The UK food sector is characterised by low wages –but pressure is ramping up to pay food workers a living wage, rather than just the minimum wage, according to Professor Tim Lang of London City University.
Addressing the Soil Association’s annual conference in London, Lang said that paying food workers better could be an important step toward transforming the food system in Britain.
“Why is the food system absolutely characterised by low wages? It has been for 160 years. It is the British disease,” he said. “…We have got to join with much bigger and wider forces to say that this is not acceptable.”
According to the UK’s Office of National Statistics, the average income in the food sector is among the lowest of any industry.
“Why in Britain are we so rich, and yet so divided? The divide between rich and poor in Britain is greater today than it was in Victorian times, yet we are considering it as normal. I find this quite astonishing,” said Lang.
Meanwhile, he said the Living Wage Campaign, which started in the UK in London in 2001, had “really captured imaginations”. It sets an independently calculated hourly rate that would meet the basic costs of living, currently at £8.55 in London and £7.45 outside of the capital. The campaign invites businesses to commit to paying this higher rate to improve staff retention, the quality of work, and to improve consumers’ perception of their company.
Currently, the national minimum wage is £6.31 an hour for those aged 21 or over.
“Food on one level is very cheap, but who makes the money out of food? …I think that’s the real issue,”he said.
Although food prices have stabilised from previous peaks, Lang pointed out that prices are still volatile, and both the OECD and the World Bank have acknowledged that the age of low food prices is over.
He added: “There is overproduction of food in the world. In Britain, even though we only produce about 60% of the food we consume now, we could eat very well on it if it was distributed differently…Food poverty is still a very live issue.”
Earlier, delegates heard that the number of children admitted to hospital in the UK because of malnutrition had surpassed 10,000 a year for the first time over the past year.