Now Screening: A tragic drama of the London Living Wage

Ritzy-Thatcher-1.jpg

After months of campaigning, no less than 13 strikes and support from the likes of Ken Loach and Eric Cantona, Brixton Ritzy Picturehouse cinema staff have finally secured a commitment to be paid the London Living Wage.

Unfortunately, this means that a quarter of the payroll is now facing the sack:

Picturehouse Cinemas said that the cost of increasing basic wages at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton to £8.80 an hour would be absorbed by reducing the number of staff by at least 20, with a redundancy programme starting next month.

Two management posts will be axed along with eight supervisors, three technical staff and other front-of-house workers from its workforce of 93.

Naturally, Owen Jones has some insight into the situation:

The message appears transparent: if you fight for a living wage and workers’ rights, then you face the sack. Or we will crush you if you dare to stand up for yourselves.

In fact, the message is even more clear than this. If wages are set higher than it is productive or profitable to do so, the firm will have to account for the cost in other ways. We often talk about the unintended consequences of things like price controls and wage demands, but in this case the consequence of such a pay rise was pretty damn clear. As the Picturehouse explains:

During the negotiation process it was discussed that the amount of income available to distribute to staff would not be increasing, and that the consequence of such levels of increase to pay rates would be fewer people with more highly paid jobs.

The Ritzy previously paid staff £7.53 an hour with a £1/hr customer satisfaction bonus—far higher than the National Minimum Wage of £6.31, whilst union pay negotiators pointed out the Ritzy staff do actually like working there. This makes the idea that job cuts are bitter, tit-for-tat 'payback' seem rather perverse. Indeed, to make something sound so heartless and threatening when it is basically Econ 101 is bordering on the petulant.

 In a perfect world low pay simply would not be an issue. In the meantime if employers can afford to give the LLW (or can benefit enough from the PR!), then fantastic. But paying 93 staff £8.80 an hour is no small commitment, and unfortunately pushing company policy in one direction all too often means something's got to give elsewhere.

Whilst the effects of a National Minimum Wage aren't always easy to spot, this is a concrete example of the London Living Wage actively putting Londoners out of a living. In personal experience Ritzy employees are friendly, intelligent and helpful, but sadly that's no guarantee of them getting another job. And if unions continue to push for the LLW in such an aggressive manner, this is unlikely to be the only casualty.

Curzon cinemas have just announced that they will pay their staff the LLW, even though it is loss-making. They say they hope that the cost will become self-financing through the better quality of work which paying people more will achieve. It will be interesting to see if that's the case.  In any case—grab the popcorn, this show's going to get interesting...