Walmart’s Smartest Move Yet

American retailing giant Walmart, owners of ASDA in the UK, yesterday committed to paying their 500,000 workers at least $9 an hour by August, rising to $10 in 2016. This compares with a federal minimum wage of just $7.25, which President Obama has sought to raise to $10.10 (unfortunately blocked by Republican-controlled Congress). The move has been welcomed by America’s flourishing anti-low pay movement, despite it seeking a doubling of the federal minimum wage.

At the same time, Walmart going to give employees more ‘control’ over the hitherto erratic shift system that made life particularly difficult for employees with families to support and care for. To be sure, Walmart has taken significant steps away from its past as a bad employer.

I have conflicting views on this development. I certainly do not believe anybody should feel grateful to Walmart for finally living up to its most basic responsibilities as a highly profitable, multinational employer to pay more than the joke that is the federal minimum wage and give its workers a limited degree of security. When people are earning their income from you, you can’t leave them worrying if you’ll give them the hours they need to feed their children next week.

Retail lobbyists in the US have cited the move as proof that retailers do not need to be forced to pay higher wages. That is nonsense. There are tens of millions who languish on poverty pay still. A handful of chains, like Walmart and Ikea, raising their game barely dents that figure. Moreover, employers should not feel that they’re risking their competitive advantages by paying $9 or $10 an hour.

On the other hand, I would not dismiss the significance of the pay increase either. I doubt any commitment to guarantee pay above the minimum wage by the likes of Walmart would have been thought plausible ten or twenty years ago. Campaigning for a $15 minimum wage would have been thought nonsensical. It certainly would have been difficult to mobilise so many low-paid workers to that cause. The very fact that Walmart has made any concession to its employees at all represents a seismic social change.

Of course, Walmart might have calculated that this pay rise should be just enough to blunt the workers’ rights campaigns and alleviate pressure for future concessions. We don’t know. That calculation is wrong in any case: the same process is occurring in the American workforce as is beginning to occur in the UK’s: workers are beginning to organise and raise their aspirations in parts of the economy that never had trade unions. The supermarkets, the fast food restaurants, cleaning firms, industries where employees have rarely been a priority and are at last acting to improve their lot.

They won’t be waiting for Congress or the President to help them out, but they’ll get round to that in due course. (Who knows, they might even get the GOP on board… one day). Until employment regulations are improved, employees will have to fight for every dollar and every guaranteed hour.

Changing the law would be so much simpler.


Labour: Is It Really ‘Anti-business’?

In the closest and most hotly-contested election for a generation, politicians are going to throw a lot of mud at each other. The Conservatives and their supporters have mastered this art very well: they believe that if they take a line and repeat it often and loudly enough, it will become the prevailing view, even if there is little evidence to support it. They’re trying that now. By screaming that Labour is stuck in a ‘seventies mindset’ and is ‘anti-business’, they hope to undermine Labour’s economic credibility.

To be fair, Labour is fighting on its most radical manifesto for a generation. Vested interests have a lot to fear from us. Labour has committed to break virtual cartels that exist in energy and transport markets; crackdown on corporate tax dodgers and exploitative zero-hours contracts; control speculation in land and housing and a large uprating in the minimum wage.

Will these measures cost businesses? Only those who are bad corporate citizens. Good businesses already pay fair taxes and wages. Good businesses add value to our economy through innovation and hard work, not profiteering. Good businesses welcome real competition.

Labour is a vibrant, democratic political movement and we exist to serve the people of Britain, not the CEOs and shareholders. Except in the City of London, people have the vote, corporations do not. Our aim should not be to prioritise business over other concerns for the sake of it (or, as with the Conservatives, because Monaco-domiciled businesspeople have given us large donations) but to help business as partners in the British economy. Labour has every interest in helping business create British jobs, innovative new products and services and drive investment. And that’s exactly what the next Labour government will do.

Would an anti-business party commit to keeping Corporation Tax rates at the lowest in the G7 economies? (Rates that are too low, in my opinion) Would it slash the business rates that are crippling small enterprises? Would it fight so hard to keep Britain in the European Union citing ‘trading benefits’? Would its Business spokesman introduce the Small Business Saturday campaign?

Every businessperson from the start-up entrepreneur to the billionaire shareholder has nothing to fear and everything to gain from a Labour government as long as they are committed to social responsibility and playing by the rules.

These are the people corrupt interests want you to imagine when they throw claims about ‘anti-business’ approaches around. They don’t want you to think of HSBC, which was caught hiding its clients’ money from billions of pounds of tax liabilities (and then given a ‘get out of jail free card’ from the same Tory ministers who say we can’t afford extra NHS funding). They don’t want you to think of Amazon, which has been shameless in its abuse of employment rights and tax regulations. And then there’s Rupert Murdoch, who has been allowed to do more or less as he likes because of his ownership of four national newspapers. Ed Miliband has so far been very bold in making that point, but the attacks on him from those with interests in this rotten section of the business world are only going to get fiercer as polling day approaches.

As the attacks intensify, Labour must not waver. Some figures from the old days of New Labour have called for ‘concessions’ and a more moderate tone. In other words, they call for abandonment of some of the more radical proposals. I think that would be a huge mistake.

British politics today is a world away from the scene that existed 20 or even 10 years ago. Today, the electorate has become tired of leaders who are too scared to act to end injustices inflicted by the wealthy and the powerful. It is all too easy to criticise the problems created by modern capitalism. But empty words and bland generalisms will no longer cut it with the voters. They want a government that is not afraid to act. I hope Labour is bold enough to be that government.

Should Businesses Join Political Parties?

The outgoing President of the (right-wing) Australian Liberal Party, Alan Stockdale, has called for corporations to be given the option to ‘join’ the Liberals as affiliates, similar to the link trade unions and Labour parties around the world. It should be noted that the role of President is not as influential as that of the Leader in the Liberal Party, and as such his speech floated many ideas which are unlikely to be acted on. However, Mr Stockdale has prompted a broad, international debate about the relationship between political parties and corporations.

Most democracies suffer from the financial and political entanglement of political parties and vested interests. However, as EU law requires shareholder approval for any corporate donations,  the problem is, in theory, reduced to that of rich individuals buying political influence. That is a huge problem, but it pales in comparison to Australia and the US, where political parties depend on corporations for the bulk of their funding. In the US’ case, it’s the only way they can raise the billions of dollars needed to fund a space race in political advertising that grows more expensive, but less effective, with every campaign.

It is not difficult to trace the origin of various governments’ policies to their financial backing by various industries. For example, Hollywood’s well-documented support for the Democratic Party might help explain the latter’s backing for draconian ‘intellectual property’ legislation. Similarly, the open wallets of companies such as Exxon Mobil and Domino’s Pizza coincided with the last Republican administration’s lax regulation of the oil and fast food industries. Thus, it seems that corporations exert more than enough influence on political parties as it is. Imagine the havoc that would follow corporate membership of political parties, with the associated rights to vote in selections and conferences. Surely our democracies should outlaw commercialised politics (or is that politicised commercialism?), not formalise it.

An alternative viewpoint has been put to me. For several decades in Britain, voters did not have a choice between Labour and Conservative governments. Rather, they chose between Conservative-CBI (Confederation of British Industry) coalitions and Labour-TUC (Trade Union Congress) coalitions. Whilst this is an exaggeration, it is true that there were clear, transparent bonds between business and the Conservative Party. Some argue that this is preferable to the shady, secretive influence that business will exert regardless of the law.

Furthermore, Labour parties are open about their formal associations with trade unions and their members. Why apply the same principle to business?

In fact, there are several good reasons. Corporations would probably exercise block votes, and their money often is able to breach any formal restrictions on their powers within organisations, as businesses’ donations to charity have shown. Moreover, individual members, realising their inevitable powerlessness compared to the bloc votes and resources of, say, Wal-Mart, would abandon political parties en masse, undermining the principle of participatory democracy. There could even be pressure within parties to give businesses votes in general elections.

But there is one reason above all others why political parties should strongly oppose any formal business affliation: it would be electoral suicide. Voters are (fairly) tolerant of trade union involvement in politics because unions do not exist to exploit others, and are fundamentally democratic institutions. The same cannot be said of commercial interests. Every policy a business-affiliate party announced would be scrutinised to see how it benefits one commercial interest or another. Ultimately, voters cannot trust parties which are not run for the benefit of people.

But if the Liberal Party is inclined to agree with their President’s suggestions, many would welcome their inevitable descent into irrelevance.

TTIP: The EU-US Pact That Threatens Democracy

Politicians know that one of the best ways to avoid public scrutiny is to make things sound as boring as possible. That’s why the economic pact being negotiated (in secret) by the European Commission and the US government has been given the mundane title of the ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership’ (TTIP).

The stated aim of the TTIP is to create an open market spanning a bloc stretching from Anchorage to Athens, encompassing more than half of the world’s economy.  Goods and services would be freely exchanged between 29 of the world’s richest nations, perhaps providing some respite from the relentless industrial competition from the likes of China.

So far, so reasonable.

However, the negotiations have been conducted in secret, leaving the general public learning about their economic futures through a series of leaks. The European and American governments would not have told the people that they can’t agree on common food safety standards (after all, consumer regulations would have to be standardised). Funnily enough, the EU is reluctant to dilute its regulations to American levels, which were virtually written by Monsanto lobbyists.  We would also have not been told about the inclusion of the dull sounding Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) in the agreement.

ISDS means the establishment of a ‘supercourt’, which can impose crippling fines on governments which do anything to limit the profits of a corporation of industry. Even the risk of being sued will prevent governments imposing inconvenient regulations, even environmental protections. Nationalisation will become virtually impossible, as will protecting strategic industries from foreign ownership. I  wish that I was exaggerating, but sadly I’m not. It is widely accepted, for example, that NHS semi-privatisation would be not only permanently entrenched by TTIP, but American healthcare giants would be able to take over most privatised services.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the principle of ‘mutual recognition’ would be imposed. Business would effectively be allowed to choose which country’s regulatory regime it abides by. Surely, nobody is seriously suggesting that this won’t lead to ‘lowest common denominator’ regulation! We’ve been warned that US banks would opt for lax European controls, for example.

The will of the people’s democratically elected leaders would become secondary to multinationals. The corporatocracy is here.

Image courtesy of Greenpeace

Image courtesy of Greenpeace

The structure of TTIP is being hammered out in secretive negotiations between the American government and the European Commission, an unelected body. However, the resulting treaty will have to be ratified by the US Congress, the European Parliament and the national parliaments of every EU member state. Although there will be a democratic process for approving TTIP, it will be presented as a fait accompli. All or nothing, Given the make-up of the new European Parliament, the right-wing majority is likely to approve it. If there are only one or two dissenting national parliaments, they will come under intense pressure to surrender to the TTIP. The EU has a habit of ‘asking’ member states the same question again and again until the right answer is given.

The TTIP must be either revised beyond recognition or rejected, if elected governments are to retain sovereignty over corporations. With determined campaigning, either of these aims can be achieved. For example, it is difficult to see France- which is so economically protectionist that it recently blocked a foreign takeover of the Danone yoghurt company citing “national security”- really surrendering control of its business affairs. American industry will reject out of hand the toughening of law to meet more exacting European requirements.

The European Green movement is unequivocal in its opposition to TTIP. Many of the populist movements in Europe share that position. Then there are many movements like Labour which are divided. These parties could perhaps be persuaded that TTIP must be ratified by a referendum, given that is in essence a transfer of sovereignty and thus a constitutional reform.  It is only right that the people themselves have the final say on how their lives and their economy is governed.

Corporate America and Religion

Are corporations entitled to religious freedoms? Are they capable of being religious at all?

The US Supreme Court is to consider a case brought by two Christian-owned businesses, Hobby Lobby (equivalent to Britain’s Hobbycraft) and Conestoga Wood
(a cabinetmaker), are pleading exemption from part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on the grounds that they have  exemptions under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood argue that provisions in ACA forcing them to fund contraceptive healthcare for their employees breaches the businesses’ “religious freedom”. In order to shirk their responsibility to their employees, they are citing existing exemptions that exist for churches and RFRA, a 1993 Act passed to protect Native American individuals.

Of course, this illustrates the flaws of the US model of healthcare funding, however much of a step forward Obamacare is. As long as employers are directly liable for their employees’ medical treatment, they will have an incentive to wriggle out of as many costs as possible. And now, it seems, some employers will try to impose their morals on others. In the unlikely event that the US moved towards an NHS-style single payer healthcare system, these questions would be irrelevant. The employers would pay a simple, standard levy, everybody would have comprehensive health coverage and that would be that. Unfortunately, this is daydream material: such a system is a long way off being implemented in the US.

The idea that corporations are entitled to the same religious freedoms as people is ridiculous, and you would think the courts would agree. But let’s remember we’re taking about a legal world in which corporations are regarded as people. All an organisation can ever really be is a concept: an artificial construct created to regulate and control the activities of certain people at certain times to produce some benefit for some other people. In other words, a corporation is the sum of its employees’ labour. But the mistake that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood have made is to fail to distinguish between owners and the owned entity. When owners incorporate a business, the state grants both certain privileges. The biggest of those being that the corporation can transfer assets to the owner, but never liabilities (not without the owner’s agreement, anyway). But business owners cannot have their cake and eat it: the flip side of this detachment from their corporation is that it is no longer their personal fiefdom. They must take into account other factors in their business.

What right do these owners have to dictate how their corporations’ employees live? That is what they are doing, by accepting their obligation to provide healthcare to their employees, but dictating which treatments they will pay for on the basis of their own moral standards. If the owner of Hobby Lobby is unhappy with “her/his” (actually Hobby Lobby’s) money being used to provide contraceptives to others, then they shouldn’t employ anybody. Even then, some of the money they pay in business taxes will pay government employees’ wages, which they are able to spend on contraceptives, pornography… Almost anything they like. Is Hobby Lobby going to plead exemption from paying taxes as well?

Let’s see what the Supreme Court has to say.

We Should Grow Fish Oil Plants

It may not be making the all the front pages today, but a significant development in the fields of agriculture and biology was reported in the news this morning. Trials are to begin in Harpenden, as early as this spring, in growing genetically modified plants that produce “fish oil” in their seeds. The state-funded researchers are the same who used tight security on the same plot of land to grow GM wheat a few years ago- without the crops being destroyed by “green” militants. This makes it one of the few GM trials in the UK that could actually survive for long enough to yield results.

If “fish oil” plants are successful, the plan is to produce the oil to feed to farmed fish. Fish do not produce the oil, but ingest it by eating the algae that produce it. Fish oil could also be used for human consumption, helping to reduce demand for a declining fish population, however, their will be greater social and regulatory obstacles to the latter idea.

Personally, I support the idea. I think that genetic modification can have all kinds of benefits provided it is executed properly. Humans do not have the right to modify animals’ genes, with the arguable exception of limited experiments of vital importance. Plants, microbes and fungi are a different kettle of fish (if you’ll pardon the awful pun). These are not sentient beings, and we have been justifiably shaping them to meet our needs for thousands of years.  I don’t understand ethical objections to the genetic modification of plants: everything we eat has been subject to crude genetic modification in the forms of selective breeding and cross fertilisation since about 10,000 BC. Nobody who isn’t a hunter gatherer can be a serious objector to that.

No, the main problem with GM is the absurd state of intellectual property law such that the GM agri-giants can exercise absolute control over the use of “copyrighted” crops. I don’t want to live in a world in which our food supply is controlled by a few shady mega-businesses. Oh wait, it already is. Most of the foodstuffs that you eat have passed through the hands of one of six speculators at some point. The majority of maize (corn) consumed in the world was bought and sold by Glencore at some point. It is speculation that has inflated food prices so much in recent years.

There are means of democratising genetic property, though I’m no expert on the reforms that we’d need. And, a world in which demand for animal products can be met by plants might be an “unnatural” one, but it’s a lot more environmentally and ethically secure.

People Need Good Pensions, Don’t They?

Automatic enrolment will be a familiar term to those of working age who benefit from a permanent employment contract. The inadequacy of individual and workplace pensions, a problem created by deregulation in the 80s and 90s and exacerbated by demographic factors, eventually provoked three policy responses: the hiking of the state pension age, first to 68 and now probably to 70; the introduction of NEST (a state-backed pension fund designed to use economies of scale and simplicity to attract savers); and the roll-out of automatic enrolment.

Statute now requires that employees are automatically ‘opted in’ to saving 4% of their income towards their pension. More often than not, the sum is invested with NEST. The sweetener is that their employer adds 3%, and the government 1%, so that most people are saving 8% of their income towards their retirement. In one respect, the policy is proving a success: few people are foolhardy enough to actively opt out of saving, particularly when their money is doubled instantly. However, the pensions system will never be up to scratch as long as it fails to provide a decent income to workers upon their retirement. There are tens of millions for which saving 8% of their income will not cut it, even with a state pension of £7,000 a year. Financial advisers say that an extra £9,000 to £14,000 is needed from other sources.

Some elements of the Conservative Party realise this, and are leaning on the Chancellor to expand automatic enrolment contribution by half to 12% total contributions, with 6% from the employee. I don’t claim to be an expert, but with compound returns that will more than double workers’ pension pots, in most cases to agreeable levels. George Osborne, it is rumoured, is likely to support this, but not the second proposal, to make enrolment compulsory. That would be seen as an effective tax increase. What could be more politically unhelpful when he is portraying his opponents as big spending, high taxing incompetents?

However, there will be some who feel that they need their 6% now and cannot afford investment in their distant futures. These tend to be the very people who already live in poverty at work and do so at home. It’s a tricky dilemma, but there could be mechanisms put in place to suspend contributions for short periods in the event of crisis, for example: it’s not all or nothing.

However we get Britain making decent investment in its pensions, we need to turn to where said investments are made. Pension funds have unparalleled financial firepower and attention should be given to how such power could be placed under democratic, not corporate control. Pension funds can unlock long term investments, such as renewable energy projects, that are otherwise not viable without government subsidy. Pension funds, as huge shareholders, have a responsibility to act as responsible and active owners. Pension funds can revolutionise the economy along co-operative principles, if they are used properly. Get the country saving and we can get it moving too.

The World Review #3: Nasty Landlords, Negligent Companies and Net Connections

737 exposed to contaminated water in West Virginia

Some 300,000 people are without a safe water supply and 737 are in hospital with suspected poisoning after Freedom Industries, a specialist chemicals manufacturer, leaked 19,000 litres of a toxic chemical into the Elk River. It appears that Freedom Industries were aware of the leakage for some time before authorities discovered it, but failed to act to either contain the leak or inform the state. It is as yet unclear why Freedom Industries allowed the highly toxic 4-methylcyclohexane methanol compound to continue to pollute the water supply. Pressure on the firm will be compounded by the shortage of bottled water that is sweeping West Virginia whilst tap water remains unsafe.

Kent landlord evicts 200 families… because they claim Housing Benefit

The British property tycoon Fergus Wilson risked public anger last week as it emerged that he had evicted 200 out of his 1,000 tenants on the sole grounds that they receive state subsidy for their rent. In an interview with Channel 4 News, Wilson said that tenants on Housing Benefit are more likely to fall into rent arrears, so he wanted to replace them with migrants from Eastern Europe, who he claimed are “a good category of tenant who don’t default on their rent.” He later added: “I feel sorry for battered wives who have come to us because we’re very much consigning them to go back to their husbands to be beaten up again.” Mr Wilson’s sympathy will no doubt be of great comfort to the families he has rendered homeless.

Venezuelan minister gets tough on corruption

Venezuela’s home affairs minister has given his personal mobile telephone number out in a television interview, with a plea for police officers to contact him to report allegations of corruption. This marks the latest of a series of eye-catching initiatives aimed at promoting professionalism and trust in Venezuela’s public services, which are particularly prone to exploitation by officials even when compared to the rest of South America, which has suffered from chronic corruption since colonisation in the 16th century. Venezuelan authorities are keen to tackle this culture, which has hindered the otherwise promising model of ‘Bolivarian socialism’ pioneered by the Chavez administration.

7 Opposition protesters shot in Thailand

An unidentified gunman has injured 7 people firing indiscriminately into a crowd of anti-government demonstrators in Bangkok. There were no casualties. It remains unclear if this was officially sanctioned by the government or the army, but it is thought to have contributed to the Opposition’s decision to attempt to “shut down” the Thai capital on Monday. However, opposition leaders are publicly seeking to calm their supporters, saying that they do not seek a “civil war”- though they are explicitly committed to the overthrow of the existing government, and are boycotting the election that is due in February. However, the government will be reassured by the army’s assurance that it would not attempt a military coup, after generals were slow to give such assurances previously.

al-Shabab bans the Internet in Somalia

Militants linked to al-Qaeda have instructed telecommunications companies in the parts of Somalia under their control to shut down all Internet services within 15 days. According to al-Shabab, failure to comply with their demands to sever web connections to the 1.2% of the population with Internet access would constitute “working with the enemy”, and those doing so would be punished as traitors (i.e. severely). The reasoning behind the move is not difficult to guess: al-Shabab wants to eliminate freedom of speech and the adoption of “Western” lifestyles, of which the Internet is now a large part.

Rhino hunting permit auctioned in Texas

A permit to hunt and murder one black rhino in a reserve in Namibia was auctioned in Dallas for an undisclosed sum last week, despite a large protest outside the auction and an 80,000 strong e-petition calling for the cancellation of the sale. The Dallas Safari Club, which organised the auction, insists that the sale of three such permits per year by the Namibian government actually aids conservation, by raising funds for conservation measures, and having hunters murder aged male rhinos, which do not breed and are liable to injure or kill their younger male counterparts. The argument has not convinced many outside of the hunting community, however.

FLASHBACK: Good Luck to the Walmart Strikers!

Originally published on 23rd November 2013.

In the United States today, there is a large group of ordinary workers is standing up to world’s largest, and probably most prolific, corporate giant. Walmart represents some of the worst excesses of globalised capitalism; it has depressed wages, introduced draconian working conditions, forced governments into offering subsidies, moved thousands of jobs to the developing world where they can behave in an even worse manner, shirked its responsibilities as an employer, destroyed local businesses, and driven down the quality of the products it sells.

Today, a large number of American Walmart employees are striking for wages higher than $8 (£5), working weeks of 30 hours and not 27.5 (In the US, employers need to provide health cover to employees who work 30 hours or longer) and to generally be treated as human beings rather than units to be exploited. Today is Black Friday, when shopping will be at its maximum after Thanksgiving, so this strike will be short and sharp.

Walmart has up until now been relatively successful at marginalising trade unions, which present a major block to the corporation swelling its profits in yet another way. Many people have grumbled at how Walmart employees are forced to work reduced hours for miniscule pay, but the threat of being cast into the privatised disaster that represents the American social security system has been enough for the supermarket giant to divide and rule. Even now, when unions have dodged the legal barriers to their existence and industrial action, Walmart is alleged to have illegally lent on employees to not take part in the strike.

Globalisation all too often works against the people. Bankers and manufacturers, amongst others, constantly demand deregulation, tax cuts, dilution of the workforce’s rights and representation, and seemingly the world on a silver platter, or, we are told, they will cheerfully relocate to dodgy tax havens or shady developing countries. And until we make our governments get their acts together, that is going to be a major barrier to social justice. Is it not time we tried broadening protests to the globalised world in which our problems exist?

Walmart is a prime example. If you’re reading this, the chances are that you’re in the UK, the US or Canada, in all of which Walmart operates. (In the UK, it trades as ASDA) As with Barclays colluding with the apartheid regime in South Africa, pressure on subsidiaries, and not just the parent company, is key.

It is not acceptable for working people in the world’s most prosperous country to find themselves without affordable healthcare, to be on poverty wages, and for this to be sustained by a highly profitable and influential business which contributes so little to society. I have therefore donated sponsored a striker (search “Our Walmart” for more information) and will write to ASDA informing them that I will try to divert as much custom away from them as possible until Walmart delivers a fair deal to all of its workers around the world.

If the likes of Walmart won’t deliver justice now, then it’s only a matter of time until the people make them via the ballot box.

The CBI and the Living Wage

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the equivalent of the trade union of businesses, is holding its annual conference today. That’s why our airwaves should be full of the somewhat depressing sight of multimillionaire chief executives demanding further tax cuts and deregulation, threatening that the crops will fail if politicians do not meet their demands. Occasionally, an old-fashioned family businessman/woman will pop up and say something reasonable, but it doesn’t happen anywhere near as often as it should.

However, there are two interesting topics that are dominating the CBI conference this year: Britain’s membership of the EU and the Living Wage.

There is a near-consensus amongst employers in favour of continued membership of the EU. I’m not surprised at all: if I were a businessman, I’d want to be in what will become the largest and richest trading bloc in the world when the US-EU free trade agreement becomes reality. The downside to employers is that the EU has this irritating habit of trying to regulate things, but it’s nothing that lobbying EU commissioners (public health regulations) or the British parliament (the Working Time Directive opt-out) can’t solve. I’ve no doubt that the support of business would be very influential in any referendum campaign on Europe.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by the CBI’s reaction to something else. The Labour Party has just launched a proposal whereby any employer which raises wages from the legal minimum to the Living Wage (within the first year of a Labour government) would be able to claim back a third of the cost of the pay rises in tax credits. In other words, the state will temporarily subsidise employers’ transition to paying a fair wage.

I thought that this is too weak: paying a liveable income to full-time workers is an ethical obligation, not a choice, and the law should reflect that. My view hasn’t changed. Nevertheless, the CBI has given a ‘cautious’ welcome to the proposal, saying that although it merely delays an increase in wage costs, it does make the transition for employers who want to change easier to manage. I’m not sure how many employers are likely to take up Labour’s offer, but there will be millions of workers, many working for highly profitable large businesses, who will continue to work for as little as 68% of the Living Wage.

The CBI’s goodwill is commendable, but words and actions are remarkably different creatures, as we well know.