‘Many trapped on low wages’ : Derry & Strabane Council urges NI Executive to bring forward living wage

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Derry City and Strabane District Council will write to the Minister for Economy and to the Executive calling for a report on actions taken to devolve power to set minimum wage levels.

The move follows the passing of a motion tabled by People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin. 

Members also voted to invite the Minister to present the Government’s plan on this to Council and expressed solidarity to all efforts towards bringing forward real living wages.

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The motion was brought to Full Council by People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin who believes a living wage would ‘have a profound effect on challenging inequality and much of the deprivation we see around us.’

Many are struggling to make ends meet on low pay Colr Harkin said. (File picture: Rui Vieira/PA Wire)Many are struggling to make ends meet on low pay Colr Harkin said. (File picture: Rui Vieira/PA Wire)
Many are struggling to make ends meet on low pay Colr Harkin said. (File picture: Rui Vieira/PA Wire)

Colr Harkin said: “The phenomenon of wealth inequality has been gathering pace. We have a legacy of deprivation and poverty but unfortunately, that’s been rising in Derry, it’s rising across the Derry and Strabane District and it’s rising right across the north west.

“We know from the stats that have been revealed from the Expert Advisory Panel to the Anti Poverty strategy that  27% of the 400,000 people living below the poverty line in the north are living here in our district which is an incredible number. 

“One in three children in our district are living below the poverty line so action to turn this around, as difficult as this might be, as global as it might seem, is absolutely necessary.

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“Many people are trapped in low wage jobs. People may know that the minimum wage is £8.91 but if you’re less than 18 years old you can be paid as low as £4.60 an hour. Unfortunately, there are some sectors where that kind of low pay is rife and young people deserve to be paid equal pay for equal work.

“We need a pay raise for a lot of people and one of the things that was established in the New Decade, New Approach is that Stormont can now devolve the setting of minimum pay levels which means that our Assembly can now take control of wage levels and set new wage levels which would give us the ability to set real living wages that would be based on the actual cost of people’s lives.

“Stormont, the Executive, the Ministers involved have yet to take action to devolve minimum pay levels so this motion calls on them to urgently act to do that.

“It’s something that, if it happened, would help to raise the living standards of, if not tens of thousands of people across the north, certainly hundreds of people who are trapped in a low wage.”

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Supporting the motion Sinn Féin Councillor Aileen Mellon said: “When people look at poverty stats they can often generalise how people live their lives but these are people who are working very hard, sometimes two and three jobs, and they are still coming out with their outgoings a lot more than their incomings and that’s just not acceptable any more. They have to be given the living wage.”

Tabling an amendment SDLP Councillor Martin Reilly referred to the New Decade, New Approach document. 

“It’s not lost on me that the final line of the New Decade, New Approach document that Councillor Harkin has based this motion on, it talks about the need to ensure that no one is discriminated against because of their age, I’m not sure why he left out that element so I want to make a small amendment to add into the motion and it’s direct text from the New Decade, New Approach document supporting efforts to end any discrimination that people may have in relation to their wages based on their age.”

The amendment read: ‘Council gives its full solidarity to all efforts towards establishing real living wages and calls on the Executive to ensure that no one is discriminated against because of their age.’

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Alliance Councillor Philip McKinney gave his backing to both the original motion and amendment adding: “Everyone has the right to have a real living wage and I would appeal to all the parties to work together sooner rather than later to implement this.”

After DUP Alderman Keith Kerrigan gave his support to the motion and the amendment,  Independent Councillor Paul Gallagher – described the amendment as a ‘cheap move’.

“I’ll say to him (Colr Reilly) and his party who are in the Executive and whose party knows the discrimination we face here in the west around jobs, around investment and around education, the difference in roads and rail, the difference in investment in the economy and the environment, when we look at the inequality in wage income and what you can earn in the north west versus what you can earn in Belfast, there’s a massive difference - The proposer’s party has been in government and I would like him to explain and tell the people of Derry and Strabane how this Executive can ‘ensure’ – it’s a joke.”

Colr Reilly’s amendment passed with both Colr Gallagher and Colr Donnelly abstaining.

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Summing up, Colr Harkin said: “We have talked about the working poor here and that’s a concept that has gained more and more traction and these are hard-working people, many of whom unfortunately are dependent on food banks and this is what action on pay can actually put a dent in.

“We hope the parties in the Executive such as the SDLP can actually make this a reality rather than something that is sitting on the shelf.”

The substantive motion passed unanimously.

Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter