Equal pay champion expresses dismay over rise in minimum wage
The former head of Wales’ foremost campaign group for better pay for women has been criticised after expressing dismay about the rise in the National Living Wage.
Until November 2022, Cerys Furlong was the chief executive of Chwarae Teg, which means “Fair Play” in Welsh. A former Labour councillor in Cardiff, she remains the co-owner of two pubs and a restaurant in the city.
She was also a board member for five years until January 2023 of the Cardiff Capital Region Economic Growth Partnership & Investment Panel, one of whose remits is to promote the region as “a prime investor and visitor location and working with partners to increase the value and quality of inward investment”.
Chwarae Teg consistently supported better pay for women during Ms Furlong’s five and a half years in charge of the charity, recognising that the National Living Wage (NLW) was a crucial tool in achieving that.
But after Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced ahead of the Autumn Statement that the NLW was rising to £11.44 per hour for workers aged 21 and over from April 2024 – equivalent to two thirds of the median hourly pay rate – Ms Furlong posted on X, formerly Twitter, a message that said: “Oh god. While this is great for individual staff, a 10% increase in our wage bill is pretty terrifying right now in hospitality. Will inevitably need tough decisions around reducing hours of work, increasing costs passed onto customers, reducing planned investments, Wahhh.”
A Labour source who wishes to remain anonymous contacted Nation.Cymru and said: “The Living or Minimum wage is calculated so people can afford the minimum. The harsh reality is that many of these disproportionately female workers struggle to afford food, and are turning to charity in record numbers.
“Cerys was handsomely remunerated to campaign for women’s equality, yet doesn’t want to pay hospitality workers the minimum wage. We all have a choice about how we use our platform and what we say obviously reflects on those who appoint us to positions. Everyone should check their privilege before they speak.
“Cerys used Twitter to tell her employees that if the minimum wage goes up she will potentially cut hours. To those workers I’d say – there is power in a union.”
Dr Victoria Winckler, director of the Bevan Foundation think tank, which concentrates on issues relating to poverty, especially in the south Wales Valleys and of which Ms Furlong was a trustee for more than seven years, said: “The Bevan Foundation’s position is that all workers should be paid enough to live on. We therefore back payment of the real Living Wage of £12 an hour. We welcome the announcement that the National Living Wage, at £11.44 will move closer to – although still not match – this figure.
“We cannot comment on the views of private individuals or how they operate their businesses.”
In 2014, before Ms Furlong joined Chwarae Teg, the organisation made a submission to the Low Pay Commission’s consultation on the NMW, stating: “Women are more likely to work in low paid, part time roles and as a result are more vulnerable to poverty and changes to the NMW. The recession has had a particularly negative impact on women who have lost out through cuts to public sector jobs, public services and welfare changes. The NMW offers vital protection to workers but in recent years has had less impact on poverty levels as it has fallen further behind the rate of inflation.
“In the long term we would like to see steps taken to bring the NMW closer to Living Wage rates to ensure that all workers are earning the minimum required for a basic standard of living. In the meantime we believe that the NMW can be strengthened to play a more active and effective role in improving women’s position in the labour market, closing the gender pay gap and moving households out of poverty.”
In 2019, by which time Ms Furlong was chief executive of Chwarae Teg, she said at the launch of a gender equality report, “Women’s skills and potential are often underutilised and moves must continue to ensure that women can access and progress in fair work with decent pay.”
In 2020 the charity participated in a social media debate entitled Gender Equality and the Real Living Wage. Dr Winckler argued that the Living Wage could result in a larger pay uplift for women than would be achieved by closing the gender pay gap. Dr Deborah Hann, a senior lecturer in employment relations at Cardiff University, explained to participants that as two-thirds of real Living Wage recipients are women, women workers will benefit more from increases in the real Living Wage.
Chwarae Teg noted the increase in insecure and low hours work, which could be addressed through a ‘living hours guarantee’. Chwarae Teg also “recognised that ultimately power lies with the UK Government to raise the statutory minimum National Living Wage to the real Living Wage rate. However, until then the Welsh Government fair work requirements should be given “teeth” alongside a campaign of convincing employers of the benefits of signing up for accreditation.”
In 2021 Chwarae Teg took part in the launch of the Living Wage Charter at the Senedd. Maria Mallon, the organisation’s HR manager, said: “The Living Wage makes sound business sense when it comes to recruiting and keeping staff and is increasingly becoming a mark of good practice. When employers sign up, absenteeism goes down and work quality rises.”
Six months after Ms Furlong left Chwarae Teg, half of its workforce was made redundant because European Commission funding came to an end due to Brexit. In September 2023 the organisation shut down entirely, with the rest of the workforce also losing their jobs. It had been launched in 1992, with current Social Justice Minister Jane Hutt as its first director.
The National Minimum Wage, as it was originally called, came into being in 1998 following the election of a Labour government under Tony Blair the year before. Right wing Tories opposed it on the grounds that the impact of minimum wage legislation on small businesses would be more than twice the impact on businesses that employed more than 10 employees.
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