According to research by Citizens Advice Scotland workers in Scotland are routinely being exploited by employers who are refusing to pay the minimum wage. The problem is particularly prevalent among young employees, while hotels, restaurants and cafes are the worst offenders.
Susan McPhee, head of policy at CAS, said: “The minimum wage has been law for more than 10 years, but a significant number of employers are refusing to pay it, and as a result workers are exploited on illegal wages. All political parties* accept the principle of a minimum wage, but it seems some employers believe the law is optional. Our experience shows many workers are unaware of their rights or lack confidence in how to fight for them.”
The National Minimum Wage was made UK law in April 1999 and is currently £6.08 an hour for those aged over 21. It lowers to £4.98 for those between the ages of 18 and 21. For 16 and 17-year-olds, the threshold is £3.68. HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has the powers to issue a notice of underpayment if an employer is found to be flouting the legal threshold, and employers face a fine to HMRC of 50% of the total underpayment that has occurred since April 2009. The minimum penalty is £100 and the maximum £5000.
* Not all. The Socialist Party doesn't.
We have nothing against workers struggling for and getting higher wages if they can. We favour this, even if we don’t like the term “living wage” any more than “fair wage" and even if we think that ideally this should be tied to struggling to abolish the wages system altogether. What we criticise is to increase the present legal minimum wage and call the result a “living wage”.
First Minister Alex Salmond has spoken in favour of a “living wage” of £7.15 per hour for Holyrood employees. Presumably Salmond has in mind is a wage that would allow a worker to afford decent housing, enough proper food, new clothes, to go on holiday and run a car. Getting employers to increase the wages of anyone paid less £ 7.15 is easier said than done. The unions haven’t been able to do it. Like all reforms of capitalism the minimum wage legislation leaves intact the basic mechanism wherein a small handful live of the surplus value produced by the working class. However even by comparison with previous capitalist reforms this piece of legislation has proved woefully unsuccessful. We pointed out that this was just another empty vote-catching promise which, even if implemented, wouldn’t have had the expected effects.
But let’s assume for a moment that a law forcing employers to pay a higher minimum wage was passed. What would happen?
First, some employers would go bankrupt. Others would withdraw their capital from producing certain goods or services, so their price would rise. Eventually this would stabilise at a new, higher level at which employers would be able to make a profit even when paying the increased minimum wage. So the cost of living would go up, including for workers on the minimum wage. Second, given the increased labour costs, the introduction of previously unused labour-saving machinery would become cheaper vis-à-vis employing living labour. It is generally accepted that higher wages does lead employers to introduce machinery. Employers would do this. So there’d be job losses and unemployment, particularly amongst the unskilled, would grow.
Nor did Marx think much of such demands as “fixing the minimum wage by law”, which was one of the reform demands of the French Workers Party he had a hand in helping to set up in 1880. He wrote, referring to the proposer of this: “I told him: ‘If the French proletariat is still so childish as to require such bait, it is not worth while drawing up any program whatever.' "
Like all reforms of capitalism the minimum wage legislation leaves intact the basic mechanism wherein a small handful live of the surplus value produced by the working class. Socialism is not about redistributing income and wealth from the rich to the poor, but about establishing a society that would not be divided into rich and poor. To adapt Marx, workers should replace the demand for a “Living Wage” by the revolutionary demand for the “Abolition of the Wages System”.
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