History of the Living Wage

The concept of a Living Wage has roots in various cultural, religious and philosophical traditions. It first emerged around 1870 when early trade unions began to demand that workers be paid enough to cover food, clothing and shelter for themselves and their families. In 1894 Liberal MP Mark Oldroyd said, "A living wage must be sufficient to maintain the worker in the highest state of industrial efficiency, with decent surroundings and sufficient leisure".

The Trade Boards Act of 1909 set new standards for many low paid workers, especially women working at home. It was around this time that Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, son of Joseph Rowntree, developed the first tool kit for calculating the living wage, or what he called ‘the human costs of labour’. Despite the Independent Labour Party adopting it as official policy in 1931, the proposed Living Wage Bill was never supported by parliament.

That was the last time the idea was given any political attention, until the modern UK Living Wage Campaign was launched by members of London Citizens in 2001.

The founders were parents in the East End of London, who wanted to remain in work, but found that despite working two or more minimum wage jobs they were struggling to make ends meet and were left with no time for family and community life.

The Living Wage is an example of communities, business, campaigners and faith groups coming together to find practical, non-statutory means to address in-work poverty and strengthen families.

In 2005, following a series of successful Living Wage campaigns and growing interest from employers, the Greater London Authority established the Living Wage Unit to calculate the London Living Wage.

In 2008 Trust for London selected the London Living Wage as a special initiative and made a grant of over £1 million to deliver direct campaign work, research and an accreditation scheme for employers.

The Living Wage campaign has since grown into a national movement.

Local campaigns began emerging across the UK offering the opportunity to involve many more employers and lift many more thousands of families out of working poverty.

The Centre for Research in Social Policy (CRSP) funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation began calculating a UK wide Minimum Income Standard (MIS) figure.

In 2011 Citizens UK brought together grass roots campaigners and leading employers from across the UK, working closely with us at the Scottish Living Wage Campaign in particular, to agree a standard model, calculated by the CRSP, for setting the UK Living Wage outside of London.

At the same time, following consultation with campaigners, trade unions, employers who support the Living Wage and HR specialists, Citizens UK launched the Living Wage Foundation and Living Wage Employer mark. In Scotland, employers can sign up for the Scottish Living Wage Employer mark, and we have our own dedicated advisor here to help applicants through the process.

These new initiatives from the UK wide campaign recognise and celebrate the responsible leadership shown by Living Wage Employers and support employers to incorporate the Living Wage into organisational structures long term.

Paying the Living Wage is a recognised sign of good practice in employment.

The case that Living Wage campaigns put forward today is the same as those workers who demanded a fair wage back in 1870. Despite massive improvements in pay and conditions in Scotland, until every worker can provide for themselves and their family, we have not gone far enough.



“It is a national evil that any class of Her Majesty’s subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions… where you have what we call sweated trades, you have no organisation, no parity of bargaining, the good employer is undercut by the bad and the bad by the worst; the worker, whose whole livelihood depends upon the industry, is undersold by the worker who only takes up the trade as a second string… where these conditions prevail you have not a condition of progress, but a condition of progressive degeneration.” 

- Winston Churchill, 1909