EDITORIAL: Heads are buried in the sand over living wage pay

Mathew Little

This week's Hot Issue is about low pay and poverty - a subject on which you might think many charities would be bursting to express their opinions. But the question concerns what charities were themselves doing to relieve poverty - whether they should accede to civic activism group Telco's call for voluntary organisations to pay a "living wage" of between £5.80 and £6.70 an hour to all employees and agency staff.

The result was a deafening silence. Out of 10 major charities, only one - umbrella body the Charity Finance Directors' Group - agreed to respond.

Three of those we asked were in fact signatories to a petition organised by the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, which calls on the Government to research the minimum income needed for healthy living "from pregnancy to pension".

Could it be that the 'do as I say, not as I do' syndrome is thriving in the sector?

This is not an issue on which the charity sector deserves to be unthinkingly condemned. Charities are plainly not in the same league as the blue-chip City financial institutions that were the original target of the Telco campaign. They have to stretch finite funds so that as much as possible is spent on their objectives.

But can the sector be comfortable with a situation where many charity shop managers and care workers scrape a living on little more than the minimum wage?

A new deal for the lowest paid does not have to mean instant crippling wage rises for charities. One of the instigators of the Telco campaign, community organisation Aston-Mansfield, admits that it cannot afford the target of £6.70 an hour at the moment, and pays a lower rate of £6.42.

But it has recognised the problem. Save the Children and Oxfam have been trying over several years to reduce the pay gap between their lowest and highest paid staff.

Clearly there is cause for debate on this. Several inches below a sandy surface is not the best place to conduct it.

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