A strategy for equal pay for women

Posted in Janine's blog on Sun, 27/05/2007 - 20:13,

The Women and Work Commission was New Labour's attempt to address the embarrassment and injustice of the enduring gender pay gap. But its report was woeful, in great part blaming women and girls for going into low-paid jobs and men and boys for renouncing those jobs for better-paid work. Bastards.

The Government has now published a report on the work it has done in response to the Commission - entitled 'Towards a Fairer Future'. And as befits a woeful Commission, it's a woeful report. It emanates from the Department of Communities and Local Government, and is thus under the auspices of the woeful Ruth Kelly.

You might think that employers would be seen as part of the problem - after all, who else it is that are paying women less than men?! But no, they are the solution! We have 'exemplar employers', no less, best practice, partnerships, and plenty of praise for companies from Goldman Sachs to John Lewis.

The major thrust of 'Towards a Fairer Future' is that the government (in partnership with business, of course) wants to help get women out of their low-paid jobs and into managerial posts. Note that they want to get women out of these jobs, not make the jobs better paid. Now tell me, if the government succeeds in training x number of women cleaners to become managers, then who is going to fill their cleaning jobs?! Let's see - more low-paid women! (or possibly immigrant men).

The government's report is much less about effectively tackling women's low pay and much more about buttering up employers who are 'progressive' enough to want to exploit men and women on an equal basis. So the government offers to subsidise employers to train up new managers so long as they are women! And not surprisingly, some employers are happy to take them up on this, although not enough to keep up with the targets - every sector is currently falling short.

None of this should surprise us, since the government's 'Train to Gain' project is employer-led through and through, and training is delivered through Sector Skills Councils, in which employers take the money and run, and through which Further Education is undermined.

Now, maybe I'm stating the obvious here, but ... Surely the answer to low pay is to ... erm ... increase pay. The government could dramatically reduce the gender pay gap overnight, by: increasing the pay of female-dominated, low-paid public sector jobs eg. cleaners, school meals workers, crossing wardens, nurses etc (reversing privatisation and bringing them back into public employment where necessary); and increasing the minimum wage to a decent level.

Of course there are other issues too, such as availability of affordable childcare. And cutting working hours - sticking your kids in nursery from dawn til dusk is not necessarily the solution. And doing away with overtime and performance-related pay, under which women earn less because in general, they are less able to put in the extra hours required due to caring responsibilities.

And there is the persistent reality that women's waged work is both an addition to, and often modelled on, our unpaid work in the home. Maybe we can not expect this New Labour government to collectivise housework for the liberation of working-class women, but hey, we can fight for it to increase wages and to reverse its attacks on the welfare state!

We discussed the issue of equal pay at the recent meeting of the TUC Women's Committee. One particular angle for the discussion was the "current equal pay problems" in local government - the "problem" being that paying out the money that Councils owe women for persistently under-paying them for years will cost a bit, some of them reckon that cutting men's pay is the answer, and the government refuses to bail them out. This issue probably deserves a separate article, and I may try to draft in a guest blogger on the subject.

The Committee was presented with a 'Strategy Paper' about equal pay and invited to note it. We were only invited to "note" it, rather than propose changes to it, because it had already been submitted to the government! This was my first TUC Women's Committee meeting since being elected, so this did not bode well.

The paper went into some detail about the local government situation and proposed legislative changes. I'm not going to comment on those here, because the main point for me is that we need a different kind of 'strategy paper' - one that sets out a strategy for fighting for equal pay. Such a paper would, I think, include such things as a massive national campaign for a big increase in the minimum wage, effective unionisation and organising efforts aimed at low-paid women workers from hairdressers to cleaners; and support for strikesfor higher pay.

The good news is that TUC Women's Committee agreed to my proposal that we should discuss and agree such a strategy paper at our next meeting in October. So until then, the comments box is open for discussion and suggestions as to what it should include.

(Click here for a section of the Workers' Liberty pamphlet Comrades and Sisters which discusses why equal pay legislation has not actually brought about equal pay.)

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