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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Living Wage - public sector leadership

The living wage movement is an international one. There are differences in context and approach, but the underlying principles are the same.

I have spent the last two days in Ontario, Canada, as a guest of Ontario's living wage movement to speak at their public sector leadership conference. They have a very active, community based living wage movement and they are keen to get the public sector more engaged in the campaign.

Colette Murphy from the Atkinson Foundation (plays a similar role to JRF in UK) made the case for public sector leadership because the public sector is powerful and can make a difference. She gave the City of Preston in England a mention, showing how the living wage led to the wider local economic regeneration that shadow chancellor John McDonnell has recently championed. She gave a range of examples of how various public sector leaders in Ontario had supported the living wage and other poverty reduction initiatives. This had led to statutory progress on wages and decent work.

The first panel included local government officials from Hamilton and Toronto who described what action they had taken on wages and poverty reduction, although still short of being an accredited employer. This included using procurement to ensure that they only did business with decent employers, creating a level playing field. Deanna Ogle, from Living Wage for Families, described the progress they were making in British Columbia, particularly since the election of a progressive government. Procurement is an important element of their strategy, including extending it into vulnerable sectors. All emphasised the importance of political and internal champions.

My presentation outlined the context for public sector engagement in the Scottish Living Wage and Fair Work. The focus of my presentation was on how the public sector can take the living wage forward through pay policy and encouragement including supporting accreditation. I set out in some detail how we changed the procurement rules to ensure the living wage reaches a wider workforce, particularly more vulnerable sectors like social care. 

After lunch, Melissa Cameron presented the findings of her Master's degree on the impact of the living wage. Detailed interviews with workers who benefited from the living wage showed life changing benefits in their lives. It also showed the wider public policy benefits to the local economy and health.

The next panel included three living wage employers who made the business case for the living wage, in three very different sectors. The common theme was that they had decided that the old race to the bottom model wasn't working and a new model, which included the living wage, was a better model. They made the usual arguments around productivity, turnover and reputational gain. However, they also evidenced the very clear values than ran through their approach - living the company mission statement. As one panellist put it, 'Businesses that don't stand for something, stand for nothing'. Key challenges included the importance of communicating effectively with all employees and winning trust. They also reported positive consumer and supplier responses, particularly with younger customers.

The final session was on how to influence the forthcoming provincial and municipal elections in Ontario. The focus of their campaign is to achieve a $15 minimum wage, but also to get the public sector to engage through procurement. They are building coalitions, planning campaign days, but also focusing on real people telling their stories. I particular liked the 'Adopt a Councillor' campaign, which built a relationship from policy commitment to implementation and beyond.

In the round up plenary it was obvious that there was a lot of energy in the campaign across Ontario. In a big geographical area there are obvious benefits in getting the local groups together to learn from each other. They obviously have some big political battles to fight, but they are certainly up for it!

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