Since The Living Wage Foundation was launched in 2001 it has received great political and union support, with the Labour Party considering making it part of their next manifesto, but companies and employers have not been so quick to jump onto the bandwagon, until more recently.
The basic idea is that these are the minimum pay rates needed to let workers lead a decent life. The living wage is now set at £8.80 an hour in London and £7.65 an hour in the rest of the UK. By comparison, the national minimum wage is significantly lower (£6.50)
The Foundation’s main aim to give ‘accreditation’ to companies who pay the Living Wage, a sort of badge of honour, has proved an attractive publicity prospect for some. The Living Wage Foundation said it was aiming to have 1,000 accredited employers by Living Wage Week in November.
Theatre Delicatessen is the first theatre company to become officially accredited as a Living Wage employer. The theatre company’s founder, Jessica Brewster said that they “believe that artists are entitled to a decent standard of living. Just because someone chooses to follow a creative career path doesn’t mean they should sign up to a lifetime of low pay”.
With a lot of the industry based in expensive to live in London, and employees often working long hard hours in the profession, this is undeniably a step forward: but will more companies follow suit?
There are a lot entertainers and performers out there, but Equity (the union for performers and the arts industry) has had little power over wage negotiations due to the amount of unemployed actors who will gladly take work when others squabble over wages. Employers have held the power in an overcrowded industry. This has meant that wages for the majority, excluding more big name stars, has often fallen short of the mark required for a decent standard of life. Theatre Delicatessen’s move is bold, and one many will be hoping will catch on across the industry.
A regularly discussed issue in the industry is the amount of low or unpaid work out there, especially on the fringe. Some even feel they are obliged to take this kind of work sometime to improve future employment prospects. Equity have launched a campaign aimed at enforcing the National Minimum Wage in fringe shows and student films.
And in the summer, BECTU (UK’s media and entertainment union) on behalf of West End backstage workers submitted a pay claim to the Society of London Theatres for the Living Wage to installed as a minimum wage. The issue is upon us, and it is one that must be discussed wisely and most likely at length.
Of course in an age where theatre ticket prices are already on the rise, top West End seats have tripled in price in the last 10 years, many fear that such changes would do nothing to stop the year on year increases, in fact could exaggerate these. Another concern to be factored into the equation is the fate of the smaller companies, especially in light of funding cuts, who may struggle to survive were the Living Wage ever to be made obligatory. So this is not a cut and dry issue, by any means.
The Living Wage is an idea that should be supported across the board, as it regularly monitors the wage needed to attain a reasonable standard of living. The National Minimum Wage should be a wage that you can sustain yourself upon, so there is no reason we should not as a developed country be pushing towards instating the Living Wage as the national Minimum. And it is only right that arts institutions should comply with this, our artists and performers should not suffer for their choice of career as their work brings joy to so many: however care needs to be taken by the government to ensure that this does not see the destruction of certain organisations that are both culturally and economically beneficial to our country.
There is a lot more discussion to be had on this topic to ensure it is carefully and correctly pushed forwards, maybe it is best to deal with the issue of low or unpaid work first, but surely this is a change that must eventually come about for the better: in society as a whole, not just the arts. It is time that a money-making capitalist society put its workers first, they are the bedrock of civilisation after all.
Image Rights; Dan Brady