I should think there are good people in both Delhi and Washington who are clutching their heads and trying to work out how the conditions of employment of one maid in New York have caused such an extraordinary diplomatic debacle; and so I hope I am not being opportunistic – while they scrabble to sort it out – in reminding my Indian friends that this would not happen in London (the world capital of finance, culture, arts, etc etc, lengthening its lead over New York). And yet I should also be clear exactly what I mean when I say we would do things differently.
You wouldn’t expect any Indian diplomat to be treated that way in London, partly because we do not have a tradition of avowedly political public attorneys – as they do in New York, some of whom may or may not be aiming for higher office. I cannot imagine that British officials would think it necessary to strip-search a diplomat over a case such as this. The Indians are doubtless right to protest about the handling.
But then this is about more than just the handling of a diplomatic spat. It is also, at root, about the ever more urgent question of how a great city tackles the gulf between rich and poor. Whatever one may think about the methods and motives of that US attorney, there is a great deal to be said for a city that takes active and vigorous steps to vindicate the rights of the lowest paid; and here it may be that London has something to learn from New York.
We have a statutory minimum wage, but how is it enforced? There is growing evidence that HMRC could do more to ensure that workers receive their due. Even when they do get that minimum wage, there are many people who find it is just not enough to allow them to live in London. That is why we have the London Living Wage – set this year at £8.80 an hour, to reflect the sometimes exorbitant cost of living in the world’s most desired and desirable destination.
The London Living Wage was the brainchild of a pressure group called London Citizens. It has been running for six or seven years and is now really beginning to take off. In the past year there has been a 450 per cent increase in firms signing up – the total now stands at 432. Those companies find that paying the Living Wage makes sense for them, too. They build loyalty and commitment in staff who feel properly valued; they reduce staff turnover; they end up actually saving in labour costs.
I will not pretend that every small or medium-sized employer in London could afford to pay that rate – and that is why it is important that the scheme should be voluntary. But there are plenty of companies that could do so, very comfortably, and the chances are that you will come into daily contact with at least one such firm.
Think of the people who clean your office, long after you have left at night or long before you arrive in the morning. Think of the people who work in your supermarket or who get your lunch ready in your sandwich bar. These are the people who keep the London economy whirring. They are often facing enormous hardship to do these vital jobs. The Living Wage could make all the difference to their lives – without damaging the bottom line of the companies concerned.
So come on, everyone. The moment for new year resolutions is upon us. The Living Wage is a simple and elegant way of helping some of the hardest-working people in Britain. It is a principle that any Conservative, surely, would want to support.
My new year resolution for 2014 is to find even more supporters for the London Living Wage – and especially from those key sectors, such as retail, that have been hardest to win over; and if you happen to be a corporate titan, I hope you will feel the same. Happy New Year!