Building shareholder movement for living wage
3 July 2014
Lisa Nathan, ShareAction
The plight of millions of Britons living in working poverty was highlighted last week by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, who called for British business to pay a living wage.
ITV answered that call, put to them directly by campaigners, announcing last week that it would guarantee all staff, including cleaners, a fair day's wage for a fair day's work.
Over the past decade the living wage, the hourly rate a person needs to earn to cover their basic living cost, has lifted 45,000 families out of working poverty. The amount may seem small – £8.80 in London and £7.65 outside – but it makes a big difference. It is not about enabling people to access luxuries, but acceptable standards: a warm home, a healthy diet and time to see their family.
We know that this makes a real difference to peoples' lives. Amin Hussein, a cleaner (now also a youth worker), explains what earning a living wage has meant for him:
"Before, I had to work two jobs to put food on the table and pay the rent. I had no time for my family or my community. When the living wage was introduced I was able to prioritise one job and that means I've been able to be there for my family and set up a youth group in my community. What I've been given, I'm now able to give back."
A few years ago, ITV was identified as a company that could both afford to pay the living wage and would make major inroads into the media sector if it set a precedent. Along with Barbara, a community leader from Citizens UK, we attended their annual general shareholders meeting (AGM), asking them to pay the living wage not just for the direct staff, but for the cleaners and other contracted staff working on their UK sites.
They responded to say that they would look into the issue and, in a follow up meeting, informed us that the question sparked a review of their salary scales in which they ensured that all staff, including contracted and long-term freelancers would be paid above living wage rates. This year, we came back to their AGM to thank them for all their progress, and just last week, they announced their accreditation as a living wage employer.
This campaign, to truly 'make work pay', has been spearheaded by trade unions and community groups. ShareAction works to bring a new tactic to the campaign – to use the power of investors, and the connection many of us have to the stock market, to encourage large companies to pay up.
We have brought the issue of working poverty before the boards of almost 25 FTSE 100 companies in recent months, attending their annual general meetings (AGMs) to make sure the living wage is on their agenda.
The media sector is starting to take notice. Pearson, parent company of the Financial Times, confirmed at its 2012 AGM that it already paid all staff and contractors over the living wage, a year later they committed to uprate as cost of living increases through accrediting with the Living Wage Foundation.
An AGM question in Toronto also sparked Thomson Reuters to engage on the issue for its UK staff. Through coordination with Canadian responsible investment organisation Share, we made sure the living wage was on the agenda and CEO Jim Smith committed to a meeting between his Chief People Officer and the Living Wage Foundation.
At ShareAction, we've found again and again the power of raising a smart question direct to the board. We have trained and supported over 100 people this year alone to attend almost 70 AGMs, raising issues beyond the living wage from environmental policies and tax justice to farm animal welfare and executive pay, with the directors of Britain's largest companies.
At HSBC's annual general meeting, we challenged non-executive bank directors to justify rewards for failure and a culture of excess in the firms they oversee. We've asked insurance company board members to explain their continued investment in high carbon companies in the face of climate change which, ultimately, costs them money, for example through the flooding that damaged thousands of homes in the last twelve months alone.
Just last week, we coupled some creative public mobilisation on Tesco and the living wage with an AGM question which ensured the public support translated into a meeting.
Working with trade unions such as Unite, CWU and Unison along with individuals and other civil society organisations, we've used questions at AGMs alongside broader investor engagement and mobilisation to help leverage the voices of workers through their shareholdings, from a single share to their pension savings.
For example, working with BECTU and the workers at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, we helped the cinema staff attend the AGM themselves to speak with the company board directly on their struggle for the living wage. The pressure's mounted since, through emailing their CEO and alerting major investors to the issue, sparking engagement from Aviva and Royal London Asset Management.
Bringing together shareholders, large and small, to support trade unions and community organisers has proven highly effective. We add weight to our questions from individual shareholders at AGMs by bringing together large investors including pension funds, charities and churches to combine their voices in letters to the CEOs at each of the FTSE 100 companies in support of the living wage.
Today, over 50 per cent of the FTSE 100 is in dialogue with investors and civil society stakeholders about living wages in their UK operations. With 20 annual general meetings to come this July, we can be sure that many more will be facing the question of fair pay.
For more information, please visit the ShareAction AGM website.
Lisa Nathan works for ShareAction.