The Archbishop of York has condemned the low pay of millions of Britons as a "national scandal" and has criticised the Government and business leaders for allowing the situation to proliferate.
John Sentamu, who will chair a year-long commission on the feasibility of a so-called Living Wage, which campaigners argue should replace the national minimum rate, said that successive governments have offered little more than a "sticking plaster" solution to the crisis.
Writing in the Observer, the archbishop accused businesses of forgetting the "basic moral imperative that employees be paid enough to live on", and called for business, trade unions and government to take part in a "national conversation" about low pay in Britain.
Adoption of the Living Wage, which is currently set at £7.45 an hour outside London and £8.55 in the capital, compared with the current minimum wage of £6.19 for adults and £4.98 for 18 to 20-year-olds, would give millions of people on poor wages hope, the archbishop said.
Dr Sentamu attacked successive governments for standing by as company bosses reward themselves with huge pay packages while employees struggle with low wages. And he questioned why government watched on, only to later help the lowest earners with money from the state.
He said: "So far, all governments have been merely applying a sticking plaster to the crisis of low pay. The holes in millions of pay cheques are being plugged by in-work support to the tune of £4 billion a year. But why aren't those who are profiting from their workers paying up? Why is government having to subsidise businesses which don't pay their employees enough to live on?
"These are questions we need to answer and act on - fast. The cost of living is rising, but wages are not. In the rush for profit, and for high pay at the top, too many companies have forgotten the basic moral imperative that employees be paid enough to live on."
Dr Sentamu said low pay affected more women than men, and warned of a stall in closing the gender gap in the workplace if it continues. "The consequences for so many people and their families are devastating", he said. "Women, as the majority of low-paid workers in this country, are hit particularly hard. Low pay threatens the great strides that have been made in gender equality in recent decades, because it undermines women's economic independence. This is a huge loss for them and for society as a whole."
The archbishop said the time had come to build fairer workplaces, rather than having a living wage remain "an abstract concept". He said politicians from Prime Minister David Cameron to Labour leader Ed Miliband and London mayor Boris Johnson had backed the concept, but said "what workers really need is pay, not platitudes".
"The reality is that despite these warm words, too few companies have stepped up to the mark", the archbishop said. "For the vast majority of low-paid people in the UK, the living wage remains an abstract concept, not a description of their pay rate."