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Three cheers for executive who has spoken for workers

Are you an average wage earner?

Do you find yourself wondering how, as a middle ranking member of society, you feel so hard up? Does it seem that however carefully you balance your budget it goes a shorter distance than it did last year?

If so, join the club.

It isn't that your powers of money management are failing. It is because your salary is worth 10%-14% less in real terms than it was in spring 2008.

I know. It's a hangover from the crash. You probably feel lucky to be in a job. We all know people who have been made redundant or whose finger nails are scraping as they slide from employment to the brink of the next round of staff shedding. Isn't that what stops us when we are tempted, like Oliver, to approach the boss's desk and ask for more?

To speak out, to say, 'I'm worth more than this. I'm better than I was half a decade ago so pay me a fair salary,' is to commit career suicide. That is our collective fear.

Thankfully, a hero has arrived to champion the cause of the workers - and what an unlikely firebrand he is. John Cridland is director general of the Confederation Of British Industry; a man who represents 240,000 companies. He is calling on firms benefitting from the economic upturn to pay their 'long-suffering' workers more. Further, he says far too many employees are stuck in minimum wage jobs.

Hallelujah! At last someone in the executive class has spoken some sense.

The upshot of his demand will, we must all hope, help halt the continuing drop in living standards. But Mr Cridland's warning, in my opinion, is also for the greater good of his members. Companies that see a change for the better in their prospects year on year but are slow to spread the benefits will sow seeds of discontent, especially because executive rewards and bonuses continue to soar.

The growing disparity in pay between the boardroom and everyone else is nothing short of a national scandal. As The Economist magazine reported in June, it takes an employee on a median wage four days to earn what the average chief executive collects in an hour - £616. It takes a low paid worker eight days.

Last year the chief executives of FTSE 100 companies took home salary and bonuses totalling £3.7million on average. Each. That is 130 times the national average wage of £27,174.

In 1998 the ratio between their pay and the average worker's was 45:1. Today it is 185:1.

How far does it need to stretch before it provokes social unrest? Frankly, I am astonished it hasn't already, although it has had an insidious effect within companies, according to a survey conducted by The Work Foundation. It found that 50% of employees have declining levels of trust in their senior bosses and fewer than 40% think they act with integrity.

Imagine the extra disillusion among those at the bottom of the work hierarchy, those 890,000 people in the UK whom Mr Cridland describes as "stuck in minimum wage jobs without routes to progression".

He predicts wages will pick up in 2014 but warns, "businesses must support employees up the ladder while helping young people take their first steps into work".

How right he is. It is not as if those at the lower end of the ever increasing pay divide have developed respect for the superior skills of the bonus earners. We were fed a diet of 'masters of the universe' propaganda about the wealth creators of our once great banks.

Rare talent commands rarefied remuneration, was the gist of it. Then Fred 'The Shred' Goodwin and friends proved to be reckless gamblers. Worse, in many instances, they did not even understand the complexities of their own investment decisions.

That should have been the end of the nonsense about executives requiring lavish remuneration packages. But somehow the myth survived and high salaries plus bonuses continue. I suppose we should not be surprised. Remuneration committees are largely composed of those who also have them. You pat my back, I'll pat yours.

And so, in the first three years of the recovery, 95% of the income gains of growth have gone to the top 1% of the population. Meanwhile, ordinary mortals work long hours for less real gain. They see their savings shrivel. They see their children struggle to get started in a world where unpaid internships abound. They see starter wage structures held low because those with rich parents can sit out early years of working for a pittance.

They see older children with so-called decent jobs unable to afford homes. They watch them struggle to form families of their own while they subsist on six-month contracts or fear the next round of job cuts. And they wonder what it is all about?

They have seen another Christmas with one in four of us having turned to credit to buy gifts.

They see the Government back the minimum wage of £6.31p for adults and a miserable £5.03p for the 18 to 21-year-olds instead of the living wage of £7.65 an hour (It would, by the way, require one hour of a FTSE 100 chief executive's salary to move a worker from the minimum wage to the living wage for an entire year).

Where is our collective sense of justice?

Sarah Wilson, the chief executive of Manifest, a corporate governance consultancy commented that Britain's quantitative easing stimulus programme has been "printing money for CEOs" by boosting the economy and stock market. Shareholders in companies have done well too. Prices are up. So are dividends.

It is time for the rest of us to benefit from the recovery. Mr Cridland correctly flags up that the ever widening pay gulf is unhealthy for business as well as being unjust and unfair.

In Scotland the disparity could have seismic implications. We have our share of fat cats - as demonstrated by the revelation at the weekend that nearly 40 quango chief executives take home a bigger salary than Scottish Government secretaries. I wonder how many Scots on the minimum wage or on zero hours contracts are among those waiting to be persuaded about the benefits of staying in the United Kingdom as the referendum approaches.

If all the UK has to offer is a future of diminishing returns - for them and for their children - why would they stay in a Union that seems to benefit the rich most? A leap to independence might look risky to someone on a good salary. For those with nothing much to lose it might look tempting.

As thing stand, too many businesses are structured to reward executives who squeeze costs, including wages, to produce good dividends for shareholders. It is how many earn their annual bonus. And, frankly, I do not believe they give much of a damn about the consequences for their employees. If they did they would not keep on taking their pay rises.

The year is about to change. So are the times. In 2014, with economic growth appearing sustainable at last, employees will not feel so cowed. Jobs will be created. The companies that do not respond to better times by treating their employees well will suffer. Mr Cridland is smart enough to see the dangers. He is telling employers - his own people - to pay their employees their due or face the consequences.

For all our sakes I hope they listen.

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