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30 years of the Equal Pay Act
On the threshold of genderquake?
THIRTY YEARS after the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts, ELAINE BRUNSKILL looks at what impact they have had on working-class women's lives.
DEMOS, AN 'independent think tank', suggests: "Women have come a long way in the last two decades." They cite Britain having its first woman prime minister, the appointment of the first woman chief executive of a FTSE top hundred company, alongside "the steady advances" made by working women.
The implementation of the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts in 1975 have brought about some progress. In 2003, for the first time ever, more women than men qualified as barristers.
Recent recruitment figures for female trainee solicitors and female medical students outnumber their male counterparts by almost two to one. More women than men are now winning places on the civil service fast-track promotion programme.
But, are these 'steady advances' illustrations of women being on the threshold of what some feminists call a 'genderquake'? Most women would agree it is too soon to be breaking out the bubbly. Women now make up more than half of the workforce and are undoubtedly an essential part of the economy. Yet thirty years after the introduction of the Equal Pay Act women earn on average nearly 20% less than men
According to the Fawcett Society, a lifetime of the gender pay gap can cost a mid-skilled, childless woman a whopping £250,000. The report goes on to explain that almost 50% of women have a gross individual income of less than £100 a week, compared to just over 20% of men.
Women frequently hide their poverty, often denying themselves food in order to ensure their families are protected. Many of these women are likely to experience unrelenting poverty. 22% of women, compared to 14% of men, have persistently low incomes. Living in persistent poverty has a cumulative effect, denying women the prospect of building up savings, even necessities such as decent clothing and household goods.
Whilst it is true that a layer of more educated, middle-class women have benefited from economic and social change - though even they can hit a 'glass ceiling' - the majority of working-class women find they are 'stuck to the floor of low pay'. Traditional women's jobs, known as the four C's, cleaning, caring, catering and cash registers are notoriously low paid.
Because certain work is segregated on gender lines, it has been possible for employers to pay women lower wages. In order to try and cut across this anomaly, an amendment to the Equal Pay Acts in 1983 stated that women should receive equal pay for work of equal value. From the onset bosses whinged that any pay surveys or gender audits should not be compulsory.
New Labour professes to be committed to promoting equal pay for work of equal value across the gender divide. However, the government's own figures show female civil servants earn 25% less than their male counterparts. In 2003 the civil service conducted an equal pay review, but the outcome of this review was the widening of the pay gap! In 2003 the average pay for female civil servants was 78.1% of male civil servants, by last year their average pay had decreased to 75%.
What chance do women in the private sector have if the government's own workforce is seeing growing inequality? The Socialist Party demands that all gender pay audits are undertaken in conjunction with trade unions.
IN 2001, eighteen years after the 1983 amendment to the Equal Pay Act, The Guardian reported that domestic cleaners working in a Carlisle hospital were paid £7,505 a year for a 39-hour week. In the main this work entailed cleaning floors. In the same hospital other cleaners who washed walls were paid £9,995 for a 37-hour week. The lower paid work was done by women, and the higher paid jobs by men.
Earlier this year UNISON took the Cumbria NHS Trust to court and a settlement was struck. Alongside domestic cleaners, women who were working in jobs such as nursing, clerical assistants, sewing machinists and telephonists will be substantially compensated for years of inequality.
Their legal case was based on the fact that despite the tasks they performed being different to their male colleagues; the work was of equal value.
As socialists we welcome legal victories such as these. However, we also highlight the importance of linking the issue of equal pay to the broader class issue of low pay. For example, local councils who have been taken to court over equal pay claims have threatened to lower the wages of their male employees.
The director of negotiations for the Employers' Organisations for Local Government stated that to "secure equality" you can "reduce the men's pay down to the women's pay." (Guardian 19 July 2004)
Capitalism has no qualms regarding sharing the misery of low pay across the gender divide. In order to counter this, trade unions must be prepared to take industrial action alongside legal action.
Women are also faced with the problem of having to bear the brunt of family responsibilities. Traditionally capitalism has defined a woman's role as within the family home; doing the housework and bringing up the next generation of workers. In various respects things have moved on. Whereas in 1981 only 24% of women returned to work within one year of having a child, by 2001 that figure had increased to 67%.
However, stepping out of the labour market, even for a short period, means that many women face lower wages and job prospects when they return.
According to the Equal Opportunities Commission, (EOC) only 47% of women return to the same employer after maternity leave.
Of those who do, one in five go back to a lower grade. Emerging research by the EOC suggests around 20% of women face dismissal or financial loss as a result of their pregnancy.
Another problem facing women is the lack of help available from local authorities. When New Labour was first elected in 1997 Gordon Brown promised to adhere to the Tory's budget for the first three years of office. In order to achieve this 'promise' Blair and Brown embraced privatisation.
Creeping privatisation of local services has meant women are also increasingly having to pay increased charges for nursery provision and having to care for elderly or sick relatives.
Work / life balance
IN ORDER that women can try to juggle their work and family responsibilities many choose flexible work patterns such as part-time work. Capitalism depicts this trend as being mutually beneficial, however the reality is usually far from ideal.
In 2003 the predominantly female British Airways check-out staff walked out of Heathrow, having been threatened with changes in their shift patterns and split shifts. These changes were to be forced through without any consultation with trade unions, and would have made organising childcare impossible.
The 42% of working women who 'choose' to work part-time in order to maintain a work/life balance pay the price financially.
According to the Women and Work Commission women working part time on average earn 33.7% less than women in full-time employment.
Almost one in four part-time women workers are sales assistants, cleaners, or care assistants. All these jobs are undervalued and underpaid.
Last September The Guardian reported that 43% of all working women earned less than £5 an hour. The recent paltry increase in the minimum wage will have done little to seriously alleviate their living conditions.
We call on unions to fight for their current minimum wage demands as a stepping stone towards £8/hour. Such an increase would have an immediate impact on improving the living standards of the lowest-paid workers and closing the agenda pay gap. We also campaign for free, flexible, publicly funded childcare for everyone who wants it.
Struggle for socialism
As socialists we do not see men as the source of women's inequality. Working-class men are also struggling to survive under capitalism.
Conversely some women are doing very well. According to the Centre for Economics and Business Research there are around 25% more women millionaires aged 18 to 24 than men. No doubt in order to generate profit, such business women will be equally happy exploiting both male and female workers.
The EOC, the regulating body for the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts, suggests: "While there is never an excuse for law breaking, existing legislation is not stopping discrimination".
Socialists and working-class women stuck in dead-end jobs can see that as a tool against inequality the EOC has proven itself as much use as a chocolate chisel.
Thirty years after the introduction of Acts that were to end discrimination, we don't just need new legislation, we need an alternative that will tackle the fundamental causes of inequality and discrimination which are rooted in the capitalist system.
Socialism would entail taking economic control away from the capitalist class and replacing it with democratic public ownership under workers' control.
This would enable society to be democratically organised to meet people's needs rather than maximising profits.
Resources would be freed up in order that all workers, both male and female, could receive a living wage. Childcare would no longer solely be the responsibility of individual women, or even families, but of society as a whole.
Based on economic cooperation and equality, socialism would lay the basis for the ending of all forms of inequality and discrimination.
Gender gap - a lifetime of inequality
A TUC report, Young at Heart? details how the entrenched pay gap between men and women affects young people from their very first day at work. From the outset people as young as 16 are going for occupations along gender lines.
For example, the public sector accounts for more than 10% of the employment of young women, against only 4% of young men. Conversely, 10% of young men are employed in construction, compared to just 1% of young women (figures are based on 16-17 year olds not in full-time education).
A female teenager, in her very first job, will on average earn 16% less than her male counterparts, blowing apart the myth that women taking time out to have children is the only cause of lower pay. Even women who have been to university will on average be earning 15% less within five years of their graduation.
Segregation begins in school where girls are still not given enough encouragement to try non-traditional work. The EOC's report, Unlocking the Potential, points out that many female school students are given work experience placements in childcare, even though they do not want to work in childcare! Furthermore, at least 36% of young women would have preferred to try a work placement which was in work usually regarded as 'men's work'.
For many women, a lifetime of low pay exposes them to poverty in old age. According to the government's own figures, the gap between retired men and women is an abyss, with women receiving an income of only 37% of that of equivalent men.
In a joint campaign, Age Concern and The Fawcett Society warn that the pension system is "littered with obstacles for women". Whilst 78% of newly retired men have a full basic pension, only 16% of women do. Almost a quarter of female single pensioners live in poverty, and twice as many older women than men are dependent on the means-tested minimum income guarantee.
Militant action for equal pay
THE LATE sixties and early seventies saw the emergence of working-class women taking militant action for equal pay and against sex discrimination. The strike by women sewing machinists at Ford's Dagenham plant in June 1968 played a crucial role in women's battle for equal pay.
Ford management had refused to acknowledge the skilled nature of the machinists, regarding it as 'women's work'. The women demanded that they should be re-graded and given parity with skilled men. Their victory, although only partial, raised their pay to 92% of the men's rate. This inspired many women struggling for equal pay.
Many trade unions consequently paid lip service to the fight for equal pay in their recruitment campaigns, and women streamed in as new members. However, trade union officials who were dragging their feet over the issue of equal pay increasingly exasperated women organised in trade unions.
The Labour government placed the Equal Pay Act on the statute book in May 1970. Any women who thought this Act would result in equal pay quickly had their hopes dashed, as bosses were given five years to comply with the law. Employers used this time to try and scupper the implementation of equal pay.
Books, such as The Employers' Guide to Equal Pay, were made available to bosses giving them handy tips on how to get around the Act. Consequently, men would be given titles such as 'trainee manager', whereas women doing the same job would be known by the more modest label of 'assistant'.
As more working-class women were drawn into the battle for equal pay, many realised that in order to improve their living standards and working conditions it would be necessary to have more than Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts.
Then, even more than now, discrimination against women was woven into the very fabric of capitalist society. This was an era in which women couldn't even have a hysterectomy without her husband's consent, and couldn't sign a hire purchase agreement unless she had a male guarantor.
For women to achieve equal pay it would be necessary to use legislation as a weapon in their battle. However, the main thrust of the struggle would need to be increased militancy in the workplace, linked to the struggle for socialism.
For further reading see: Women Workers and The Trade Unions by Sarah Boston. (Unfortunately out of print but may be available in libraries.)
Further reading on women's struggles:
Socialist Party Women's Pack: Fighting for Women - Rights and Socialism. £2.50
One Hand Tied Behind Us: Worker Suffragettes Movement, by Jill Liddington and Jill Norton £10.95
Women and the Family, by Leon Trotsky £8.00
The Emancipation of Women - from Lenin's Writings. Preface by Krupskaya and Appendix by Clara Zetkin. £6.95
The Rising of the Women (USA Class struggles 1880-1917) by Meredith Tax (Bargain) £7.00
Please add 10% for post and packing.
Socialist Books, PO Box 24697, London, E11 1YD
or phone 020 8988 8789
In The Socialist 24 November 2005: