, the LWM is going to divide poor people against each other and thereby undermine their ability to effectively advocate for their own cause. And as to the working poor specifically, the LWM will harm them by misleading people into thinking that they don’t exist.

As we all know, the current reality is that many full-time workers don’t earn enough money to live a decent life—at least not without the state’s help. Fortunately, the working poor are eligible for various state-sponsored programmes, such as the Universal Credit and the Child Benefit (in the U.K.). The crucial thing to notice, though, is that the non-working poor are eligible for those programmes too.

So as it stands, the working poor and the non-working poor are somewhat dependent on the same elements of the welfare state. But to the extent that the LWM succeeds in reducing the ranks of the working poor, the non-working poor are thereby isolated.

That should worry us. Social scientists tell us that employment reinforces a sense of agency—of being able to get things done—and provides a social network. For these two reasons employed people, even when they’re poor, are typically much more effective social activists than the non-working poor. This is important, because to the extent that we decide that the living wage is the answer to the problems of the working poor we thereby pit them against the non-working poor in the competition for the public’s attention and sympathy. It’ll be no contest. The cries of the working poor for rises in the living wage will drown out the cries of the non-working poor against cuts to the welfare programmes on which they rely.

Furthermore, the LWM isn’t even well designed to help the working poor. To see why, we need to dig into the technicalities of the living wage.

By definition, a living wage is whatever a person would need to earn per hour to be able to live a decent life if she works full time. The most sensible way to calculate a living wage is by reference to people’s expenses, because the amount of money one requires for living a decent life depend on one’s expenses. Since people’s expenses differ, the only way for the LWM to come up with a particular wage to push for is by averaging. The Living Wage Foundation, which is the highest-profile element of the LWM in the U.K., bases its official living wages rates (one for London and one for the rest of the U.K.) on a calculation that does just that.

Now a problem: Since many people have expenses that are above average, paying them at the official rate won’t actually give them enough money to live a decent life.

Granted, it’ll often be an improvement over what they otherwise would have been paid. But when the average member of the public hears that certain employers are paying ‘the living wage’, it’s natural for her to assume that that employer’s employees are earning enough money to live a decent life.

What proportion of the public—especially the wealthier classes—do you think realizes that when they see that ‘We are a Living Wage Employer’ sticker in the coffee shop window that that doesn’t mean that everyone working there is earning enough money to live a decent life? Had you ever realized that before reading this post?

The ‘living wage’ is what I call a moralized label, because you only have to hear the words to understand immediately what the moral selling point of the movement is. And we should know by now to be cautious about moralized labels. In particular, the lesson of ‘organic’/‘non-GMO’/‘free range’ food labeling should make us wary. There is good evidence to demonstrate that such labels are poorly understood, encourage oversimplified ethical thinking (i.e. ‘things that have the label are good; things that don’t are bad’), and are ripe for abuse by commercial interests who recognize that people will pay more for whatever the label is attached to.

All of this could happen with ‘living wage employer’ labeling, and indeed might happening already.

I don’t know which social movement is the right one to support for the purpose of alleviating the plight of the poor. They all have their benefits and drawbacks. But here’s one easy piece of advice: If you’re going to advocate for people on the lower end of the wage scale to be paid more, don’t use the ‘living wage’ label to describe the wage you’re pushing for. In other words, don’t join the LWM.

Ben Sachs is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of St. Andrews.  His interests include social contract theory, animal ethics, coercion, environmental ethics, the ethics of research on human subjects, and distributive justice (particularly in health care).