SNP MSP John Mason said the living wage – £7.85 an hour – was only a “halfway house”, with some employees denied the rate that is paid to others.
Mr Mason warned that the “unethical employer will be able to undercut the ethical one” unless the living wage becomes compulsory in the public and private sectors.
Powers over the minimum wage are fully reserved to Westminster, although the SNP has repeatedly demanded the devolution of the issue. Former first minister Alex Salmond, speaking during a Holyrood debate on the issue, said it was an “astonishing” failure of Westminster that the statutory national minimum wage, which is at £6.50 for over-21s, had failed to keep up with inflation.
However, Labour MSP Neil Findlay said SNP ministers had failed to use Holyrood’s existing powers to extend the living wage, currently paid to those employed directly by the Scottish Government and councils.
The SNP controversially used its overall majority in the parliament to prevent a compulsory living wage for workers who carry out work for the government, but are employed in the private sector.
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Mr Findlay, Scottish Labour’s fair work spokesman, said nearly half a million Scots were paid below the living wage and its extension was one of the “best ways to reduce inequality”.
He said: “It’s unforgivable that when they [the SNP government] had the opportunity in this parliament to ensure that all their workers employed by contractors were paid the living wage, they opposed it.”
Mr Mason, speaking during yesterday’s debate on the living wage, backed Scottish Government claims that it does not have the legal power to compel its contractors to pay the rate to workers.
However, the Nationalist MSP said that the problem could be overcome if responsibility for statutory pay was devolved to Holyrood – a flagship SNP demand that was resisted by the Smith Commission on new powers for Scotland.
Mr Mason praised employers who opt to pay the living wage.
He added: “The underlying problem still is that the living wage is voluntary. It only helps workers in public sector or on public-sector contracts. So are we just going to give up on all other workers? What about workers in private and voluntary sectors? Do we not care about them?
“Problems are also created if one employer pays the living wage and another does not.”
Mr Mason suggested that if the living wage was suitable for the public sector, it should also be extended to private industry.
“The unethical employer will be able to undercut the ethical one,” he said. “So the living wage is only a halfway house, a stepping stone to something better.”
Mr Salmond said that the “minimum wage had not kept pace with inflation”.
Annabelle Ewing, the minister for youth and women’s employment, would not state whether the SNP government would introduce a compulsory living wage if the power was devolved to Holyrood.
However, Scottish Conservative finance spokesman Gavin Brown backed a voluntary living wage and warned that setting a high figure for statutory pay could damage the economy.
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