“Things Can Only Get Better”, a song by Northern Irish pop group D:Ream, and one which reminds me of home. Originally charting in 1993, the remix is more famously or infamously associated with the Labour Party’s theme during its successful general election campaign of 1997.

Four days after Labour’s 1997 election win, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, set the Bank of England free, granting it independence from political control. A year later the National Minimum Wage Act came into force.

Minimum wage laws are nothing new; indeed, New Zealand enacted the first national minimum wage laws in 1894, and the UK Trade Board Act of 1909 was a precursor to today’s National Minimum Wage (NMW).

The NMW is intended to increase the incomes of the low paid and it is perhaps more important than ever given the transition of power from trade unions to monopsony employers such as Amazon.

Sir Ken Morrison would no doubt be proud that Morrison’s, the supermarket chain which he spun out of a few market stalls in Bradford, will shortly become the first UK supermarket to pay at least £10 per hour.

President-elect Joe Biden wants Congress to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15. All very laudable I hear you say. But what about the unintended consequences?

Last summer, undercover reporters revealed that factory workers in Leicester were being paid as little as £3.50 per hour, and more recently, the UK government named and shamed retailers such as Tesco, Pizza Hut and Superdrug, for not adhering to NMW law. Unfortunately, an under-regulated labour market is a prime target for an unscrupulous employer.

Closer to home, Mike Ashley, Sports Direct’s founder and owner of Newcastle United Football Club admitted that workers at the company’s Derbyshire warehouse were paid below the NMW. So- called zero-hours contracts enable employers to avoid paying for ‘idle’ time by shifting hours up and down.

In a similar vein, it is possible to minimise the increased costs associated with a rising NMW by increasing the proportion of the workforce that is temporary rather than permanent.

So how can educators ensure that ‘things can only get better?’

By delivering a curriculum which seeks to ensure that young people are of good character. Alongside the subject fundamentals, they should be challenged to consider the ethical principles and moral or ethical problems which so often arise when implementing public policy.

By making certain that young people not only know about our world but also challenging them to consider how best to live in our world.

And finally, by furnishing our young people with a blend of skills which will equip them to do the right thing beyond their time at school.

In December’s blog, Kevan Carrick, Chair, North East Initiative on Business Ethics, described how the theme for 2021 would be ‘holding on to ethics in tough times.’ As demonstrated in previous NIBE events involving young people from the North East, our future is safe in their hands.

Gavin Clarke – Economics at Emmanuel College