Key workers missed out on £1.6billion during the coronavirus pandemic because they were not paid the Real Living Wage, research has revealed.
The Living Wage Foundation calculated 1.7 million employees, including social care staff, delivery drivers and supermarket shelf-stackers, received only the legal minimum while keeping the country running over the past year.
If they had been paid the voluntary Real Living Wage, set by independent experts, they would each be an average £900 better off.
Analysts used government definitions of key worker occupations to highlight that in the 12 months to March, 16% of key workers got only the National Living Wage – the least bosses can legally get away with.
Living Wage Foundation director Laura Gardiner said: “Our research highlights the cold reality for the 1.7m key workers earning below the Real Living Wage.
“Over the last year, one that has placed considerable pressure on them, they are close to £1,000 out of pocket, amounting to a £1.6bn key worker Living Wage gap during the pandemic.”
She added: “It has been an incredibly difficult year for us all.
“As we look forward to the rest of 2021 and the hope it brings, we must safeguard the workers who have been the backbone of our businesses and society during successive lockdowns.
“Businesses signing up to pay the Real Living Wage is a good place to start.”
The Real Living Wage is £9.50 an hour and £10.85 in London.
It is paid by more than 7,000 employers accredited with the Foundation.
In contrast, the current National Living Wage – the legal minimum – is just £8.72 an hour, falling to £8.20 for those aged between 21 and 24, and just £6.45 for those aged 18 to 20.
The Foundation analysed Office of National Statistics data from its annual survey of hours and earnings.
It calculated that 445,000 health and social care staff – 14% – earned below the Real Living Wage.
Research suggested it was 305,000 workers in education and childcare – 13% of all employees; 559,000 in “food and necessary goods” – 37%; 99,000 in utilities and communication – 5%; 17,700 transport workers – 29%; 33,000 in “key public services – 6%; 99,000 in public safety and national security – 6%; and 10,000 workers in national and local government – 4%.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Everybody who works for a living ought to earn a decent living.
“It’s not right that many of the key workers who are getting us through this crisis – like social care, supermarket and delivery staff – are paid less than the Real Living Wage.
“It’s time we cared for them, the way have cared for us by boosting their pay and conditions at work.
“Paying key workers a Real Living Wage is the right thing to do and makes good economic sense.”
Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said: “It’s shameful so many of the people who’ve been keeping the country safe and providing essential services during the pandemic are paid so little.”
GMB acting general secretary Warren Kenny said: “This pandemic has shown us all exactly who keeps our country going – it’s NHS staff, it’s care workers, it’s refuse collectors, council workers, people who work in retail and the rest.
“The fact so many of them aren’t even paid a wage they can live on should bring shame to our nation.”
A Government spokeswoman said: “We are incredibly grateful for the tireless efforts of all our key workers in the fight against coronavirus.
“The UK has one of the highest minimum wage rates in Europe, and from April 1, we are increasing the National Living and Minimum wage, putting an additional £345 into the pockets of two million of the UK’s lowest paid.
“We have also taken steps to support care workers financially during the pandemic, ring-fencing over £1.1bn of funding for care providers which can be used to pay the wages of staff who may need to self-isolate.”