THERE WILL be many people – especially the underpaid workers concerned – who rejoiced at the news that a record £2 million in back pay is to go to 13,000 employees cheated out of the national minimum wage or national living wage by employers across the country.

Government investigators named and shamed Ambrozja Ltd (a Polish restaurant in Sunbridge Road, Bradford), Laugh and Learn Day Nursery (in Heckmondwike) and Emma’s Angels Day Nursery (in Rawdon) among the list of 233 offenders who have also been fined a total of £1.9 million.

According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, retail, hairdressing and hospitality businesses were among the worst offenders.

Catalogue giant Argos, which failed to pay £1,461,881 to 12,176 workers, was one of the worst offenders. Earlier in the year, it was fined £1.5 million and forced to repay £2.4 million in wages to 37,000 current and former shop workers after an HMRC investigation.

The underpayments actually date back to 2014 and were uncovered before Argos was bought out by Sainsbury’s.

In all, the Government has fined 1,200 employers around £4 million and forced them to pay out £6 million to staff since 2013.

There are, apparently, a further 2,000 cases currently under investigation.

It is a scandal that so many firms have been getting away with cheating their employees but, I suspect, it is only the tip of the iceberg.

But even that tells only part of the story.

In these days of ongoing austerity, with prices rising faster than wages, any company which denies its workers the Government-recommended minimum level of pay deserves everything the law can throw at it.

The oft-heard excuse is that small firms “can’t afford to pay” minimum wage levels.

The reality, though, is that if your business only exists by paying people such paltry amounts then, in all honesty, you don’t have a business.

What that business is doing is exploiting the desperation of those who are struggling to find work; effectively a form of modern-day slavery.

We’re often told that agricultural businesses can only survive because foreign crop-pickers and other farm labourers are willing to work for less than their British counterparts but the truth is that even casual labourers, homeworkers and foreign workers are entitled to the correct minimum wage and any contract that pays below it is not legally binding.

The Government’s current minimum wage rates are: National Living Wage (for those aged 25 and over), £7.50 per hour; National Minimum Wage for 21 to 24-year-olds, £7.05 per hour; for those aged 18 to 20, £5.60.

The National Minimum Wage figure is arrived at by negotiation with businesses and trade unions and the National Living Wage is set by the Government at, currently, 55 per cent of average earnings and is due to rise to 60 per cent by 2020.

The introduction of the latter last year was a major step forward by the Government and certainly goes some way towards helping the poorest paid.

But there is an alternative view that it should be higher still and it comes from a source that enjoys cross-party political support among many MPs and, you may be surprised to learn, some major employers of the likes of IKEA, Burberry, Nestle, Aviva, Nationwide and accountancy giants KPMG.

The Living Wage Foundation is an initiative set up by the Citizens UK, which organises communities to “act together for power, social justice and the common good.”

It argues that the “Real Living Wage” should be based, simply, on what people need to live.

Its figure of £8.45 per hour (£9.75 in London) for all workers aged over 18 is independently calculated according to the actual cost of living based on a basket of household goods and services.

It is supported by partner employers, including those listed above, who all voluntarily undertake to pay that minimum wage.

Why? Because, they argue, it is “good for business, good for the individual and good for society.”

Businesses who have signed up report wider benefits, such as a better quality of work and lower absenteeism as well as improved recruitment and retention of staff.

Individuals – who are “earning enough to afford the things they need to live, like a decent meal, a warm home and a birthday treat for their children” –  say they have improved job satisfaction, that they do better work and that they feel more willing to adopt changes in working practices.

Society as a whole benefits because employees paid the Real Living Wage have more time for their community and family and it helps towards tackling the growing blight of poverty.

All of which is very difficult to argue with.

The Foundation says more than six million people are being paid less than their Real Minimum Wage level and more companies than ever need to join the 3,249 employers who have already signed up. They are able to display the Living Wage Employer Mark as a sign of good practice and that, in itself, is increasingly being recognised by customers as proof that the organisation is worthy of their support.

Business Minister Margot James says that paying less than the legal minimum wage rates “short-changes ordinary working people and undercuts honest employers.”

She says the naming and shaming campaign “sends the clear message to employers that the Government will come down on those who break the law.”

But, while we can be pleased that the Government is pursuing and catching cheats, what we really need is for more businesses to take a wider, ethical view and sign up to the Real Living Wage.

The more who choose to stand up for basic fairness and decency in employing staff, the more their businesses will benefit and the harder it will be for the cheats to hide.